Followers of history might remember the historic words spoken by President Ronald Reagan during a speech he delivered in Germany in 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Now it doesn’t matter your political persuasion. Those six words remain highlights to convey a heartfelt message about a country’s freedom. But the concept of a wall doesn’t have to be physical to be potentially harmful.
Take Apple Inc.
Apple has always been an outlier in the PC industry. When other computer makers choose MS-DOS and, later, Windows, perhaps because they didn’t have the talent or wherewithal to build their own operating systems, Apple went its own way. For better or worse, it also meant that you were forced to buy an Apple product to use Mac OS, as it was known in those days.
Yes, for a time in the 1990s, Apple establish a clone program to allow other companies to install Mac OS on their PC boxes, but it was a poorly designed program and a money loser for Apple. If Steve Jobs hadn’t killed the program when he took over the company he co-founded, it’s highly likely the company wouldn’t exist as a separate entity anymore.
With still-growing sales and the largest market cap on the planet, Apple’s approach has been vindicated. Sure, Microsoft may sometimes trade places with Apple in generating such artificial numbers, but it’s still an amazing achievement that still surprises people. Surely it has to end some day.
When Apple built the iPhone, they opted to install a modified version of Mac OS X, labeled iOS (and now, also, iPadOS). This was one of the key advantages of the OS they acquired from NeXT in 1996, that it could be modified to run on different platforms. It meant that mobile and desktop apps could be developed using the same tools. Switching from Intel to Apple Silicon was no more difficult than switching from PowerPC to Intel in 2006. Maybe less so since the iOS had been out for 13 years before the switchover.
But it wasn’t just the operating systems that were exclusive to Apple gear. While you could still buy software from other vendors for Macs despite the existence of an official App Store, that wasn’t true with the iPhone or iPad, or even your Apple Watch. You were locked in to a curated environment where Apple employees made the final decisions about which apps you could buy.
Apple’s official excuse is not that it gets a big commission from each sale — which they claim is used to cover its costs, though it’s also a source for big profits — but that it provides a relatively safe and secure environment with which to buy your apps. If an app turns out to be too buggy, or perhaps laden with security bugs, Apple can pull the plug and remove it from the store.
However, that level of control has caused complaints, and not just due to antitrust and monopoly issues. Some developers have claimed over the years that Apple’s reviewers were too arbitrary in rejecting their apps. While the system surely isn’t perfect, since it depends on human reviewers making decisions that may be wrong, it is also true that any developer whose apps aren’t approved will complain whether they have a basis for that complaint or not.
The Android world is different. If you want to order from the Google Play store, fine and dandy. But you can also sideload apps from other vendors if you like. It’s up to you, but it also means that those vendors may not have the same standards as Google — such as they are — in deciding which apps to approve. The platform is already subject to higher levels of malware than the Apple App Store, so this can only make matters worse. But the risk is up to the owner of the product to consider.
Then again, is there another OS that you can install on a Samsung Galaxy? What about an Xbox?
So it’s not just Apple that has established a walled garden that locks you in to the software you can install. But having the largest of the breed, the App Store probably gets the most complaints — and lawsuits from time to time.
But this exclusivity might be about to change if moves in the EU and even in the U.S. come to pass.
So while the U.S. Congress considers antitrust action against major tech companies that might prevent Apple, Google, Microsoft and other companies from operating their own app stores — and to allow side-loading on Apple’s mobile gear — a law banning such practices is due to take effect in Europe in the not-too-distant future.
So a set of laws dealing with so-called anticompetitive practices by the big tech companies has been approved by the Parliament of the EU. The Digital Markets Act (DMA) would prevent or reduce companies from pushing or enforcing their own services. It would mean that Apple couldn’t specify Safari as its default browser, as a lesser example.
Violators could face penalties of up to 10% of their annual worldwide revenues, and up to 20% for repeated infractions according to a published report about the pending laws.
Indeed, the Digital Markets App would force apple to open up its protocols for its Message app, so that all features would be available to users of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, to cite two examples. The same would be true for those apps when sending messages to Message users.
So I use WhatsApp today to chat and talk to my son, Grayson, who lives in Madrid. With DMA I guess I could stay with Messages.
And, obviously, you will be able to sideload apps on your Apple mobile gear without having to use some sort of hack that carries its own security complications.
The laws still have to be approved by the 27 member states of the European Union, and it’s due to take effect in October if all goes well. But it’ll probably take some time after that for things to settle down. I expect there may be lawsuits from the big tech companies to overturn the DMA.
Of course, if DMA is in effect, it would impact a company’s apps and services across the planet. There can’t just be one version for the EU and another for the U.S. and other countries.
Now as a practical matter, it’s hard to dispute the intent of such laws. I understand Apple’s concerns. But short of abject greed, I can’t see where it cannot just establish a set of rules that govern the security policies of alternate vendors. There can even be a Certified App Store program, sans membership fees, that would reassure customers that they will be able to buy apps from other vendors without facing rising security threats. I’m sure it can be set up in a way that allows the walled garden to crumble without doing harm or running afoul of the regulators.
Besides, I can’t imagine there are many Apple customers who wouldn’t approve of such changes.
In case you’re wondering, no I am not going to quote the self-serving statements from Apple, Google and others against DMA and the proposals being considered in the U.S. I wouldn’t expect them to accept DMA without first kicking and screaming and making politically correct pronouncements to appease their stockholders.
But when it comes to running macOS on other hardware, Apple’s been there, done that. It would be like running diesel fuel on a gas engine.
THE FINAL WORD
Gene Steinberg’s Mac Radio Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.
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