Europe forces Apple to give its citizens some choice over iOS browser engine, app store

That's the way the Cook, he crumbles

Apple has given up its fight against being designated a gatekeeper under Europe's Digital Markets Act (DMA), meaning the iMaker will give people in the European Union greater choice over their browser engines and application store on iOS.

The American mega-giant today announced several significant changes to its mobile operating system for EU users ahead of a March 7 deadline by which it must be compliant with the DMA. Those changes will be delivered in iOS 17.4, which is in beta now and officially due out by that date.

Those major changes are: support for third-party app marketplaces when they are built, allowing people to get their software from places other than the official Apple App Store; developer access to NFC hardware for contactless payments; and support for browsers powered by engines other than Apple's own WebKit – plus a prompt screen so that users can select something other than Apple Safari as their default browser.

That screen will appear the first time someone opens Safari on their device. Though iOS's default browser could be changed to a non-Safari app as early as iOS 14, it's the prompt that is a new development. Safari is powered by Apple's WebKit, an engine all iOS browsers must use ... until next month in the EU, when iOS 17.4 will allow browsers, including in-app browsers, to use alternative engines.

That means Chrome will be able to use Chromium, and Firefox can use its own Gecko, for instance. Ask and ye shall receive, eh, Mozilla?

As for support for alternative marketplaces on iOS in Europe, Apple has more details here. One interesting detail is that Cupertino wants to see evidence that these external souks have the resources to look after their developers and users, specifically having at least million euros to hand each year. The rules state:

In order to establish adequate financial means to guarantee support for developers and customers, marketplace developers must provide Apple a stand-by letter of credit from an A-rated (or equivalent by S&P, Fitch, or Moody’s) financial Institution of €1,000,000 prior to receiving the entitlement. It will need to be auto-renewed on a yearly basis.

Meanwhile, Epic Games – which fought Apple over its App Store rules – intends to bring its smash-hit Fortnite game back to iOS in Europe, using its own store, after being thrown out of the official marketplace for side-stepping the requirement that it must use Cupertino's payment system.

That said, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney was scathing about Apple's changes, slamming them as "a devious new instance of malicious compliance" with Europe and "hot garbage." He signaled his games house will continue to battle Apple over its treatment of developers, believing the iPhone giant still isn't playing fair or by the rules set by the EU and other regions.

FUD enabled

Apple, of course, isn't opening some gaps in its walled garden without trying to scare users into shunning the changes. Cupertino said in its announcement that it's basically been forced to make these changes, and that they ultimately allegedly make the EU variant of iOS less safe for users. The chief fear is that applications with malicious code sneaked inside them will be available to download and install from outside stores, whereas Apple claims its own shop wouldn't let that happen. Same goes for payments: only Apple, apparently, can keep you safe from scammers and crooks.

"The new options for processing payments and downloading apps on iOS open new avenues for malware, fraud and scams, illicit and harmful content, and other privacy and security threats," Apple commented.

To counter those apparent avenues, Apple said software distributed via alternative app stores must still go through a vetting process, which includes scans for malware and human reviewers, and that these applications will have sheets of information about them, with screenshots, so that users are aware of what the software can and will do.

"The changes we're announcing today comply with the Digital Markets Act's requirements in the European Union, while helping to protect EU users from the unavoidable increased privacy and security threats this regulation brings," said Apple fellow Phil Schiller. 

The DMA is designed to ensure so-called gatekeepers like Apple, who the EU believes have outsized market power and the ability to cut off third-party access to its products, maintain a degree of openness that ensures fair competition. Apple has fought against the designation, but today's announcements are a near-complete concession.

We've reached out to Apple to see if it plans to continue appealing its gatekeeper status, but didn't hear back.

Reduced fees for developers - well, most, anyways

While iOS users can expect third-party app stores and actual deep differentiation in their browsers, developers are getting features beyond just being able to use the iPhone's NFC hardware or ditching WebKit - they may benefit financially, too. 

Apple is adding business terms to the EU version of iOS with 17.4 that will reduce commissions to 10 percent, or 17 percent "on transactions for digital goods and services." Developers who opt to use Apple's own payment processing services will have to fork over an additional three percent, but devs who choose to process payments inside their own apps, or link out to a website, won't have to pay an additional fee at all - a far more generous than the deal US devs are getting in the wake of the Apple v. Epic court fight.

That doesn't mean Apple is giving up its ability to profit from its App Store, however. It's added a "core technology fee" that'll extract considerable revenue from app makers who sling a lot of code. 

"For very high volume iOS apps distributed from the App Store and/or an alternative app marketplace, developers will pay €0.50 for each first annual install per year over a one million threshold," Apple said regarding the DMA changes.

"Apple estimates that less than one percent of developers would pay a Core Technology Fee on their EU apps," the iGiant added.

Yes, it's confusing. So much so that Apple has also published a fee calculator for EU developers.

As for folks outside Europe, sorry - these particular changes are't going to be available elsewhere. 

"We're limiting these changes to the European Union because we're concerned about their impacts on the privacy and security of our users' experience — which remains our North Star," Apple said. "In the weeks and months ahead, we'll continue to engage with the European Commission, the developer community, and our EU users about their impacts." ®

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