Archive for February, 2023

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The NTIA report on mobile app ecosystems

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (part of US Dept of Commerce) Mobile App Competition Report came out yesterday (1 Feb). Along with fellow Open Web Advocacy chums, I briefed them and also personally commented.

Key Policy Issue #1

Consumers largely cant get apps outside of the app store model, controlled by Apple and Google. This means innovators have very limited avenues for reaching consumers.

Key Policy Issue #2

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.

The report

I’m very glad that, like other regulators, we’ve helped them understand that there’s not a binary choice between single-platform iOS and Android “native” apps, but Web Apps (AKA “PWA”, Progressive Web Apps) offer a cheaper to produce alternative, as they use universal, mature web technologies:

Web apps can be optimized for design, with artfully crafted animations and widgets; they can also be optimized for unique connectivity constraints, offering users either a download-as-you go experience for low-bandwidth environments, or an offline mode if needed.

However, the mobile duopoly restrict the installation of web apps, favouring their own default browsers:

commenters contend that the major mobile operating system platformsboth of which derive revenue from native app downloads through their mobile app stores & whose own browsers derive significant advertising revenuehave acted to stifle implementation & distribution of web apps

NTIA recognises that this is a deliberate choice by Apple and (to a lesser extent) by Google:

developers face significant hurdles to get a chance to compete for users in the ecosystem, and these hurdles are due to corporate choices rather than technical necessities

NTIA explicitly calls out the Apple Browser Ban:

any web browser downloaded from Apples mobile app store runs on WebKit. This means that the browsers that users recognize elsewhereon Android and on desktop computersdo not have the same functionality that they do on those other platforms.

It notes that WebKit has implemented fewer features that allow Web Apps to have similar capabilities as its iOS single-platform Apps, and lists some of the most important with the dates they were available in Gecko and Blink, continuing

According to commenters, lack of support for these features would be a more acceptable condition if Apple allowed other, more robust, and full-featured browser engines on its operating system. Then, iOS users would be free to choose between Safaris less feature-rich experience (which might have other benefits, such as privacy and security features), and the broader capabilities of competing browsers (which might have other borrowers costs, such as greater drain on system resources and need to adjust more settings). Instead, iOS users are never given the opportunity to choose meaningfully differentiated browsers and experience features that are common for Android userssome of which have been available for over a decade.

Regardless of Apple’s claims that the Apple Browser Ban is to protect their users,

Multiple commenters note that the only obvious beneficiary of Apples WebKit restrictions is Apple itself, which derives significant revenue from its mobile app store commissions

The report concludes that

Congress should enact laws and relevant agencies should consider measures [aimed at] Getting platforms to allow installation and full functionality of third-party web browsers. To allow web browsers to be competitive, as discussed above, the platforms would need to allow installation and full functionality of the third-party web browsers. This would require platforms to permit third-party browsers a comparable level of integration with device and operating system functionality. As with other measures, it would be important to construct this to allow platform providers to implement reasonable restrictions in order to protect user privacy, security, and safety.

The NTIA joins the Australian, EU, and UK regulators in suggesting that the Apple Browser Ban stifles competition and must be curtailed.

The question now is whether Apple will do the right thing, or seek to hurl lawyers with procedural arguments at it instead, as they’re doing in the UK now. It’s rumoured that Apple might be contemplating about thinking about speculating about considering opening up iOS to alternate browsers for when the EU Digital Markets Act comes into force in 2024. But for every month they delay, they earn a fortune; it’s estimated that Google pays Apple $20 Billion to be the default search engine in Safari, and the App Store earned Apple $72.3 Billion in 2020 – sums which easily pay for snazzy lawyers, iPads for influencers, salaries for Safari shills, and Kool Aid for WebKit wafflers.

Place your bets!