Apple and Google have a “vice-like grip” on the mobile browser ecosystem, the UK’s consumer watchdog says. Which? was responding to the new Competition Markets Authority (CMA) investigation into the alleged duopoly.
The CMA says the lack of real competition in the mobile ecosystem allows Apple and Google to “exercise a stranglehold over operating systems, app stores and web browsers on mobile devices”.
It is particularly concerned with the impact this hold has on developers building web apps. Mobile browsers present a way for companies to bypass the app store where Apple and Google each claim a percentage of any sale or subscription, it also allows developers to run services that might otherwise be rejected under store guidelines.
This includes cloud gaming platforms such as Nvidia’s GeForce NOW and Shadow, which wouldn’t be accepted for inclusion on the App Store on the grounds they offer an alternative way to pay for and play games. The CMA’s concern is that Apple or Google could easily stop these services from working in the mobile browser with no redress for the developers.
Browsers are among the most important apps on any device as they provide daily access to news, video and shopping and don’t require the downloading of a dedicated app. In the UK 97% of all mobile web browsing happens on a browser powered by either Apple’s WebKit or Blink, the engine that powers Chrome on Google’s Android operating system.
Apple and Google restrictions have ‘major impact’ on user experience – CMA
On Apple’s iOS and iPadOS all browsers have to use WebKit regardless of whether they use that engine on desktop or other devices. Android allows for different engines with Blink powering Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Opera.
“Any restrictions on these engines can have a major impact on users’ experiences,” the CMA wrote in a statement announcing the review, particularly in the developing gaming market. “There are already more than 800,000 users of cloud gaming services in the UK but restrictions on their distribution on mobile devices could hamper growth in this sector, meaning UK gamers miss out.”
Calls for comment on the consultation went out in June and the CMA says responses “reveal substantial support for a fuller investigation into the way that Apple and Google dominate the mobile browser market and how Apple restricts cloud gaming through its App Store”.
Many of the most critical comments came from browser vendors wanting to offer alternatives to WebKit, web developers producing content as web apps rather than offering native apps, as well as cloud gaming providers who say their business is being harmed by the current situation which is pushing up costs and holding back innovation.
Web developers also complained that Apple has underinvested in its browser technology, leaving it with bugs and glitches when building web pages that might not be happening in other engines – pushing developers to make native apps when a webpage may have been enough.
Sarah Cardell, interim chief executive of the CMA, said: “We want to make sure that UK consumers get the best new mobile data services, and that UK developers can invest in innovative new apps.”
Digital Markets Unit
The new digital markets regime and stronger powers for the Digital Markets Unit are expected to make it easier for the government to place limitations on the scope of Big Tech companies and reduce the control they hold over markets.
“In the meantime, we are using our existing powers to tackle problems where we can,” said Cardell, adding that the CMA “plans to investigate whether the concerns we have heard are justified and, if so, identify steps to improve competition and innovation in these sectors”.
Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, welcomed the move saying that nine out of ten consumers regularly use a mobile browser on a smartphone, describing Apple and Google as having a “vice-like grip on the browser market” leading to a lack of competition.
“This investigation is the latest in a long line of instances where the dominance of a handful of tech giants has been found to limit competition and could be causing harm to consumers,” Concha said.
“The government’s commitment to bringing forward the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, giving the Digital Markets Unit tougher powers to promote competition and tackle these issues timely, is a crucial step in the right direction.”
The Google and Apple domination is a big problem for developers as it requires them to work with two different codebases, James Welch, chief innovation officer at software company Embryo. “Because iOS requires web browsers and web apps to use their ‘WebKit’ engine, it means that some code has to be created twice,” Welch says. “Even if you think you are using Chrome on an iOS device, it is really just WebKit with a skin on it to make it look like Chrome.”
“If you are spending twice as much time on the ‘meat and potatoes’ of code and app creation, then this of course limits the time that could be spent on product ideas,” he adds. “Also, so many wonderful ideas come to a developer mid-way through a project, but knowing that this new idea will have to be created twice, it of course stifles creativity and innovative thoughts.”
He says one solution could be to push for wider acceptance of “Open Web Advocacy”. This is a group of developers calling for the “restoration of competition” in the browser market including an end to Apple’s ban on non-WebKit browsers. It wants to see web apps to be treated the same as mobile apps and gatekeeping barriers removed.