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Warning: Apple 'could very easily' cripple Jamf

Tech watchdog group worries iGiant will 'Sherlock' device manager

Apple is preparing to compete unfairly against enterprise device management firm Jamf, an advocacy group claimed on Monday, and has asked regulators to take a stand.

"Apple's tight control over which companies can play in its sandbox means that it could very easily choose to break or drop Jamf if doing so could open up a new revenue stream," said Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of Campaign for Accountability (CfA), in a statement. "It was Jamf’s ideas and ingenuity that built the device management market that Apple seems primed to take over, but that may all be for naught if Apple decides to flip the switch."

CfA is described by Influence Watch as "an ostensibly nonpartisan left-wing advocacy organization founded to expose supposed misconduct and corruption in the government and private sector." It founded the Google Transparency Project in 2016, which was partially funded by Oracle.

This was when Oracle was fighting Google in an ultimately unsuccessful legal battle over Android. The initiative was rebranded the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) in March 2020, and since then has been challenging a broader set of "Big Tech'' companies, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Instagram, and YouTube.

The CfA's TTP said that Jamf, in its 2021 annual financial report, acknowledges the potential threat posed by Apple's decision to launch its own device management service, Apple Business Essentials.

"While this platform is still in its early stages, Apple Business Essentials is focused on SMBs with 500 or fewer employees, and we believe its feature set will provide limited direct competition with our complete Apple Enterprise Management solutions," the Jamf SEC filing says. "In the future, however, Apple could leverage this platform or create other offerings to compete more directly with the scale and breadth of product offerings we provide."

Risk disclosures of this sort are common in financial filings. Worst case scenarios are routinely floated by all companies so investors know exactly what they're getting into when they buy shares in a biz.

Nonetheless, the TTP report argues that the reality of the risk posed by competition from Apple can be seen in the Jamf share price decline of more than 30 percent in the days after Apple's November 10, 2021 announcement of Apple Business Essentials.

The Register asked Jamf to comment but we've not heard back. We invited Apple to comment, too. But the perennially tongue-tied device maker failed to respond.

Not as though this hasn't happened before

The TTP report says that Jamf CEO Dean Hager has publicly downplayed the prospect of competition from Apple. But Jamf's SEC filing offers a possible explanation: fear of retaliation.

"Our future relationship with Apple is important to Jamf’s success," the filing says. "If we fail to maintain our current relationship and contracts with Apple, our ability to compete and grow our business may be materially impacted."

This is a common concern for anyone challenging one of the most successful companies in the world. Recall that up through May 2016, Apple's App Store Review Guidelines warned that public airing of app rejection disputes might harm negotiations: "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps."

And Epic Games, in its antitrust dispute [PDF] against Apple, said that Apple, after suspending Epic's Apple developer account, "threatened to terminate all of Epic's and Epic's affiliates' Apple Developer Program accounts and revoke Epic’s access to tools necessary to improve hardware and software performance of Unreal Engine on Mac and iOS hardware."

The TTP report observes some financial analysts have downplayed the possibility that Apple will harm Jamf's business. But the group also points to complaints from IT administrators about changes to Apple's operating system that have made Jamf's software more difficult to use. As the CfA sees it, this is an indicator that cooperation between the two companies is breaking down. The watchdog group expressed particular concern about Apple's plan to introduce automatic software updating in forthcoming operating system releases, potentially making Jamf's push update capability redundant.

"Apple has a long history of undermining app competitors by incorporating their features into its products," the TTP report says.

Developers refer to this as "Sherlocking" in the Apple ecosystem, in reference to a third-party search app called Watson that Apple in 2002 was accused of imitating in its Sherlock 3 search product.

Imitation is an issue for any software developer but can become a matter of unfair competition in the context of platform contracts that companies like Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft impose on participating developers. Platform owners may self-preference to create conditions that give them a competitive advantage.

That's the heart of the CfA's concern about Jamf, which arises amid the appeal of Epic's mostly unsuccessful antitrust claim, at a time when Apple is reportedly facing heightened antitrust scrutiny that could lead to a government lawsuit.

"Jamf's dramatic drop in share price suggests the market thinks Apple may be preparing to take over Jamf's turf," the advocacy group argues. "Investors are likely aware of Apple's history of putting apps out of business by rolling out similar features. Given that record, regulators should pay careful attention to Apple's future moves with Jamf – which could raise new antitrust concerns." ®

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