Software

Apple redecorates its iPhone prison to appease Europe

At least web competition will finally be allowed


Analysis Apple co-founder Steve Jobs described the computer as a bicycle for the mind. But he failed to let that metaphor shape his greatest achievement, the iPhone, which has become a shackle for the soul.

The iPhone is a computer; you just can't use it as one most of the time because it's a closed system. You're not free to install software that Apple has not approved, unless you "jailbreak" the device – the very term suggesting unlawful transgression rather than a right that follows from ownership.

In instances where the iPhone actually serves as a vehicle for free thought, like among Chinese democracy supporters, Apple may just throw a spanner in the works by altering the behavior of a function like AirDrop because local authorities fear unmonitored communication.

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

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After opening the iPhone hardware and operating system up to third-party application developers in 2008, Apple repaid the very people who added value to the device by imposing unreasonable and self-serving terms and conditions upon them.

While Google's Android operating system offers a slightly more tolerant alternative, it comes with its own set of compromises. And switching platforms can be onerous.

Apple's anticompetitive rules, and those imposed by other tech platforms, finally prompted lawmakers in Europe to act. They adopted the Digital Markets Act (DMA) to restore competition to markets that had been dominated by peevish oligopolies.

With DMA enforcement set to begin in March, Apple on Thursday announced changes to iOS, Safari, and the App Store in the European Union to meet its legal obligations. And Cupertino's contempt for the law is evident.

Describing iOS, Safari, and the App Store as "part of an integrated, end-to-end system" – and not a separate group of products so they'll fall below the user threshold for regulation – Apple said, "The DMA requires changes to this system that bring greater risks to users and developers."

Apple doesn't disparage Chinese legal requirements in this manner. Its contempt is reserved for the EU.

“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 Phil Schiller, Apple Fellow, in a statement.

As numerous industry observers and rivals have said in response to Apple's hand-waving, this looks like an example of malicious compliance.

Apple is making a number of changes in Europe. These include allowing third-party app stores, but it is imposing obligations and costs on app store operators.

It's also allowing sideloading, but using its own definition of the term. Generally, sideloading refers to installing an app directly onto a device. Apple considers sideloading to be from a non-Apple store rather than Android-style .apk installation.

"Typically, sideloading refers to downloading iOS apps outside of an official app marketplace — and in the EU, users will have the option to download alternative marketplaces that offer apps for download," Apple explains.

The iGiant is allowing third-party payment mechanisms for in-app purchasing, but it has made the process burdensome and still subject to an Apple commission.

'Holy shakedown, Batman!'

Apple has reduced the commission it charges for paid iOS apps while adding fees elsewhere that may end up being worse for some developers.

The current rate is 15 percent for apps enrolled in Apple's Small Business Program with less than $1m annual revenue, or 30 percent for apps with more than $1m in revenue changes. Subscription-based apps start at 30 percent for the first year and then drop to 15 percent.

In the EU, the rate becomes 10 percent for most developers, or 17 percent for transactions on digital goods and services, plus a three percent fee for App Store payment processing (or whatever fee is required by a third-party payment processor).

So 13 or 20 percent sounds like an improvement over what's available in the US. But not for popular apps, which must pay the new Core Technology fee €0.50 per app install per user annually after one million app installs.

As David Heinemeier Hansson, CTO of Basecamp, observed in a blog post, the cost to distribute an app like Instagram in a third-party app store in the EU would be something like $135 million annually.

"Holy shakedown, Batman!" he wrote. "That might be the most blatant extortion attempt ever committed to public policy by any technology company ever."

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Possibly the best thing to come out of Apple's new cruelty is its decision to abide by the EU's browser engine requirement.

Currently, Apple requires all iOS browsers to be built atop its own WebKit rendering engine, a rule that rivals have railed against for years. In the EU now, Google can ship Chrome with its Blink rendering engine for iOS, Mozilla can ship Firefox with its Gecko rendering engine, and the opportunities for browser innovation will expand.

As a result, Apple is likely to try to make Safari more competitive in terms of the types of web technology it supports. But even if Cupertino decides not to push Safari to outdo rivals, internet users will have access to browsers that implement a broader set of web capabilities. And that in turn should make web code more competitive with native iOS apps.

Apple's browser engine concession isn't entirely without barbs. As Mozilla has observed, it doesn't apply to iPadOS and so Mozilla needs to bear the cost of maintaining two versions of Firefox in the EU.

While legal experts expect the EU to challenge Apple's insincere compliance with the DMA, developers should take this opportunity to rethink their native app serfdom. They should push web apps to their limits and then demand further platform improvement.

The web doesn't require commission payments, technology fees based on usage, or permission from platform rentseekers. The web can set the iPhone free, even if Apple won't. ®

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