The Biden administration wants major changes to Apple and Google’s mobile app models, saying the companies are “acting as gatekeepers over the apps that people and businesses rely on” and enforcing policies that “have the potential Harming consumers by raising prices and reducing innovation. “
Market analysis and recommendations for lawmakers and regulators were released today in a report from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The report was required by President Biden’s 2021 executive order on competition and was touted by the White House today as part of “new advances on his competition agenda.”
The NTIA concluded that “consumers largely cannot get apps outside of the Apple and Google-controlled app store model” and that “Apple and Google create barriers for developers to compete for consumers by imposing technical limits.” , such as B. limiting how apps can work, or requiring developers to go through slow and opaque review processes.”
One of the recommendations would require mobile platform operators to allow users to sideload applications, which would be a big shift for Apple in particular. Company executives, including CEO Tim Cook, have repeatedly spoken out against moves to require sideloading on iPhone and other iOS devices. Voluntary action is unlikely to solve the problem, the NTIA said, arguing that “new legislation and additional antitrust enforcement actions are likely necessary to boost competition in the app ecosystem.”
While noting that Apple and Google “manage their app ecosystems differently,” the NTIA said the companies have “created unnecessary barriers and costs for app developers, ranging from access fees to feature limitations that some apps favor over others”. The “incentive structures created by current Apple and Google policies and practices leave all alternative distribution models with significant disadvantages and limited functionality,” the NTIA said.
“Most importantly, these setbacks mean that app developers and alternative mobile app stores are not given the opportunity to compete on a level playing field – either with each other or with the products and services offered by the gatekeepers,” says the report. “All of these factors result in potential consumer losses: prices inflated due to fees charged by gatekeepers, innovation hampered by policy decisions to limit access to smartphone features, and loss of choice in apps that not offered or even accessible to smartphone users.”
NTIA: “Forbid restrictions on sideloading”
The NTIA has urged US lawmakers and regulators to ban sideloading restrictions, while recognizing security risks from unintentional installation of malicious software. “While still maintaining a reasonable margin for privacy and security safeguards, legal and regulatory measures should prohibit restrictions on sideloading, alternative app stores and web apps,” the NTIA said.
Congress should pass legislation requiring major platforms to “authorize or provide an easily accessible means for users to download and install third-party apps or mobile app stores, including through avenues other than the Google Play Store and mobile app -Store by Apple, while enabling appropriate privacy and security safeguards (e.g. to prevent malicious software from being installed unintentionally),” the NTIA said.
Sideloading apps isn’t very difficult on Android, although a How-To Geek guide notes that users should be careful about where they get sideloaded apps from for security reasons. Apple’s iOS has always been more locked down, but Apple reportedly plans to support sideloading and third-party app stores through 2024 in response to new European Union regulations.