Identifying Monopolistic Moves

I’ve watched a lot of technology congressional hearings and most of them are a farce, either due to limiting time constraints or lack of technical knowledge to cover intricately nuanced technical matters. The January 17 hearing on online platforms was a rare exception. It was an intelligent session, and I’ve been thinking over what was said there a lot. The hearing predominantly skewers Amazon and Google’s practices, but Apple’s position as platform auteur was brought up a fair few times as well.

The Apple discussion was spearheaded by panel participant Kirsten Daru, vice president of Tile, the leading manufacturer of Bluetooth trackers. Their grievances are rooted in the fact that the Apple’s Find My app is a system app, installed by default, and gets elevated privileges to behave in ways that third-party apps in the App Store cannot. The conversation is slightly complicated by the fact that Apple’s ‘AirTags’ product is not official yet, but I don’t blame Tile for starting to gain traction for a cause that is clearly waiting in the curtains.

Tile fears that Apple is about to enter their market and steamroll over them. They are correct. Assuming a basic level of competency on the part of Apple’s implementation, the AirTags will be better than what Tile can offer in every single way.

They can clone the baseline feature set, and integrate it directly into a stock iOS system app. Apple will let its tags interoperate with the Find My network, made up of the hundreds of millions of iPhones and iPads running iOS 13. Tile has spent years trying to build its ecosystem, to convince users to downloads its app and become nodes in the network, and all of a sudden here comes Apple which can offer worldwide coverage for its trackers out of the box. Finally, the U1 chip present in the latest iPhones will enable the exact location of the AirTags to be precisely visualised in augmented reality.

The particulars of this product category allow Apple to enter the market late and easily crush everyone. The Apple tracker will be at least as good as Tile’s offerings, and superior in a few ways that Tile can never catch up to. I don’t think that’s debatable. What needs consideration is whether Apple can do that because they are acting with monopolistic malice.

To its credit, Apple has said it will change the behaviour of "Always Allow" location alerts in a forthcoming software update, following complaints from the developer community.

In the hearing, Daru complains that iOS 13’s repeated location permission alerts disfavours Tile, imposing hurdles on third-party apps that Apple’s Find My don’t have to contend with. I’d say that is indeed unfair and anticompetitive; third-party apps should be treated the same as Apple’s. The problem is how far do you take this. If Apple’s apps and third-party apps must be concomitant partners, should Apple then be forced to remove Find My as a built-in installed-by-default application? That seems like a step too far, beyond what would be deemed reasonable.

Daru also voices her company’s frustration that the U1 chip does not have a public API and therefore unavailable to developers. She argues that anyone should be able to use the ultra-wide band technology in the iPhone, saying that UWB is a standard and the only thing that makes it proprietary is Apple’s decision not to expose an API for it. Should Apple be compelled to open up the U1 hardware? If so, what about direct access to the Infrared cameras or the phone modem or the cellular antenna or the myriad other key internal components. Personally, I don’t think that a manufacturer should be required to allow access to every component of the products they make. Otherwise, you could equally argue that Apple should be forced to let anyone build alternative launchers and the like, and that just seems wrong.

But it’s that exact freedom to lock the platform down that allows the platform proprietor to make choices that benefit itself. Let’s say Apple never provides an API for ultra-wide band. That means every other company will never be able to match the AirTags on features. Is that a monopolistic move, or just inherent to the state of play? I really don’t know how you can distinguish the two.