Let’s be clear with one thing first: the fact that Apple is such an admired company hinges on its obsession with control. MacOS has always been a cleaner and more friendly environment than Windows, because it doesn’t allow poorly designed third party apps onto its platform. The tendency remains in the mobile paradigm. Even my dad has no problem getting started with his new iPhone and my mom loves her iWatch, and let me tell you, Android would *not* have been a viable alternative for either of them.
But Apple’s renowned “user friendliness” comes at a price, or at least that’s what Apple likes us to believe. When Tim Cook gave testimony in the Fortnite trial – where Epic challenged Apple’s iOS app store monopoly – he said that that “We’re trying to give the customer an integrated solution of hardware, software, and services, I just don’t think you replicate that in a third party.”
Meaning: if Apple charges third party vendors such as Epic a whopping 30 percent commission – a price hike that in the end is transferred to the consumer – it’s because they want to protect us. Meaning: if Apple would allow you to download apps from other app stores, let alone from the wilderness of the open Internet, it would seriously compromise consumer’s privacy and security.
And there might actually have been a lot of truth to this in the early days of mobile (remember, Steve Jobs himself was very reluctant to even allow an app store on the original iPhone for this very reason), but as the technology matures it would make sense for Apple to relax rather than strengthening its grip.
Which is why it’s good news for iOS users that the EU is now wielding its regulatory battle axe.
According to a number of credible sources, the upcoming European Digital Markets Act, scheduled to be passed into legislation later this year, will cause Cook and his friends in Cupertino some real headache.
It almost seems like the European legislators had read Jefferey Fowler’s Washington Post column iTrapped: All the things Apple won’t let you do with your iPhone, and decided to base their draft on it.
So what’s going to happen? There are two game changers:
- Apple (and all other platforms that fit EU’s definition of gatekeepers) will be forced to allow their users to ‘sideload’ apps. That means there will be more than one app-store, it means you’ll be able to buy ebooks through your Kindle app, it means you’ll have more options than now in how you want to pay and it means you’ll be able to use iMessage and Facetime with people outside of the Apple ecosystem.
- Apple will be forced to surrender its policy of forcing every browser on iOS to use its WebKit browser engine.
The second point can seem a little techie, but might end up being quite important. Here’s why:
Browser engines define the capabilities of whatever software you’re using to surf the web. Apple mandating that all browsers that wants to ship an iOS version use WebKit, means that no matter if you think you’re using Firefox, Chrome or Opera, you’re really just using Safari with a different skin.
Which has far reaching consequences, since the WebKit engine that powers Safari – and up until now all other iOS browsers – is a dud. It lags considerably behind its peers and Apple doesn’t even seem to care; where Blink, the open source browser engine that is backed by Google, ships features and fixes every six weeks (and Firefox every four weeks) WebKit is only updated twice a year. That’s glacial.
But development cycles aren’t the only problem, WebKit also seem to be moving in opposite direction than the rest of the industry. Which can be great when you’re creating landmark pieces of industrial design, but less so when it comes to implementing web standards, the usefulness of which will be limited to the least compliant stakeholder.
In the first browser wars Microsoft did its best to stave progress with its lousy but dominant Internet Explorer. Ironic that Apple, which was then the underdogs, now get to play the villain.
It’s fantastic that for once in a blue moon law makers get their act together and hit big tech where it hurts. And I’m not saying that as an anti-corporate slogan, far from it. On the contrary; the type of behaviour displayed by Apple here, if left unchecked, will effectively shut down innovation and make it next to impossible for new players to make a dent in the market, not to mention the universe.
So I applaud the Digital Markets Acts initiative, just like I think GDPR before it was a great step towards protecting consumers from the darker sides of big tech.
Here’s where I’d go next: why not pass into law that the platforms need to take responsibility for knowing their customers? The framework is already there for banks, where everyone agrees it makes sense to try prevent money laundering. Meanwhile social media is flooded with excrement produced by ever more sophisticated bots. Getting rid of that problem would be good for all of us, including for big tech.