When The Browser Company team began building a mobile web browser early this year, CEO Josh Miller made a rule: we are not allowed to build a standard mobile browser. Building another Safari felt like a waste of time, because Safari exists. Because of the way Apple blocks browser development, pretty much every other browser on iOS is just another Safari. By the way, The Browser Company isn’t trying to build another web browser – it’s trying to build “the Internet Computer,” an operating system for the Internet that will change the way we interact with apps and content online.
Instead of a browser, the team wanted to do just one thing: bring the Arc sidebars from users to mobile phones. The sidebar is the main feature of Arc’s desktop app, one of the reasons it’s become the most exciting new browser in years. It is a combination bookmarking tool and app launcher, providing a way to organize your entire online life in a way that makes sense to you. “When we surveyed more than 1,000 Arc members,” Miller says, “people weren’t like, ‘I really want a mobile Safari replacement.’ Every person was like, ‘I just want my sidebar on my phone.’”
That’s what Arc for mobile – codenamed Archie – is. The app is available on iOS today, though you’ll need an existing Arc membership to use it, which is still available by invitation only. (I was told this link will work for 10,000 people, so go for it!) The app is really just your sidebar on your phone. One day, the app will have to be much more: Miller and The Browser Company hope to eventually replace your default browser and build their entire “Internet computer” vision into a mobile app. But even in this early state, I was surprised how convenient it is to have my sidebar on my phone.
When you first open the app and log into your Arc account, it immediately populates all the individual spaces you’ve created in the app. Spaces in this context are like pages on your phone’s home screen. Each space can have its own background color and its own set of bookmarks and folders. There’s also a “Recents” section that shows the last few tabs open in different spaces. Tap on a link and it will open in the app; swipe down to close it and go back to your room. There’s a search bar at the bottom, which you can use to do a quick Googling or search all your tabs and spaces.
What’s not in the Arc app are most of the things you’d associate with a normal mobile browser. There is no new tab button or permanent URL bar. If you open the search menu and Google something, when you swipe down, that page will disappear forever – unless you hit the pin icon and save it to one of your spaces.
Most of those things are missing on purpose, at least for now. As The Browser Company sees it, basic web browser stuff and basic Arc stuff are two different things – and they just picked Arc stuff to do first. The first version of Arc’s mobile app didn’t even have a web view, says Nate Parrott, a designer on the team. “We just opened Safari.” That felt like a step too far, so they built one, but the truth is, “it’s not a very good mobile browser,” says Parrott. “Because we didn’t set out to make an incredible mobile browser.” Internally, the team calls it a companion app for Arc.
In my time with the app so far, I’ve come to use Arc mainly for two things. One is just a transfer tool: It’s shockingly, stupidly hard to move web pages between phones and PCs, but Arc’s synced sidebar makes it easy. I can look up an address in Google Maps on my MacBook, then pin it to my sidebar and it will instantly pop up on my phone. One tap and it launches right in the Google Maps app.
It’s shockingly, stupidly hard to move web pages between phones and PCs, but Arc’s synced sidebar makes it easy
Oh, actually, quick distraction. The fact that that link opens the Google Maps app is the coolest thing about Arc’s app — and possibly the most transformative. On your laptop, Arc is a bunch of shortcuts to various web apps, but on mobile it can also be a launcher for all the other apps on your phone. That way it is more more powerful than your home screen – it can launch not only Notion, but also a specific Notion page, or a single YouTube video, or the exact file you’re looking for. I have an Arc space called “Queue” that only links to Netflix shows, YouTube videos, New York Times articles and anything else I want to come back to. All I do is tap the link and it opens in the correct app.
That gets to the heart of The Browser Company’s whole “operating system for the Internet” vision. One of the company’s biggest ideas is that in a web-based, online world, everything is just a URL, meaning anything can be linked to and accessed from anywhere. All you need is the thin client on top. So Arc’s whole app is basically a bunch of nicely organized URLs, making it a pretty good launcher.
Okay, back to the other thing I use Arc for: collecting random stuff. You can send things to Arc from other apps via the iOS Share Sheet, and I find myself using it all the time for things I want to come back to later. Blogs to read, TikToks to send to my wife, things like that. In most other browsers, all that stuff gets lost in the morass of my many (many) open tabs, but in Arc I just pin things to the sidebar and can then flip through everything when I get back to my computer.
For what it is, Arc is great. It’s fast, the animations are beautiful, and much of Arc’s normal polish is already there, even in early versions. I don’t even mind that it doesn’t feel like a full browser – Arc’s forced minimalism makes the app feel much cleaner, and I need Google and bookmarks much more than a ton of tab management. If you’re an Android user, it’s like using the built-in search bar for everything; the impermanence of everything is usually something positive.
But now allow me to make a very long and very incomplete list of things that are missing from Arc’s mobile app. You can’t access your favorites – those tabs pinned to the top of your desktop browser – which is weird, because those are the tabs you probably want most often. You can add to your pinned tabs, but not the more temporary Today section. You cannot rename tabs or change their icons. You can’t create a new easel or note, two of Arc’s best built-in features, nor can you make edits you’ve already made. (You can view them.) You cannot create a new room or change the colors of your existing rooms. Browser extensions don’t work, and neither do “Boosts,” Arc’s mini-extensions that can change the way individual sites work. You can’t choose which app to use to open different URLs. Arc’s Library feature doesn’t exist on mobile at all, so there’s nowhere to save screenshots or downloads.
None of this is news to Miller and his team. I’ve heard most of it is on the roadmap. But they also don’t know exactly how it should all work. One thing that became clear in my conversations with the team at The Browser Company was how much the development process has taken them by surprise – and their assumptions about how to challenge the industry’s assumptions about mobile browsers. The two-way sidebar sync turned out to be more powerful than they expected, as did the ability to link deeply to other apps. What else can you think of?
Going forward, Parrott says, “There’s a big exploration of, for example, what it means to create on the web, on a mobile device, which feels very different from a desktop?” The team once developed a way to save a page by simply taking a screenshot of it – a URL and your image would be saved somewhere in a stack. “But it wasn’t, that wasn’t right,” he says, “but it reinforced the idea that the creation experience on mobile is just so different.”
For years, Apple has crippled what browser makers can do, but the Arc team seems to sense things are about to change. So is the rest of the industry: Mozilla and Google are already building browsers that don’t use Apple’s WebKit rendering engine, which is currently required for all browsers on iOS. Whether regulators force Apple to open up or Apple simply decides to let its rules slide, the mobile browser wars could flare up. Arc on desktop is built on top of Chromium, and when Chromium comes to mobile, so will almost everything else in Arc.
Arc definitely hopes to beat Safari and eventually become your default iOS browser. “I feel like the bar is pretty low in terms of mobile browsing innovation,” says Parrott. “I have no doubt that we can.” But building a better Safari isn’t the goal – the goal, as always, is to reinvent what a mobile browser can be. All browser functions, says Miller, “will be secondary to the idea that David is human, David has things going on in his life, what does David need for that? And to organize his digital life around his life.”
So far, that usually means I have all my tabs everywhere. It’s a start.