Friday, February 3, 2023

Competition in the Mobile Application Ecosystem

Ben Lovejoy:

The White House asked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to investigate, and Axios reports that it also concluded antitrust legislation is required.

The NTIA’s report is here (PDF).

Jon Brodkin:

The Biden administration wants major changes to the Apple and Google mobile app models, saying the companies “act as gatekeepers over the apps that people and businesses rely on” and enforce policies that “have the potential to harm consumers by inflating prices and reducing innovation.”

An analysis of the market and recommendations for lawmakers and regulators were issued today in a report by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The report was required by President Biden’s 2021 executive order on competition and touted by the White House today as being part of “new progress on his competition agenda.”

The NTIA concluded that “consumers largely can’t get apps outside of the app store model, controlled by Apple and Google,” and that “Apple and Google create hurdles for developers to compete for consumers by imposing technical limits, such as restricting how apps can function or requiring developers to go through slow and opaque review processes.”

Hartley Charlton:

On the basis of the investigation’s findings, the report recommends:

  • Third-party app stores should be permitted and users should not be prevented from sideloading apps outside a gatekeeper’s own app store. Legislative and regulatory measures should prohibit restrictions on sideloading, alternative app stores, and web apps.
  • Requirements that ban developers from using alternative in-app payment systems should be banned.
  • Third-party web browser apps should be able to offer full functionality and not face browser engine restrictions.
  • Pre-installed apps, default options, and anticompetitive self-preferencing should be limited, including in search results.
  • Users should be able to choose their own apps as defaults and delete or hide pre-installed apps.
  • App store review processes should be more transparent.

Florian Mueller:

It’s suboptimal, though, and I don’t just mean the fact that there are various typos (unusually many for a government document). As an app developer who tried to make a game work as a web app (and found the results extremely dissatisfactory), I believe the part about web apps could have raised several additional issues.

There are quotes from ACT | The App Association (again, it’s actually an Apple Association) and the R Street Institute that argue small app developers benefit from the trust that end users place in apps they download from curated stores. First, if they trust an Apple or Google store, why wouldn’t they also trust a Microsoft, Amazon, or Meta store? Second, independent software vendors (ISVs) have historically had great opportunities on open systems like Windows and the Mac (which compared to iOS is pretty open, though Apple may change that step by step). It’s not like mobile app stores were needed so the little guys had a chance to succeed. I’m extremely cautious about what I download to my Windows computers (desktop and notebook) and never installed any malware (nothing was found whenever I scanned, and nothing ever happened that suggested the presence of malware), but even I install software from small developers: I’m just careful about where I obtain it from, but that doesn’t mean I trust only Microsoft’s own store.


Update (2023-02-14): Florian Mueller:

President Biden effectively reinforces push for Open App Markets Act in State of the Union speech: first SOTU reference to antitrust since 1979

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The sound of hundreds of iOS devs holding their breath.

My primary concern is the web browser requirement. We already face a GoogleChrome monopoly threatening the open web and I am concerned that by allowing third party web browsers that monopoly will only grow in strength.

Yes, in order to prevent monopolies we need to defend monopolies.

Apple says it reviews each line of an app’s code to screen for any potential harms to user data, security, and safety before making it available to the public.

WTF? It's on page 29 of the PDF. No Apple certainly did not the last time I published an iOS app. Indeed, there's plenty evidence they don't review every line of their own OS these days...

Also on page 47, the PDF mentions that its study was prevented from making progress because developers were afraid of reprisals by Apple and Google. That certainly doesn't suggest happy developers.

This seems like a good report. Hopefully the Congress critters will resist having their paws greased to keep the current status quo.

@Benjamin This might allay your concern..

I always find it amazing how many commenters on Ars Technica want to be prevented from having any freedom. When I was young, we tried to hack any limitation, and thought of cyberspace as free. Either this is the result of the coddling of the American mind, and today's technical youngsters need their pacifiers, or Ars Technica's membership is full of tech-wannabes who actually aren't remotely technical but want to pretend they are.

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