opinion It’s been 14 years since Apple opened its App Store, with its gleaming storefront full of enticing toys and gloomy back office filled with rules and pension income, but only now is the proposed EU digital markets law threatening Apple’s monopoly on the web browser engine break up.
And even then, the App Store won’t celebrate its 16th birthday until 2024. No one has ever accused market regulators of warp speed.
You’ll be forgiven for remembering a much earlier monopoly browser decision, that of Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows. The courts claimed that was (United States vs. Microsoft Corp), which was illegal and Microsoft finally settled in 2001, nine years after antitrust investigations against the company began. Not that it made much of a difference as there was only one update to Internet Explorer over the next four years due to a lack of competition. As the internet went wild, browser innovation stalled.
There are similarities between the two cases. Neither was about making money directly, both were about control to prevent others from disrupting market dominance. Both relied on flimsy arguments, Apple over security, Microsoft over deep integration that cannot be undone. However, there is one crucial difference. The Internet Explorer case was very important, but if the EU’s DMA browser engine proposal becomes law – that so-called “gatekeepers must refrain from imposing unfair terms on businesses and consumers” – it will change the world.
It’s a strong claim for what appears to be a technical detail. While Microsoft has worked hard to keep other browsers out of Windows, Apple is happy to host Firefox, Chrome or others. All that is required is that they use their Webkit browser engine to interact with the web, render pages, and provide API support. Since browsers do this, it gives Apple the same control as Microsoft, only coyly snuggled behind a fig leaf. More specifically, it gives Apple the same veto on innovation as Microsoft does, and this is where what’s under that fig leaf gets pretty ugly.
who does it hurt
So what? Mobile browsing is a pretty naïve experience and it hasn’t curbed the popularity of smartphones. All those ads and horrible overlays, popups and quirky interfaces. A web service might be fine on desktop, but apps are better on mobile, right? Lies near.
This attitude consists of three things: perception, reality and wrong. It’s a perception because mobile browsing used to be terrible for good reasons: it was a primitive affair, running on limited processors with little memory and slow networks. It’s a reality because, yeah, it’s still awful. It’s wrong because there hasn’t been a valid reason for it for at least five years. We accept it because we’re conditioned to accept it, and Apple has been happy to keep it that way.
Back on the desktop, the web dominates in its murky form. You might not need to load a new native app onto your desktop from spring to fall, while you’ll be trying and relying on hundreds of online services. There are a number of extensions and add-ins that help us manage our time online.
Long gone are the days when Chromebooks couldn’t compete as decent providers of digital life. But architecturally, a Chromebook is as much a big ole cellphone as it is a small laptop. Why aren’t mobile phones more like small Chromebooks? The modern browser is a powerful platform in its own right, but you can’t build a modern browser on top of the ancient engine in Apple’s iOS Safari. And Apple won’t let you use anything else.
There is no good reason for this. All the bits are there for a truly modern mobile browsing experience, but we’re stuck with a worthless friend. Apple keeps making insanely more powerful chips and more dramatic hardware specs, but its web access software – much more important to most sane users – is petrifying. The modern iPhone literally has the processing power of a 2001 supercomputer and the web experience of a 2011 desktop PC. We take it for granted. It is not. Apple is poisoning the market.
There’s a reason PC app stores are doomed, and it’s because browsers are taking over the job of delivering software. Mobile app stores would follow the same path if mobile browsers did the same job — and without people having to use the Apple App Store. However, this would mean that Apple would lose the primary differentiator of its mobile brand. It would lose control of revenue streams. It would lose control of which services are acceptable. In short, it would lose control.
The rest of us, freed from the delusion that the mobile web is a sad web, would benefit enormously. While users, developers and businesses are conditioned to believe that native apps are inherently superior, we accept the cost of building and maintaining iOS and Android variants and see the web option as extra work for inferior results.
With that issue resolved, you could build and host a single app, all without the red tape and expense of app and play stores. Meanwhile, users could finally choose the handset they like without compromising on choice or quality of experience and without having to change an entire ecosystem. Oh, and the continued stupidity of mobile emulation on desktops could be given a worthy death.
What about the security, rogue program filtering, and experience guarantees offered by app store gatekeepers?
The security of modern browsers and operating systems has come a long way in the 14 years of the App Store’s existence: there are many ways to stay safe online and many ways to go wrong on a mobile phone, even today. The mobile app stores will not go away if we want them. Increasingly we will not do that. It’s called choice.
You can see why the Webkit browser engine, far from being an obscure component, is the custodian of much of Apple’s market dominance. It was quite a ruse to keep this secret open, and quite a ruse for the EU to quietly slip a few words into the proposed law that could end it all.
Market regulators may not travel at warp speed, but they can pack some world-destroying bombs. It’s not law yet: Apple doesn’t lack its own lobby firepower, and it knows it’s in danger of being bombed from orbit.
Check out this story. There will be fireworks. ®