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UK's antitrust watchdog is very angry and has written a letter telling Apple and Google how angry it is with them

Shocked, shocked, to find that anti-competitive behavior is going on in here

The UK's antitrust regulator fears Apple and Google have a "vice-like grip" on mobile apps and browsers, which freezes out competitors and gives folks a crummy deal.

In a blunt assessment, the Competition and Markets Authority's department of what-took-you-so-long noted that Brits pretty much get their smartphone apps from just Apple and Google's software stores; that Apple only lets you use Safari's WebKit as a browser engine on its handhelds; and that Google pays Android device makers to ensure its Chrome browser and app store are bundled.

That means the pair of US tech giants get to shape what applications and content you use – and, importantly, what you can't use – and may unfairly drive up subscription costs and prices for people, the watchdog said.

We're told it is "extremely difficult" for someone else to compete against Apple and Google's ecosystems with alternative offerings. Apple and Google can therefore take virtually whatever cut they want from developers and publishers' sales as there's little or no meaningful competition for marketplaces. Web apps are discouraged or disadvantaged by system software.

It's very much what we all know already. And though while it may be a bit on the bleedin' obvious side, it's at least a clear and concise evaluation by a regulator that's politely and diplomatically, in a very British way, quite cross with what Apple and Google have done.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it should be easier for folks to move their apps and data between Apple's iOS and Google's Android when changing or upgrading their phones; that people should be able to easily install apps from other stores, and that web apps should work without any hindrance; that people shouldn't be forced to use Apple and Google's payment systems as they are now; and that people should be free to choose what web browser they use.

"Apple and Google have developed a vice-like grip over how we use mobile phones and we’re concerned that it’s causing millions of people across the UK to lose out," said CMA chief exec Andrea Coscelli in a canned statement.

Apple and Google have developed a vice-like grip over how we use mobile phones and we’re concerned that it’s causing millions of people across the UK to lose out

Why is this all happening now? This week the CMA issued an interim report, laying out the findings of a probe it launched earlier this year into whether or not Google and Apple exert too much control over our mobile devices. So far, the watchdog has "provisionally found that Apple and Google have been able to leverage their market power to create largely self-contained ecosystems."

And what's going to happen next? Not an awful lot. The CMA is going to wait to see what Apple and Google say in response, which it hopes to hear by February next year, and then it'll issue a final report in June, and then we'll find out how powerful Google and Apple's lobbying machine is in Britain, and then maybe we'll have some kind of outcome.

This is a waiting game. For one thing, legislation may emerge in the UK to create a so-called pro-competition regime for digital markets. If that happens, the CMA believes Apple and Google may face "legally enforceable codes of conduct to govern their behaviour and to prevent them from exploiting their powerful positions."

The CMA is also separately looking into complaints from developers regarding Apple's strict app store rules, as well as probing the nature of Google's Privacy Sandbox.

Perhaps the powers that be in Blighty have observed the continuing rise of American Big Tech and the after-effects of Facebook swallowing up WhatsApp and Instagram with zero resistance from regulators, and figured the country should have put its foot down earlier and so now it's definitely putting its foot down: first with freezing Nvidia's takeover of UK-based Arm on national security grounds, and next with ordering Facebook to sell Giphy on the grounds of animated emoji security.

It's a warning shot. And don't forget Google et al are facing antitrust action and probes back at home in the United States. There's a sense of irritation among some lawmakers and officials on both sides of the pond.

Responding to the interim report, Apple said it will "continue to engage constructively with the UK Competition and Markets Authority as their work on this study progresses." Google added: "We’re committed to building thriving, open platforms that empower consumers and help developers succeed."

You can check out this week's report here. There's more info on the study over here, in which you can read through Google and Apple's formal responses, and responses from other organizations, to earlier investigations by the CMA into the mobile ecosystem world.

We note that Oracle – which lost its long battle against Google over Android code – couldn't help but stick its boot in [PDF], telling the CMA that Google uses Android as a massive data-collection operation. ®


Page 21 of the interim report [PDF] details how Apple ensures non-Safari browsers on iOS must use its WebKit engine, and even then are disadvantaged by the operating system. The overall goal seems to be to make web apps less attractive to use, and native apps obtained from Apple's app store more appealing.

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