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Apple complains UK watchdog wants to make iOS a 'clone' of Android

Move means possibility of new WebKit-free iPhone browsers is even more likely

The UK competition watchdog's proposed iOS remedies in a probe of its "substantial and entrenched market power" in the mobile ecosystem "would effectively turn Apple into a clone of Android," the iPhone maker told the CMA.

The reason for its unhappiness? The UK Competition and Markets Authority's (CMA) key fix is to kill Apple's WebKit requirement on iOS amid claims it is anti-competitive. (If you use a browser, e.g. Chrome or Firefox, on an iPhone, it must use the same WebKit engine as Safari.)

The move is part of a larger probe into mobile browser and cloud gaming platforms by the CMA, and the hated remedies are part of an issues statement [PDF] the CMA put out in December last year.

The CMA's statement cited its market study, which found "evidence that the quality of all browsers on Apple devices is limited by the slower pace of development of WebKit, that web developers have cancelled features due to a lack of support by WebKit, and that businesses bear higher costs from having to rely on native apps compared to web apps, and from working with bugs and glitches that are inherent in WebKit."

In a response filed in December but published yesterday, Apple snapped back, claiming a removal of the WebKit requirement would "prevent uniform updates of apps rendering web content, as Android does."

The competition watchdog also suggested that Apple enable sideloading and alternative apps stores, which Apple claimed in its submission would "degrade the robust user protections of Apple's curated model."

Apple added that the effect of the tweaks it was asked to make would be that iOS "would be turned into another version of Android" – thus reducing consumer choice.

The CMA has said Apple and Google have an effective duopoly in the UK's mobile ecosystem.

Apple also said in its response that it was "particularly concerned by some of the remedy options that the CMA is now considering in relation to cloud gaming, which appear to fall outside the underlying basis for the market investigation."

Apple is fighting this hard. In late January, several weeks after the CMA gave Apple the issues statement, the iPhone maker appealed [PDF] in the country's Competition Appeal Tribunal, contending that the CMA was overstepping its authority in even opening the investigation, seeking a stay of the probe and asking for a finding that it was "invalid and of no legal effect."

Google, meanwhile, claimed in its January 25 filing [PDF] that the CMA's issues statement incorrectly found that Android uses default settings to create market barriers, saying that Chrome was a victim of its own success. It claimed that while Chrome remains the most popular browser on Android, "this reflects users exercising their freedom to select and use their preferred browser irrespective of which browsers come preinstalled or set as default on their devices" and cited figures that "over 80 percent" of UK Android users are confident with "changing settings on smartphones (e.g. changing default settings)."

As for browser engine tweaks, Google added that this wouldn't apply to its mobile OS because "on Android, developers can use any browser engine they want."

As The Register noted earlier this week, Google Chrome is based on Blink (via its open source Chromium foundation), which was forked from WebKit nearly 10 years ago ago. Mozilla's Firefox, meanwhile, is based on Gecko, while Microsoft's Edge browser is based on Chromium code (using Blink).

The European Commission has already fined Google €4.34 billion ($4.67 billion) over its Android operating system. Also in the wings is the upcoming European Digital Markets Act (DMA), which is already in force – but will only define which companies are the "gatekeepers" in September (it's a shoo-in Apple is one) – giving Big Tech until March 2024 to comply. The DMA is widely expected to force Apple to allow third-party app stores and potentially to alter the WebKit requirement and make its iMessages platform "interoperable," and make both Apple and Google allow third-party payment options in apps on their respective app stores as well as forcing them to reduce the commission they take from developers' revenues.

Just this morning, Japan's Fair Trade Commission also recommended that both Apple and Google include third-party app stores on their platforms.

iOS 17 is expected to be previewed at the Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2023. According to some reports, Apple is considering making some regulator-driven changes at that point. We have asked Apple for comment. ®

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