Feb 24, 2020 - Technology

Why Apple may move to open iOS

Photo illustration: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Apple may finally allow iPhone owners to set email or browsing apps other than Apple's own as their preferred defaults, according to a Bloomberg report from last week.

The big picture: Customers have long clamored for the ability to choose their preferred apps, and now Apple, like other big tech companies, finds itself under increased scrutiny over anything perceived as anticompetitive.

Driving the news:

  • With the next version of iOS, Apple is weighing whether to allow customers to choose a preferred email or browsing app to open when they click on a link or email address. Today users can install other apps, but by default these links will open Apple's own programs that are built into iOS.
  • Additionally, the company might also be willing to let Siri directly control Pandora and Spotify on Apple's HomePod speaker.

By contrast, Android owners can choose which mail program, photo library or browser is used by default.

Flashback: Apple has long been on a different path from its rivals.

  • Back in 2003. Apple added its browser for the Mac, Safari, with Mac OS X Panther.
  • At the same time, Microsoft was being attacked by regulators in the U.S. and Europe for wiring Internet Explorer into Windows. It was eventually forced to add a feature in Europe allowing customers to choose a rival browser.

Apple's approach didn't irk regulators because the Mac had a tiny market share. But Apple adopted an even tighter approach with the debut of the iPhone in 2007.

  • Apple's iPhone apps (Mail, Maps, Messages) come as defaults and there are no ways to change that. When it comes to the browser, rivals can create their own user interface, but all apps have to use Apple's browsing engine — the critical piece of software that dictates how a browser turns code into a web experience for users — limiting the amount of competition.
  • Apps like Chrome and Firefox for iOS may carry bookmarks over from other versions, but at their core they still are all using Apple's browsing engine.

Meanwhile: Apple has long had a significant share of the phone market, but not the majority, and regulators have generally allowed the company to set its own terms, despite some grumbling from rivals.

  • Google has faced greater scrutiny over Android even though it generally maintains less strict control. Notably, the EU fined Google $5 billion in 2018, saying Google unfairly tied its various applications together, requiring, for example, device makers that wanted the Google Play store to also install Google's search and browsing apps.

Yes, but: While Apple has generally maintained a tight grip on its platforms, especially iOS, it has been known to open things up a bit.

  • The most notable example is the App Store itself. The original plan for the iPhone didn't include third-party apps. Steve Jobs only wanted to support web apps that ran in the browser.
  • Apple has also opened up in recent years to allow third-party keyboard applications as well as expanding Siri to work with some non-Apple applications.

Between the lines: Apple has often held up its fussiness as a benefit to consumers.

  • Back in May 2013, CEO Tim Cook said in an onstage interview that he believed Apple customers were paying the company to make choices on their behalf.
  • "I think you will see us open up more in the future," he said at the D: All Things Digital conference in 2013. "But not to the degree that we put the customer at risk of having a bad experience."

The bottom line: Because it has always had such a tight hold on its platform, Apple appears to have room to appease some critics while still maintaining much of the control it desires.

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