Apple Taunting as the EU Approaches, Crowbar in Hand...

Apple Plans New Fees and Restrictions for Downloads Outside App Store
Meta, Spotify and other companies are weighing new options for customers as Apple makes changes to comply with new European law
Apple has now confirmed such changes, read the update below...

This byline is so long it almost needs a separate post. Aaron Tilley, Salvador Rodriguez, Sam Schechner, and Kim Mackrael have the news that Apple is planning to add "new fees and restrictions" for the way apps are distributed in Europe, ahead of the company enabling new distribution methods for apps (outside of the App Store) per the new EU requirements set to take effect in March. The key meat:

Apple’s approach to the EU law will help ensure the company maintains close oversight of apps downloaded outside the App Store, a process known as sideloading. The company will give itself the ability to review each app downloaded outside of its App Store. Apple also plans to collect fees from developers that offer downloads outside of the App Store, said people familiar with the company’s plans. The company hasn’t yet announced its plans and they could change.

On one hand, this is hardly surprising. Apple is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into complying with this rule. And just as they have in other instances in individual countries where they've had to comply with rules outside of their norms, Apple is being pedantic in the way they're following the new orders, doing the absolute minimum to comply and interpreting everything very literally. But the EU law is by far the largest and highest profile change to date.

And it's also the most dangerous game Apple has played yet. Unlike in the U.S. court system where Apple has had success (though not total success) in following the letter of the law, intent be damned, the EU is undoubtedly going to care about the intent of those laws. And so if Apple, say, allows sideloading but does so in a way that creates a sort of "Shadow App Store" in which Apple is still the gatekeeper, the EU is probably not going to like that too much.

The most important element here may be what's not stated (presumably because it's not yet known), exactly how Apple is going to review each app downloaded outside the App Store. Both technically and in practice. Will this be similar to what they do on the Mac right now, where developers can distribute outside of the Mac App Store but need to be cleared by Apple (otherwise, there's a second layer of opt-in security they need to bypass)? Or something more? It sounds like something more. But it's hard to say right now. It also sounds like that unlike on the Mac, they're not going to allow you to say, just download a payload from the web to install an app. There will need to be some sort of "store" which Apple can presumably vet and exert some level of control over (including taking fees!).

Again, if all of the above is true – which feels right, knowing Apple – the EU is not going to like that. Even if Apple can argue that they're just trying to protect users. That ship, for better or worse, has sailed. And in some ways, it's Apple's own fault it has sailed. They simply spent too long being petulant with regard to App Store changes. And now here we are. The EU is about to whip out a big fucking crowbar to pry those doors open.

And developers, certainly large ones, are going to cheer all of this:

The restrictions and fees could renew tensions with app developers, some of whom had expected the new law to allow them to deliver their apps to users free of Apple’s restrictions or what they see as a high commission. The new European law “is a regulation with teeth, with the possibility to apply fines and with a possibility for the commission to have powers of investigation,” said Olivia Regnier, a senior director of European policy at Spotify.

Again, Apple has largely evaded change by sticking to the letter of the law in the U.S. But the EU situation is going to play out differently. Apple must know this, but they're clearly not going to do any favors in making the changes these new laws intend to enable, quickly. This just exacerbates the tensions, but again, Apple has been doing this for years at this point. We're just nearing some sort of end game now. One which Apple will challenge in any and every court they can to delay, delay, delay. But again, the EU tends to win such things in the end, for better or worse (and to be clear, it's often for worse, IMO), crowbar in hand.

Update: Apple has now confirmed the changes from the earlier report and given a lot of details as to what the "new fees and restrictions" will be. The devil has perhaps never been more in the details than it will be here, so let's wait for those to trickle out a bit more... The main thing to watch: how the large developers, like Spotify, react (though sometimes such company's marketing teams react too quickly without reading the details themselves). And then, of course, what the EU says in response. My guess? "These are promising first steps by Apple, but do not go far enough..."

Update 2: Some updated thoughts on the matter...