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Amid antitrust scrutiny, Apple makes quiet power moves over developers

Opening the Find My feature to other companies was seen as an olive branch to developers. But Apple threatened legal action if developers talked about the software.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook speaks during a 2018 data privacy conference in Brussels. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

During Apple’s annual developers conference last month, it announced that smaller developers would finally have access to its Find My app, a move that on the surface could appease developers who have asserted that Apple has too much power.

It turns out the announcement was not what it seemed, according to a secret Apple document obtained by The Washington Post.

The Find My app comes pre-installed on Apple devices and shows the geographic location of family members with iPhones and other Apple products. Apple announced at its conference that it was opening up Find My so that competing companies would be able to use it, enabling customers to locate products and gadgets that aren’t made by Apple.

Ostensibly, opening the feature to other companies was an olive branch to developers like Tile, the maker of Bluetooth tags that can be attached to keychains or placed in wallets. Now, according to Apple, competitors like Tile could benefit from Find My, too.

But the details of the announcement — kept secret by a confidentiality agreement all developers were required to sign — tell a different story. A 50-page PDF obtained by The Post shows Apple has placed strict restrictions on how consumers will be able to use the app. Apple customers who use Find My to locate a device will be barred from using other competing services simultaneously, the document says.

The move is unusual, developers say. Customers generally have the choice of using multiple apps to control the same hardware device. For instance, a Bluetooth headset can be used with both Apple Music’s streaming service and Spotify’s. They can control their smart lightbulbs with Apple’s HomeKit or software offered by the manufacturer of the lightbulb. They can use Siri to control a smart thermostat or use Amazon’s Alexa.

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Apple’s decision highlights the company’s willingness to tighten its grip and control over how its products are used, even as hawk-eyed European regulators circle and U.S. lawmakers prepare to question the company’s chief executive, Tim Cook, at a hearing about its competition practices, initially scheduled for Monday but likely to be delayed.

Apple keeps a tight grip over the App Store, where about $50 billion is earned by developers every year, not including ad revenue. The store also acts as the company’s hulking bouncer, picking which competitors get into the lucrative club and what they can do once they’re inside. It represents one of the deepest veins the company can mine for new revenue, and makers of mobile apps that rely on the App Store are vulnerable to the iPhone maker’s encroachments. Apple uses the store, for instance, to find new ideas and then copy them.

Tile, which distributes software through the App Store so that its products will work with iPhones, has previously voiced concerns to European regulators and U.S. lawmakers about restrictions Apple places on Tile’s app that gives Apple’s competing product an advantage. Tile’s concerns are a focus of a competition watchdog in Europe, which is investigating whether Apple is violating European competition law with its moves to hamstring competing products that offer similar services while giving its own app an advantage.

Apple spokesman Alex Kirschner said the software could be useful to smaller companies that don’t have the resources to build a location-finding service on their own. “If you were a smaller player interested in getting into the finding space and you haven’t built a finding network, this allows you to do that,” he said. Apple has denied that its policies are anti-competitive.

Tile declined to comment on the Find My network announcement.

When Apple announced last month that it would be allowing outside access to Find My, it uploaded the details of the new software so that developers could download it and begin working on implementing it in gadgets for the official launch of the Find My network sometime in the future.

Before doing so, developers had to sign an additional document called the “Limited License to Find My Network Accessory Spec,” which prevented them from sharing details about the new specification. The document threatened legal action by Apple against individual developers for speaking about it, according to a developer who downloaded the document. The developer shared the details of the document and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being sued by Apple.

That developer said the confidentiality agreement was stricter than the ones Apple sometimes distributes along with prerelease software.

Apple says recent changes to operating system improve user privacy, but some lawmakers see them as an effort to edge out its rivals

When the new Find My network launches around the end of the year, Apple’s product will still have built-in advantages that outside companies cannot capitalize on. Every Apple user’s location is automatically shared with the Find My service, for instance. But outside companies, such as Tile, must ask each Apple user for permission to obtain their location. Last year, Apple took away the ability of outside developers to ask customers to “always allow” their location to be shared upon installing an app. Always-on location sharing is required for finding apps to work properly.

Another limitation imposed by the Find My network is that, by cutting off the ability of customers to simultaneously use other services to control hardware devices, Apple is blocking them from connecting to other devices on Android phones. That’s because Find My is only available on Apple devices. Google-owned Android is the main competitor to Apple’s iOS operating system.

Apple’s Find My can use the iPhone’s Bluetooth antenna and other Apple hardware whenever it wants. Outside apps must only use the Bluetooth antenna within certain thresholds, before Apple automatically cuts it off and prevents it from working. Apple does not tell developers what that threshold is.

The Bluetooth antenna limitation became a major issue for countries and states trying to build “contact-tracing” apps to follow the spread of the coronavirus. Because of Apple’s limitations on Bluetooth antenna use, the apps, which were meant to track when people were potentially exposed to the virus, did not work properly. Countries and states pleaded with Apple to allow full access to Bluetooth, but the company refused.

It is unclear whether the U.S. antitrust laws are strong enough to force a change in behavior by Apple and other countries. Federal judges have interpreted 100-year-old antitrust laws in ways that make them difficult to apply to modern companies. Some lawmakers hope to change that with updated laws.

“The place to argue this is in Europe and not here in the United States,” said James Conley, a clinical professor of technology and innovation at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.