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Apple settles antitrust case with developers, but it's far from an Epic resolution to App Store monopoly concerns

Allows direct contact between devs and users, promises transparency and better search – but only in the USA

Apple has announced the settlement of an anti-trust case brought by a group of developers – and while Cupertino has made concessions, the result will not be huge changes in the way the App Store operates or the company's practices.

The case that Apple proposes to settle is Cameron et al v. Apple Inc. [PDF], which was filed in 2019 and sought to challenge Apple's App Store monopoly. The plaintiffs were Donald R. Cameron, who developed an app called "Lil' Baby Names", and Pure Sweat Basketball, Inc, which created the "Pure Sweat Basketball Workout" app.

Both claimed that Apple's App Store was a monopoly, that Apple's 30 per cent sales commission was only possible because of the monopoly, and that Apple's insistence on a floor price of $0.99 disadvantaged developers who wanted to compete with free apps more effectively.

The complaint also alleged that Apple buries apps in search, making it harder for small developers' products to appear in search results.

The original filing in the case sensibly cited The Register in its arguments, specifically our 2018 piece: A decade on, Apple and Google's 30% app store cut looks pretty cheesy.

But we digress.

The proposed settlement [PDF] addresses some of those concerns.

Apple has, for example, agreed to increase the price points it offers from the current 100 options to 500 options – by December 2022. Presumably the delay is because this is an enormous change that will challenge Apple's mighty innovation engines.

Another less-than-stunning change impacts "steering" – Apple’s practice of making it hard to communicate directly with users within apps. Apple will now "permit developers to communicate outside the app (eg, by email) with customers regarding alternative purchase options, and will eliminate the Guidelines restriction that currently prevents developers from using information from within the app for this purpose."

Apple already tweaked the rules around direct contact between devs and users earlier this year to allow communication about alternative payment options. While this new change isn't a major advance, allowing in-app communication is a step forward.

Apple will also pay $100 million into a "Small Developer Assistance Fund" to help the likes of Cameron and Pure Sweat Basketball, provided their revenue remains below $US1 million, and will pay out at least $250 million to qualifying class members under the scheme. Small devs will also be offered a 15 per cent commission for at least another three years.

Another pledge sees Cupertino resolved to "drive search results by a variety of factors that will give new and high-quality apps a chance to be found" and hopefully mean small developers' wares are easier to find.

App Store decisions about rejecting apps will also be made more transparent, with Apple clarifying its appeal process and promising to publish an annual report "with meaningful information regarding app rejections, search queries and results, and other issues of interest to developers".

Apple's announcement of the settlement frames it as making the App Store "an even better business opportunity for developers, while maintaining the safe and trusted marketplace users love".

Law firm Hagens Berman, which was one of four firms that acted for plaintiffs in the case, posted analysis suggesting the settlement is a win for small developers. Cameron and Pure Sweat both offered up positive canned quotes.

The settlement does, however, have a couple of wrinkles.

One is that it applies in the USA only. Apple has not signalled that the changes it promised will apply to developers elsewhere.

The other is that the case leaves untouched the central concern of Apple's case with Epic Games – namely, the right for developers to accept payments from users through facilities other than the App Store. That matter remains before the courts. ®

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