Why is the US DOJ filing an antitrust lawsuit against Apple–on monopolizing the smartphone market?

The Department of Justice’s antitrust filing against Apple on the iPhone is a many-splendored thing–and will take many years to work through the courts. It was filed Thursday 21 March in the US District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleging monopolization or attempted monopolization of smartphone markets in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. New Jersey’s US District Courts are in beautiful Newark, Camden, and Trenton. The DOJ was joined by 16 states in the lawsuit including NJ. Apple has promised to fight it tooth and nail, correctly realizing this goes to the core of its business. “This lawsuit threatens who we are and the principles that set Apple products apart in fiercely competitive markets” and “We believe this lawsuit is wrong on the facts and the law, and we will vigorously defend against it.”

On the face of this, the DOJ antitrust lawsuit seems almost ludicrous. While iPhones have a 60% market share in the US (Backlinko), there’s plenty of Android phones from Samsung and others (sadly, no longer LG) at competitive prices from every carrier. This Editor never looked twice at an iPhone for personal use and wasn’t impressed by a short-lived company phone, a totally locked-down iPhone 6. (On the other hand, my second computer at work where I really self-learned computing was an easy-to-use Mac 2si, a long time ago.) There are about 140 million iPhone owners in the US. Obviously, Apple makes a product and ecosystem, including the Apple Watch, that people, especially US upper-income users, prefer. There are features that Androids have and iPhones have, and sometimes the twains don’t meet, but for most of us it doesn’t matter.

But does Apple act in an anticompetitive, monopolistic way?

The DOJ says yes. The complaint states that Apple uses its control over the iPhone to engage in a broad, sustained, and illegal course of conduct, using its monopoly power to extract as much revenue as possible. The specifics include some centering on the Apple Watch:

  • Apple has exclusive software features–apps–that Android manufacturers don’t have or don’t work as well, for instance Apple Pay, iMessage, Find My Phone, FaceTime, and AirTags.
  • Apple Pay blocks other financial institutions from instituting their own cross-platform payment systems.
  • Apple’s control over app developers in their ‘walled garden’, locking them in especially in the cloud gaming area, but generally imposing contractual restrictions on and withholding critical access from developers in the name of security and privacy. Reportedly there are 30% commissions on app sales. Blocking ‘super apps’ restricts not only developers but also users from switching to Android since they will lose use of the app.
  • Apple’s messaging systems are only partly interoperable with Android and have unique features not available on Android
  • App Store commissions and rules are prohibitive for many developers
  • Locking in consumers with features not available on Android
  • Lack of interoperability of the Apple Watch with Android phones, and other manufacturers’ watches with iPhones 

What is interesting is that in the Apple Watch charges, there’s nothing about how Apple has essentially stolen features from other developers such as AliveCor and Masimo as found in other Federal courts. That IP theft is outside of antitrust and being litigated in other courts.

Much of the heated commentary has to do with the Apple Brand Promise and how they deliver apps. Apple is an integrator and people like the ‘walled garden’. The phone ‘just works’. Quoting Alex Tabarrok in Marginal Revolution, Apple is a gatekeeper that promises its users greater security, privacy, usability, and reliability. Users trade off control for a seamless experience and it delivers. It’s desirable. However, many of us don’t need or want to give over all that much control and desire flexibility in a more open platform. Not all of us need or want ‘seamless’ features like Apple Pay and live very well without that or games. 

What will keep DOJ and Apple entertaining each other in court for the next few years are court decisions over the years that have favored Apple:

  • Monopoly has been defined in repeated decisions as market share in the 70-80% range, not 60%
  • The concept of ‘procompetitive’ means that if you can choose between open access and the Apple ‘walled garden’, Apple has a legitimate competitive feature.
  • Companies don’t have a ‘duty to deal’ with other companies
  • Apple as a monopoly has already been dismissed in other cases

The push towards the DOJ action has apparently been stimulated by the EU Digital Markets Act, which Apple will comply with, as well as Apple competitors in the US who have tried and failed to restrict Apple in integrating its services. Will DOJ succeed in forcing Apple to be more like Android? The debate will rage on. DOJ release, 88 page filing, The Verge, 9to5 Mac, Medium.com, AP, Epoch Times

A mine of app data – free!

Vision Mobile has just produced their 6th annual survey of the apps market, entitled “Developer Economics: Ecosystem wars drawing to a close” which is stuffed full of useful information on trends in app development, and is free.

There is so much in there that it is invidious to pick out a few quotes to whet your appetite, however needs must, so here are some, from the introduction:

“Six years on, the mobile ecosystem wars are drawing to a close with Android and iOS capturing over 94% of smartphone sales in Q4 2013. Android continues to dominate Developer Mindshare with 71% of developers that target mobile platforms, developing for Android.” (more…)

Stats on medical apps on Apple & Android

iMedicalApps reports on the latest stats on medical apps on Apple & Android.  Overall figures show Apple with more than twice as many as Android.  It would be interesting to know how that split would be for apps aimed at patients – notwithstanding the previous post, I get the impression that the balance between the two is evening up.

There is a stark contrast between these numbers (over 19,000 for Apple, just over 8,000 on Google Play) and the small number of medical apps approved by the FDA (just over 100 according to a comment on the report) and on the NHS Choices health apps library.  Even making a very generous allowance for clinician-focused apps, this still emphasises the importance of the work underway just now on ordering the market to give users greater confidence in the safety and efficacy of what they download.