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App store fights to watch in 2024

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Jan 16, 2024
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Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Groups pushing for app store behemoths Apple and Google to loosen their rules for developers aren't slowing down in 2024.

Driving the news: Buoyed by Europe's Digital Markets Act and some action in courts both in the U.S. and abroad, those looking to shake off the iron grip of Apple (and Google, though less so) on app stores are making moves this year.

Zoom in: Europe's DMA is requiring app stores and large online marketplaces to severely pare back existing rules and policies in the name of spurring competition.

  • The "gatekeepers" designated under the DMA have until March to comply with the rules. Then it's a whole new world for the developers and apps that rely on Google and Apple's app stores for promotion and access to users.
  • But we don't yet know what that world will look like. Apple's and Google's app store agitators want to make sure it's one that works well for them.

What they're saying: Ashley caught up with Rick VanMeter, a former Republican Senate staffer who's executive director of the Coalition for App Fairness.

  • VanMeter said his group — whose members include Basecamp, Epic Games, Match Group, Spotify and Masimo — is continuing to push for the Open App Markets Act in the Senate: "It's our top priority in the United States."
  • He also said regulators should keep antitrust and competition in mind as they consider AI policy.
  • "If the U.S. is going to build a framework for AI that maximizes innovation, how can we do that when you have two companies that control access to the mobile internet? These companies will always shift the rules to their own benefit."

The intrigue: VanMeter said companies in his coalition are anxious to see how Apple complies with the DMA because any new App Store design will impact how developers design apps or communicate with users.

  • He noted that "gatekeepers" subject to the law are under no legal obligation to loop developers in on that process.
  • Apple is already pushing back over certain parts of the DMA, saying that EU regulators mistakenly designated its App Stores a "single core platform service" rather than five App Stores (on iPhones, iPads, Macs, Apple TVs and Apple Watches), per Reuters.
  • VanMeter said: "It's a laughable attempt to avoid complying with the letter and intention of the law.… They employ a lot of lawyers and do these sorts of things to stall compliance."

Flashback: Spotify, the music and podcast streaming app that has been publicly fighting Apple's policies for years, has said that app store competition is "a conversation that is really about the future of the internet."

  • Spotify has been talking to lawmakers around the world about "the impact to consumers of [Apple's] practices and how we want to be able to communicate with our users directly in the app," April Boyd, vice president of global government affairs at Spotify, previously told Ashley.

The big picture: Beyond the App Store and its ongoing spat with Epic Games, Apple has had some setbacks in court lately that would have been unheard of a couple of years ago.

Yes, but: Apple notched a win when the Supreme Court said Tuesday that it would not hear a case between Apple and Epic Games, the latter of which sued Apple in 2020.

  • Both sides had asked the Supreme Court to hear appeals of a lower court ruling which stated that Apple is not liable under federal antitrust law for App Store conduct.
  • But the Supreme Court upheld part of the lower court ruling banning Apple from blocking developers from informing users about cheaper prices on services and products outside the App Store. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
  • VanMeter said the decision highlights the need for legislation, but developers should take the court's upholding of the anti-steering provision as a win: "By being able to be directed in the app to a website where they can pay less for the same service, it's a good thing."

The bottom line: The App Store resistance movement is bruised but not broken. We're staying tuned to what it does next.

  • Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, said in a statement: "The fight goes on. Regulators are taking action and policymakers around the world are passing new laws to end Apple's illegal anticompetitive app store practices."
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