DuckDuckGo started out as a private search engine. Now its web browser is debuting on Macs to rival Chrome, Safari, Edge, and Brave.
When Google launched Chrome back in 2008, it changed the web overnight. Since then the web browser has become almost unstoppable: Chrome is one of Google’s most powerful data collection tools and the world’s most dominant browser. Right now 63 percent of people use Chrome on their phone, and the figure rises to 67 percent on desktop.
There are other options though—and the list of Chrome’s browser rivals just got a tiny bit longer. Today the privacy-oriented company DuckDuckGo is debuting its first desktop web browser, DuckDuckGo for Mac. The desktop app, which is being released in beta, comes years after the company launched its Android and iOS browsers, and it continues its push to create a suite of privacy-first web tools.
DuckDuckGo’s desktop apps have been in the works for some time. Burger-Lenehan says the company has been building the Mac app for more than a year and first started private tests with members of the public in October 2021. The company’s browser for Windows is being developed simultaneously, but its production is behind the Mac version, Burger-Lenehan says, adding that it will be available “soon.” DuckDuckGo for Mac joins a growing list of Chrome rivals. In recent years, browsers have piled privacy features into their offerings—most prominently blocking trackers, browser fingerprinting, and ads that follow you around the internet—to differentiate themselves from Google’s browser. Apple’s Safari, Firefox, Vivaldi, Opera, Brave, and DuckDuckGo’s mobile apps all block trackers to various degrees (although Tor is widely considered the most private browser).
What perhaps makes DuckDuckGo’s app stand out is how the browser is built. The vast majority of alternative web browsers—including Microsoft’s Edge, Brave, Vivaldi, and Opera—all use, to some extent, altered versions of Google’s browser code base, Chromium, and its underlying browser engine, Blink. Mozilla’s Firefox is one of the only other browsers that doesn’t use this Google-created setup.
DuckDuckGo shunned Chromium and instead uses Apple’s WebKit rendering system, which converts code into the web pages you see. “We wanted complete control over the code and the experience,” Burger-Lenehan says. That decision was taken in part because adapting Chromium would have meant the browser would inherit “cruft and clutter” from Google's design process, Burger-Lenehan says. Instead, “every bit of code is owned by DuckDuckGo and written by DuckDuckGo.”
While avoiding Chromium means DuckDuckGo can produce a slightly different product, it also means there’s more engineering work that needs to be done. The browser can’t tap into existing browser extensions built with Chromium that can help you search the web better or translate languages. Indeed, at the moment, DuckDuckGo’s desktop Mac app doesn’t support any browser extensions. This includes common password managers and other third-party tools you regularly use. (While the browser has a password manager, many experts recommend using a dedicated one.) Burger-Lenehan says it is working on ways to allow extensions to work with the browser in the future, and it is also working on updating its mobile apps so they can sync details, including passwords, with the desktop counterparts.
Unlike Brave and Firefox, both of which market themselves as privacy-focused Chrome alternatives, DuckDuckGo’s app is light on privacy settings that you can customize. Both the rival browsers include detailed options allowing privacy and security levels to be tweaked—one Firefox adaption allows all the most private options to be turned on; Brave also integrates Tor into its app. The simplicity is a deliberate choice from DuckDuckGo, Burger-Lenehan says.
The exact level of security and privacy you need online depends on your individual threat model; for instance, a human rights defender is more likely to be a target for hackers than, say, a dog trainer. Burger-Lenehan says DuckDuckGo wants to create products that don’t require people to change, or understand, too many settings. “We know that a very large swath of the internet population wants simple privacy,” Burger-Lenehan says. “We built this thing for a large, mainstream audience.”