Regulator proposes measures to loosen Apple and Google’s ‘vice-like grip’ on mobile users

Written by Sam Trendall on 15 December 2021 in News
News

CMA calls vendors to make it easier for users to switch between the two platforms

Credit: ranonaudit/Pxhere

The UK’s competition regulator has proposed potential measures it believes would loosen what it described as Apple and Google’s “vice-like grip over how we use mobile phones… that is causing millions of people across the UK to lose out”.

An investigation launched earlier this year by the Competition and Markets Authority has found that the two vendors, via their iOS and Android operating systems, have “been able to leverage their market power to create largely self-contained ecosystems”. This includes both Google and Apple pre-installing their own web browsers, Chrome and Safari, on devices.  

Both also pre-install their own app stores – with Apple prohibiting the use of any other competing platform.

CMA said that it is “concerned that this is leading to less competition and meaningful choice for customers”. 

The regulator said that the proprietary ecosystems created by the tech firms has prevented people from using web apps on mobile devices. Consumers are also missing out on “new ways to play games through cloud services on iOS devices”. 


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“The CMA is also concerned that people could be facing higher prices than they would in a more competitive market, including for Apple phones, app subscriptions and purchases made within apps,” it said.

The tech giants have created a “duopoly” that has allowed them to “tilt the playing field”, the watchdog said as it announced the publication of a report that contains a number of recommendations for how a degree of balance could be restored.

The CMA has proposed that new rules should be created and enforced to make it easier for consumers to switch between iOS and Android devices “without losing functionality or data”.

Google and Apple should also be compelled to allow users to install applications – including web apps – through means other than their own app store platforms. The two firms must also better allow consumers to use browsers other than Chrome and Safari, the regulator recommended, “in particular by making sure they can easily set which browser they have as default”.

All programs with paid-for content, meanwhile, should allow users to choose how they would like to pay – “rather than being tied to Apple’s and Google’s payment systems”, as is currently the case, the CMA said.

The government has proposed the creation of a new Digital Markets Unit within the CMA that will have the remit to take a stronger regulatory approach and promote more competition in the technology market – in particular the so-called ‘big tech’ firms. Companies that are considered to have “'substantial and entrenched market power” will be designated under a new Strategic Market Status.

The CMA said that it believes both Google and Apple will both be “meet the criteria for SMS designation for several of their ecosystem activities”. 

If the proposals to increase technology regulation are passed into law, SMS status “will lead to these firms facing legally enforceable codes of conduct to govern their behaviour and to prevent them from exploiting their powerful positions”.

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA said: “Apple and Google have developed a vice-like grip over how we use mobile phones and we’re concerned that it’s causing millions of people across the UK to lose out. Most people know that Apple and Google are the main players when it comes to choosing a phone. But it can be easy to forget that they set all the rules too – from determining which apps are available on their app stores, to making it difficult for us to switch to alternative browsers on our phones. This control can limit innovation and choice, and lead to higher prices – none of which is good news for users.

He added: “Any intervention must tackle the firms’ substantial market power across the key areas of operating systems, app stores and browsers. We think that the best way to do this is through the Digital Markets Unit when it receives powers from government.”

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.

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