Thirteen companies have banded together to try to break Apple’s control over its App Store, a move that formalizes the growing opposition the tech giant is facing from developers on its platform who increasingly have been standing up to its power.
The suggested principles aim to make fundamental changes to how the iPhone’s iOS software works, including breaking Apple’s strict control of how mobile apps are installed on most iPhones, through the Apple App Store. If Apple were to change course and follow the principles — an unlikely scenario without a court order or new laws — it would fundamentally alter the multibillion-dollar industry built around iOS applications and potentially give Apple less control over how customers use the thousand-dollar computers in their pockets.
A website launched Thursday by the coalition framed it as a battle between right and wrong. “Every app developer, regardless of size or the nature of the developer’s business, is entitled to fair treatment by these app stores and the platform owners who operate them,” the site reads, in a plea to regulators and lawmakers. “Together we will fight back against the monopolist control of the app ecosystem by Apple.”
The coalition action is the latest head wind for Apple, which is under fire for allegedly wielding its power to thwart competitors and stifle innovation to serve its own bottom line. Apple takes a 30 percent fee for digital goods sold on the App Store. Many of the coalition’s members, based in the United States and Europe, have already come out against the company, either in lawsuits or in news releases and media interviews. Some have helped lawmakers craft questions at congressional hearings and influenced possible laws that might one day curtail Apple’s power.
Apple has defended its control of the App Store, pointing to privacy, security and quality as the main reasons it must vet which apps are allowed on the platform and limit their capabilities. It says the vast majority of the apps on its platform pay no fees (because they do not sell digital goods), but the fees it does charge help support the platform. On Thursday, Apple launched its own new website, touting the benefits on its App Store.
It was unclear exactly how the coalition would force Apple to change its guidelines, based on the principles it suggested Thursday, though the website urges “enforcers, regulators and legislators around the world” to address the issues it raises. Some of the coalition members are in discussions with lawmakers who are considering legislation that would limit the power of big technology companies, according to officials briefed on the matter who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive topics publicly.
Epic Games is suing Apple in what could be a landmark antitrust case, alleging Apple illegally forces developers to use its payment service if they want to offer software through the App Store. Last month, Epic broke Apple’s rules when Fortnite, its most popular video game, began offering customers a way to pay Epic directly, circumventing Apple’s payment process and its 30 percent fee on digital goods.
Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store, and Fortnite responded the same day with a lawsuit in federal court and launched a media campaign, complete with a movie trailer comparing Apple to Big Brother from the George Orwell novel “1984.” Epic’s lead attorney is Christine Varney, who made a name for herself taking on Microsoft in the 1990s and successfully defended Qualcomm, one of Apple’s most bitter enemies, in a recent antitrust case.
Apple has denied in court it is a monopoly and is countersuing Epic for breach of contract.
Fortnite CEO and co-founder Tim Sweeney told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he chose to take on Apple because he thought it was the right thing to do. “Users are lacking right now the basic freedom to install apps on their smartphone from sources of their choosing. Apple blocks it outright,” he said.
In June, email provider Protonmail, which also joined the coalition, framed Apple’s 30 percent fee in moral terms, accusing the iPhone maker in a blog post of running what it called a “protection racket” and compared taking on Apple to “any mafia trial.” Protonmail was “taking the stand” as a witness against Apple while others were fearful, according to the post.
“We have come to believe Apple has created a dangerous new normal, allowing it to abuse its monopoly power through punitive fees and censorship that stifles technological progress, creative freedom, and human rights,” wrote Protonmail CEO Andy Yen in a news release issued by the coalition on Thursday.
The group’s website also lists grievances that go beyond Apple’s 30 percent fee.
For instance, the site details how Apple hurt Tile, which sells Bluetooth tags that people can use to locate lost keychains and other property. Apple launched a competing service, called “Find My,” which got special privileges and access to iPhone hardware. At the same time, Apple made it more difficult for Tile to ask customers for the location data needed to make its products work properly. The Post detailed the tension between Apple and Tile last year.
Apple has also long been rumored to be launching a competitor to Tile hardware, called AirTags. AirTags will reportedly use the iPhone’s Ultra Wideband capability to help locate lost items.
Representatives from Tile say they have urged Apple to allow the company to use the phone’s Ultra Wideband capability, but Apple has so far refused.
Another accusation that the coalition levels at Apple is that it copies its competitors. Blix, another member of the coalition that makes email service BlueMail, sued Apple in federal court for patent infringement. Blix says shortly after Apple launched a product called “Sign in with Apple” last year, a product Blix claims uses its technology, Apple removed Blix’s software from the Mac App Store. Apple denies the accusation.
Tim Dawson, founder of aviation software company Skydemon, which also joined the coalition, criticized Apple’s rules prohibiting developers from informing customers about other ways to pay for digital goods. “When a platform imposes its own payment system on services like ours, and actively prevents us from informing potential customers that they can transact with us directly, nobody wins except the platform,” he wrote in the news release.
The coalition, according to its list of 10 principles, wants Apple to allow developers to be able to take full advantage of the hardware on Apple devices. Currently, Apple reserves some privileges for its own, built-in software. And the coalition wants Apple users to be given the choice of their default software. For instance, users could use Google Assistant instead of Apple’s Siri.
The coalition did not take aim at Google, which also operates an app store on Android phones and charges a 30 percent fee on sales. Sarah Maxwell, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said the group “believes in a level playing field across all gatekeeper platforms and is engaged in a dialogue with a number of them. We will happily work with any platform willing to support the principles proposed by the coalition.” Unlike Apple, Google allows customers to download apps outside of its Play Store, although some consumers find the process difficult.