Apple preps for 'third-party iOS app stores' in Europe
Despite dire predictions about sideloading, iGiant said to be ready to comply with EU law
Apple is said to be preparing to end its exclusive control over iOS app distribution – but only in Europe – by allowing third-party app stores as required under European law.
According to Bloomberg, when iOS 17 arrives next year, it will include architectural changes called for under the European Digital Markets Act (DMA), part of a set of regulations adopted earlier this year to limit the power of large technology companies.
The DMA says that a gatekeeper's ability to restrict the installation of third-party applications or third-party software application stores "should be prohibited as unfair." To ensure competition, platform overlords like Apple should "allow the third-party software applications or software application stores to prompt the end user to decide whether that service should become the default and enable that change to be carried out easily."
This language appears to demand support for both third-party applications stores and direct app installation by users – sideloading – a capability available to Android and macOS customers but repeatedly decried by Apple as a security disaster.
The extent of these changes has yet to be finalized but they're expected to be limited to Europe, at least initially. Over time, it would not be surprising if Apple and other tech companies worked to harmonize gatekeeper obligations in different countries to avoid the compliance burden of maintaining different systems in alternate economic zones.
Federal lawmakers in the US have not managed to pass legislation targeting tech gatekeepers, despite persistent political grandstanding about anticompetitive behavior. Other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have forced Apple to make some concessions but these have been narrowly targeted. Australia in a recent interim report has called for regulatory changes to limit tech company gatekeeping, but these have yet to be turned into law.
By 2024, when the DMA obligations must be met, iOS customers in Europe are expected to be able to download apps from outside Apple's iOS App Store, thereby avoiding the company's commission of up to 30 percent for paid apps. Whether Apple will also allow third-party payment services to handle in-app purchases hasn't apparently been decided.
Bloomberg's Mark Gurman, however, claims Apple "still plans to charge developers for access to iOS even with sideloading." It's not known how this charge might be applied and presumably it would be in addition to the $99 Apple Developer Program annual fee.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
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Among other changes being considered is the removal of Apple's requirement that all iOS browsers use its WebKit rendering engine, a rule already viewed skeptically by the UK Competition & Markets Authority due to objections raised by developer groups like Open Web Advocacy.
In addition, Apple is said to be looking at making some private application programming interfaces (APIs) and hardware like its camera and near field communication (NFC) chip more accessible to developers. Another possibility is that Apple may open its FindMy network, used for locating AirTags and Apple hardware, to third-party hardware.
Apple's response to the DMA's requirement that chat apps be interoperable has yet to be revealed. The company however is not expected to add support for RCS, a communication standard that Google has been urging Apple to embrace.
In a statement, Rick VanMeter, executive director of the Coalition for App Fairness, a group supported by Epic Games, Spotify, and March, welcomed the intervention of EU regulators and called for similar legislative action in the US.
"In the United States, Congress should take note of this development, which exposes Apple’s arguments on privacy and security as flimsy, hollow excuses to avoid competition," said VanMeter. "It's time for Congress to immediately pass the Open App Markets Act (OAMA) as part of the omnibus package to protect American consumers and businesses from the anti-competitive practices of mobile app store operators. Until OAMA passes, American developers and consumers will continue to suffer while those in foreign jurisdictions will benefit." ®