Over the past few years, we've seen a growing resentment against Apple and Google and the way they run their mobile platform businesses. People want more control over the way they use their phones and tablets, and these companies do a lot to eliminate some of that capability. As a result, companies and governments around the world have begun to act against Apple and Google in an effort to give more freedom to consumers. This week, a Biden administration report takes the most direct action to protect consumers yet.
The primary problem with the gatekeeping of mobile platforms comes about because of rules imposed by Apple and Google on app developers. There are two primary complaints from developers: app content restrictions and app payment restrictions. These restrictions cause developers to want an option to circumvent the platforms, Apple in particular, to deploy their products.
As far as content restrictions, the companies have been incredibly strict and occasionally bizarre. In the early days of the iPhone, Apple had various bizarre content rules. They forced a publisher to censor the dictionary and prevented Google from deploying Google Voice because it duplicated features of the phone.
The real problem these days, however, revolves around payments. Both Google and Apple require that developers who sell digital goods within their apps use their payment systems. Those systems have a pretty intense transaction fee, coming in at 30 percent for most publishers. That pulls a large amount of profit from the publishers, causing them to need to reconsider the way they do business.
An Epic battle for choice
Most famously, Epic Games updated Fortnite to allow outside purchases of V-Bucks. Apple nearly immediately removed the game from the App Store and then revoked the company's developer license. That loss affected not only the game in question but even the ability to develop the Unreal Engine that so many games rely on.
Epic has filed several lawsuits around the world, looking to cause some change in the industry. That push has caused governments across the globe to investigate the practices of Apple and Google, and things are beginning to move because of it.
The US response
In 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing various agencies in the Federal Government to look into aspects of competition in the US. One of the agencies that was directed into action was the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
This group put together a report specifically targeting the behavior of the mobile platforms. The report, which was released this week, takes a very consumer and developer forward focus. It recommends that legislators begin looking at laws and regulations that will improve the mobile experience. In particular, they recommend regulations to prevent "gatekeeping" in the operating systems.
This means that the platforms would be required to allow users to sideload apps. This is a process that is available on Android, and even used by Epic, but completely unavailable to Apple users. If these regulations were to be implemented, then Apple users would be able to install apps from outside of the App Store.
Sideloading allows developers to produce products that violate the rules of the platform. This can be something as simple as a content violation, or it can be complete violations, such as not using the App Store or Google Play payment systems. With the platforms cut out, publishers can make quite a bit more money on their in-app purchases, which can lead to lower prices.
Of course, this is just a report and not direct action. We'll have to see if the legislature reads the report and acts on its recommendatinos.