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Why it matters: If you owned a first-generation iPhone, you might remember that there was no App Store at the time. However, there were a plethora of web applications that functioned much like native programs. You could even add shortcuts to the home screen that made them seem even more like they were working natively.
The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission's (ACCC) antitrust probe against Apple's and Google's distribution platforms has provoked an intriguing defense from the Cupertino tech giant. Initially, it requested that the case be dismissed because developers agree to settle any legal disputes in Califonia—a move likely to be denied since the agreement has no bearing on the ACCC's actions.
In a more recent filing, Apple suggests that it cannot have a dominant position for app distribution as the Australian watchdog suggests because developers are free to make web apps. It contends that it has no restrictions against developers distributing apps via the internet using "rich" HTML5 websites.
"Even if a user only owns iOS-based devices, distribution is far from limited to the Apple App Store because developers have multiple alternative channels to reach that user," reads the filing. "The whole web is available to them, and iOS devices have unrestricted and uncontrolled access to it."
It says developers are free to distribute their software over the internet for free or for a price without going through the App Store. They can also conduct in-app purchases without paying the 30-percent commission. It listed some examples of app stores and applications that it feels are in "direct competition," including Steam, Epic Games Store, PUBG, AppStream, Chrome Web Store, Setapp, Microsoft Store, Google Play, and Amazon's app store. Many of these have policies similar to the App Store, so Cupertino feels that the ACCC is unfairly singling it out.
While reverting to a nearly 15-year-old app distribution model seems regressive, HTML5 has improved over the last decade mading it possible to create web apps with all the functionality of native applications. Earlier this year, Microsoft revealed plans to switch out its desktop Outlook apps for web apps. Google has long provided functional alternatives to productivity software delivered via the internet. Even game streaming services like Stadia and GeForce Now are turning to web-based clients to bypass App Store restrictions.
It will be interesting to see how regulators in Australia and elsewhere view this defense. It will also be interesting to see if Apple isn't shooting itself in the foot. The App Store raked in $64 billion last year. If developers take its defense as advice and begin ditching the App Store en masse, Apple will likely take action to save its distribution platform—a move that may land it right back under the microscope.
Image credit: Ymgerman