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Cook defends App Store – highlights from the antitrust hearing

We reported yesterday on Tim Cook’s opening speech for the US House antitrust hearing. Now that the full subcommittee hearing has come to a close – after a yawn-inducing five hours – there are some pretty interesting morsels to chew on.

The first thing to note is that Apple came away relatively unscathed. If you equate the hearing to a telling-off from the parents, naughty siblings Amazon, Google, and Facebook took most of the wrap, while Apple quietly stood to one side feeling smug. No surprise, really – when it comes to consumer trust and anti-competitive behavior, the sketchy track record of those other companies is well documented.

But that doesn’t mean Apple has nothing to answer for. While it shines in categories like user privacy, increasingly it comes under fire from developers for its App Store policies and tendency to rip off third-party apps.

Cook was quizzed by the house representatives on several issues.

Firstly, parental control apps: Apple pulled a large number of them from the App Store in 2019 right around the time it released its own Screen Time feature with similar functionality. The house alleged this was a move by Apple to squash its competition, but Cook says it was down to the privacy concerns of third-party apps that used potentially insecure “MDM” routines. Today, there are upwards of 30 parental control apps available for iOS, offering competition to Apple’s Screen Time.

In a similar line of questioning, Cook was asked about Apple’s block on the Random House app back in 2010. It has long been suggested this was done to avoid competition with Apple’s iBooks app, which was new at the time. This is exactly the kind of anti-competitive move the antitrust committee is supposed to stop, and Cook’s answer was pretty vague on this one. Though, in fairness, it has been a decade.

Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow for small developers is the hypocrisy in Apple cutting deals for its Big Tech contemporaries. Case in point: Cook making the argument that Apple treats all developers equally, when Apple is fact making special deals with Amazon to allow it to only pay half the usual commission rates on Prime Video. So much for equal treatment, eh?

There was also talk of Apple’s public spat earlier this year with Hey Email, an issue which has now been resolved (with an imperfect solution), and messaging app Telegram has also just made an antitrust complaint against Apple.

On the whole, though, Cook was bullish in his defence of the App Store: “It’s an economic miracle that the App Store allows a person in their basement to start a company and serve 170 countries in the world. I believe it’s the highest job creator in the last decade.” Good point.

We agree that the App Store is a brilliant achievement, and the world wouldn’t be the same without it – but it’s certainly not perfect, and not quite as fair as system as Apple would have us believe.