Apple under fire for disabling iPhone web apps—EU asks developers to weigh in

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A large Apple logo seen on the outside of an Apple Store.
Enlarge / An Apple Store in Hangzhou, China on February 20, 2024.

European Commission officials are probing Apple’s decision to remove home screen web apps from iPhones and iPads in Europe. The EC confirmed it is seeking information from Apple and app developers who would be affected by the change, kicking off a process that could lead to a formal investigation.

“We are indeed looking at the compliance packages of all gatekeepers, including Apple,” a European Commission spokesperson told Ars. “In that context, we’re in particular looking into the issue of Progressive Web Apps, and can confirm sending the requests for information to Apple and to app developers, who can provide useful information for our assessment.”

Apple is removing the ability to install home screen web apps in Europe when iOS 17.4 is released, claiming it is too hard to keep offering the feature under the European Union’s new Digital Markets Act (DMA).

A Financial Times report yesterday said that Europe’s “competition regulators sent questions to developers last week seeking to determine the impact of Apple’s decision to disable so-called ‘progressive web apps’ in the EU, in a move seen as a precursor towards an in-depth probe.”

“EU officials said formal proceedings could be prevented if Apple made further concessions,” the FT wrote.

March 6 compliance deadline

Apple and other companies are required to comply with the DMA by March 6. European officials will evaluate whether Apple’s compliance plan meets the requirements. “The DMA team is ready to act if and when needed following expiration of compliance deadline,” the EC spokesperson said.

The DMA provides for fines of up to 10 percent of a “company’s total worldwide annual turnover” and up to 20 percent for repeat infringements.

After the iOS 17.4 changes, it will still be possible to add website bookmarks to iPhone and iPad home screens. But those bookmarks would take the user to the web browser instead of a separate web app.

The Digital Markets Act targets “gatekeepers” of certain technologies such as operating systems, browsers, and search engines. It requires gatekeepers to let third parties interoperate with the gatekeepers’ own services and prohibits them from favoring their own services at the expense of competitors.

Group slams Apple’s “attack on open web”

Open Web Advocacy, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit organization made up of a loose group of software engineers from all over the world,” called Apple’s decision “a direct attack on the open web, its users, and its developers.”

“This is emphatically not required by the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). It’s a circumvention of both the spirit and the letter of the Act, and if the EU allows it, then the DMA will have failed in its aim to allow fair and effective browser and web app competition,” the group said.

Open Web Advocacy said that Apple’s move seems designed to prevent web apps from becoming a viable competitor to the App Store model in which developers pay Apple commissions of up to 30 percent. “It’s telling that this is the feature that Apple refused to share. And it makes sense: the idea that users could install safe and secure apps that Apple can’t tax, block, or control is terrifying to them,” the group said.

The group is also gathering signatures for an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook. “Apple’s justifications gesture toward security and privacy, but are at best unfounded,” the letter said. “Web Apps provide safe computing that puts users in control through their browsers, and iOS opening up to competing browser engines will enhance, rather than erode, security and privacy.”

Apple cited “complex security” concerns

Apple claims in a developer Q&A that it would be too hard to guarantee the security of home screen web apps in alternative browser engines. Apple is removing the ability to install these web apps with Safari, meaning they won’t be available through either Apple’s browser engine or alternative engines.

“Addressing the complex security and privacy concerns associated with web apps using alternative browser engines would require building an entirely new integration architecture that does not currently exist in iOS and was not practical to undertake given the other demands of the DMA and the very low user adoption of Home Screen web apps. And so, to comply with the DMA’s requirements, we had to remove the Home Screen web apps feature in the EU,” Apple said.

According to the Financial Times, Apple declined to comment on the EU probe but pointed to an earlier statement that said, “We expect this change to affect a small number of users. Still, we regret any impact this change—that was made as part of the work to comply with the DMA—may have on developers of Home Screen web apps and our users.”

We contacted Apple today and will update this article if it provides any further comment.

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