UK's Apple antitrust investigation scuppered by its own rules

iPad App Store
(Image credit: Future / iMore)

Apple has won an appeal over a U.K. antitrust hearing into how the company handles third-party web browsers and cloud gaming on the iPhone and iPad.

The U.K.'s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) first started looking into the antitrust implications of Apple's stance in 2020. It then ran a consultation that looked into the industry as a whole before finally deciding to begin a probe into Apple's business practices.

The problem, and the reason that Apple won on appeal, is that the CMA took too long to actually begin that probe.

"Erred in law"

The CMA had contested that Apple's requirement that all third-party web browsers use its own WebKit browsing engine was problematic, while not allowing cloud gaming services into the App Store and limiting their use via Safari was also under the microscope.

But TechCrunch reports that the CMA's launching of a formal investigation dubbed a Market Investigation Reference (MIR), took too long to happen.

"The MIR decision followed a market study of the mobile duopoly — which the CMA kicked off in June 2021 — and resulted in a preliminary finding of competition concerns, back in December 2021," the report notes. But at the time it was decided that the CMA wouldn't take action while it waited for new "pro-competition" powers that were expected to be bestowed upon it by the government.

However, those powers never came and the CMA decided that it had to act with what it already had. The problem was that it took too long to do it.

An in-depth investigation was finally confirmed in November 2022, but that was too late as confirmed by a tribunal following an Apple appeal.

The tribunal "erred in law" and should have started afresh instead of revisiting the existing market study.

However, the CMA could now choose to appeal the tribunal's ruling, with a spokesperson saying that "given the importance of today’s judgment, we will be considering our options including seeking permission to appeal."

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It remains to be seen whether an appeal is made and if it is, whether it could be successful at this point.

Ultimately, all of this has left Apple, its App Store, and users in the same place they were when this all started. Even Apple's best iPhones have limitations imposed by Apple which prevent Xbox, Nvidia, and others from providing what they might argue is the best gaming experience to Apple's platforms. And even with third-party web browsers available from Google and others, they all use the same underpinnings as Safari. It looks increasingly unlikely that the CMA's botched investigation will change that.

Oliver Haslam

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.

Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.