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Safari's getting mobile browser extensions before Chrome, and that's a big deal

Browser extensions let you do things like block ads, fill in passwords and find coupons while shopping. Try adding that to an app.

iPhone 12 Pro
James Martin/CNET
This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

Apple's Safari has beaten Google's Chrome to the punch with extensions that customize your browser on smartphones and tablets. The software add-ons will be available in Apple's upcoming iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 operating systems, which are expected to arrive this fall. (The iOS 15 developer beta is here now, but you may want to wait to download it.)

Extensions expand browser capabilities, allowing them to block ads and prevent online tracking, for example. Others fill in passwords, translate text, spruce up Wikipedia and track down original photos online. Extensions are already available for the Mac version of Safari.

The Cupertino, California-based tech giant announced the expansion of its extension technology earlier this week at WWDC, its annual developers conference. Apple has been testing mobile Safari extensions with three developers: Grammarly, a grammar checker; Honey, a coupon finder; and Momentum, a tab manager.

Browser extensions aren't for everyone. But they illustrate how much power the web can offer in your online life -- a power that's typically not available through apps.

Many Safari extensions built for Mac will work without significant changes. Still, developers could have to make some adjustments, such as ensuring their extensions don't look bad with smaller screens, Safari engineer David Quesada said in a WWDC talk.

Apple isn't the first company to roll out mobile extensions. Firefox and Kiwi allow the browsers to be extended with new software when running on Android. But the iPhone maker did beat Google, which pioneered the extensions for its Chrome browser. The technology has now been embraced by all major browser makers. 

Google declined to comment.

As with Safari for Macs, you'll find and install extensions for mobile Safari using Apple's app store.

Google modernized browser extensions with Chrome using an approach other browser makers generally adopted. Now Google, Apple, Mozilla and Microsoft have banded together to try to standardize extensions and make them more secure.

Safari on iOS 15

Safari on iOS 15 moves its address bar to the bottom of the iPhone screen and shows you when it's running an extension.

Apple/Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

At WWDC, Apple introduced a new programming interface that's designed to prevent extensions from draining your battery fast. Extensions often perform tasks in invisible "background" tabs that consume computing resources.

Apple's fix is non-persistent background pages, which let Safari run extension code only when needed, Safari engineer Ellie Epskamp-Hunt said in a WWDC talk. To use them, an extension tells Safari to check for particular actions that will trigger the extension to run. At other times, Safari shuts down its background page to save memory, processor power and battery life.

Non-persistent background pages are an option for the upcoming Safari 15 on Macs and iPads but will be required on iPhones to save resources, Epskamp-Hunt said.