Forcing Apple to allow third-party app stores isn't enough

You're excited about Meta offering iOS apps via Facebook ads? Really?

Opinion By March 6, 2024 Apple is expected to allow third-party app stores to distribute iOS apps, in Europe at least, because the company has been designated a "gatekeeper" under the European Digital Markets Act.

"We are working with the EU on what safe compliance could look like," said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software, in an interview at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June.

If this comes to pass by the appointed deadline – delays are possible as a result of legal challenges or malicious compliance – the result may not be as liberating as many hope.

The Apple App Store, for all its faults, is likely to remain the preferred app source for iOS customers for years to come. That's because the competition, if it can be called that, shows no sign of being more deferential toward customers and their capacity to make their own decisions.

Apple rejects a lot of apps – 1.7 million out of 6.1 million submitted for review last year, according to Cupertino's 2022 App Store Transparency Report [PDF]. And while many of these rejections appear to be justified – Apple claims its intervention prevented $2 billion in fraud last year – arbitrary and inconsistent app review decisions have been common complaints.

Since the inception of the App Store on July 10, 2008, iOS developers have bristled at Apple's App Store Review Guidelines and the Apple Developer Program License Agreement. They've had politically themed games about sweatshops, Syria and single-payer health insurance rejected, though such games like Liyla and the Shadows of War have been approved after an initial rejection.

And they've been stymied by inattentive reviewers: on macOS, the popular indie title Untitled Goose Game was rejected because, according to the game's developer, the person handling the app review didn't understand that you could skip the credits.

But if you set aside the challenge of complying with Kafkaesque rules and pleasing reviewers who spend maybe 10 to 20 minutes evaluating projects that have taken developers months or years to code, Apple's App Store has a lot going for it, at least in theory.

"The guiding principle of the App Store is simple – we want to provide a safe experience for users to get apps and a great opportunity for all developers to be successful," Apple explains in its App Store Guidelines.

"We do this by offering a highly curated App Store where every app is reviewed by experts and an editorial team helps users discover new apps every day. For everything else there is always the open Internet. If the App Store model and guidelines are not best for your app or business idea that’s okay, we provide Safari for a great web experience too."

Apple may be exaggerating a bit here. It wants to provide a safe experience, but in 2022 the company still removed 186,195 apps that had been previously approved. So its review process has some gaps.

And its "great opportunity for all developers to be successful" isn't necessarily realized for all developers. In aggregate, those developing for the App Store generate a lot of revenue, but notice that Apple does not publish median developer revenue. A few developers are extremely successful but most struggle to gain traction; of course Apple gets 15-30 percent of app revenue, so the aggregate figure matters for the company.

And then there's Apple's claim that "there is always the open internet." For years, web developers have complained how poor the Safari web experience has been because Apple failed to make Safari competitive with Chrome or Firefox.

"Apple's iOS browser (Safari) and engine (WebKit) are uniquely under-powered," said Alex Russell in 2021 when he was a software engineer at Google. "Consistent delays in the delivery of important features ensure the web can never be a credible alternative to its proprietary tools and App Store."

Only in the past year or two, as regulatory concessions have become unavoidable, has Apple staffed up its WebKit team and pushed to make Safari competitive as a vehicle for modern web apps.

So apart from the capricious rule enforcement, hasty reviews, and self-serving spin, Apple's App Store is not all that bad.

Be careful what you legislate for

In fact, it's probably better than anything that will emerge as a result of EU intervention, like Meta's reported plan to let people download iOS and Android apps via Facebook ads or Microsoft's anticipated store for iOS and Android apps.

Winston Churchill famously said, "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Apple's regime runs more toward the authoritarian but its rivals hardly look more appealing as arbiters of software and content that's fit for distribution. Would you prefer Amazon, Google, Meta, or Microsoft curating your app options? Or what about some bright-eyed startup that promises to take your privacy seriously while documenting its data sharing in a vaguely worded policy?

None of the large tech firms planning to launch app stores in response to the EU's DMA will prove better overlords than Apple, and it's a safe bet some will be worse.

While it's possible that app store competition will lead to improvements that would actually help developers, like better app discovery mechanisms and lower payment fees, a broader array of gatekeepers doesn't address the real problem with mobile devices: lack of freedom.

Why is it that in 2023, fifteen years after the iOS App Store debuted and longer still if you include prior smartphones that supported apps, the owners of iPhones don't actually have the ownership right of installing the software they choose? Android users have somehow managed, as have Windows, macOS, and Linux users.

The only way things will improve is with sideloading – meaning users can easily install any app they choose on their mobile device without an app store intermediary.

But that's just the start.

Another necessary condition for meaningful change is the rejection of surveillance economics. To put it simply, ad-supported apps cannot be trusted because the user doesn't pay enough to ensure that the developer will put the user's interests first.

A case in point: Facebook's Onavo VPN, withdrawn from distribution in 2018 after violating Apple's privacy rules. And there are so many other apps that exist only to gather data and pitch ads.

People who use software deserve part of the blame, except perhaps for those who use only free and open source software and never stray. We want computing costs to be subsidized by ads and then we overlook how we really pay for that.

Some of the sorry state of the US, EU, and UK political discourse follows from the worldview promulgated by Google and Facebook that software and service should be supported by ads in an environment where accountability is minimal.

You are the product

Advertising works well when there's accountability, but modern social media platforms and associated ad tech have done their best to minimize any such protections.

And the price we pay is an infosphere polluted by poorly moderated messaging, where editorial and advertising distinctions have been written off as antiquated. It's all just content and we're all just now creators, but without the leverage to negotiate contracts like traditional talent.

Consider just the challenge of providing accounts to actual people. Meta removed 676 million fake accounts in Q2 2023 – one quarter – and this has been going on for years, as it has on other popular platforms. How many of these accounts were not removed and what were these fake accounts doing? Spamming, poisoning public discourse with misinformation, and other forms of abuse, perhaps?

Amnesty International last year said Facebook's algorithms helped "the spread of harmful anti-Rohingya content in Myanmar," something Meta has now owned up to. And the US Director of National Intelligence has issued several reports about the threat that foreign influence campaigns pose to US elections. And these sorts of harms persist.

What about the cost of ad fraud, said to be about $84 billion this year? Is Google refunding all such fraud on its platform? Or maybe only the part it detects? Is there misinformation going on that may shape who has political power?

If we were talking about water, it would not be all that comforting to learn that utility owners caught some number of people pissing in the reservoir and that they take water safety very seriously.

But when we're talking about the airwaves, we've come to accept, "eh, we're trying." We accept being enraged until we engage, all for the sake of ad impressions, clicks, and likes, without much of an audit trail.

We could have something better than Apple's iOS App Store. We could be our own gatekeepers. We could choose software that serves us instead of advertisers. And we could choose social platforms that serve the public good instead of mercurial billionaires or the attention industrial complex. We could, were there any real alternatives, though the price might be more than we'd be willing to bear. ®

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