EU edges towards laws that could blow Apple's walled garden wide open

App Store
App Store (Image credit: iMore)

What you need to know

  • The EU's Digital Markets Act has been provisionally agreed upon following an overwhelming vote.
  • If passed, the DMA could require Apple to allow third-party app stores onto iPhone.
  • Apps like WhatsApp could be allowed to use iMessage as a service based on new interoperability requirements.

Apple could face the biggest threat to its 'walled garden' approach to services and devices yet following the news that the European Union is now closer than ever to forcing it to open up to third parties in a way it has so far resisted. The EU's Digital Markets Act (DMA) has now reached a provisional agreement following an overwhelming vote in its favor. The EU's Digital Markets Act (DMA) has now reached a provisional agreement following an overwhelming vote in its favor.

In an announcement made earlier this week, the European Parliament saw 43 vote for, 1 vote against, and 1 abstain which now means that the DMA is a step nearer to causing Apple huge headaches in relation to its App Store and other services.

The DMA believes that Apple and other companies are currently acting as gatekeepers, preventing third-party companies from competing on products like iPhone. It's thought that gatekeepers abuse their "dominant online position make them hard for consumers to avoid," impacting the ability of others to compete.

The move could see Apple forced to allow other app stores onto iPhone and iPad, for example, something the company has been fighting against for some time. Side-loading of apps could also be required, while the recent European Parliament press release specifically calls out a requirement for interoperability between messaging apps and services. That could, potentially, mean that apps like WhatsApp could be allowed access to Apple's iMessage system.

Gatekeepers will have to comply with a series of obligations, including ensuring the interoperability of their messaging services with smaller ones. This means that smaller platforms will be able to request dominant messaging platforms open up to enable their users to exchange messages, send voice messages or files across messaging apps. This will give users greater choice and avoid the so-called "lock-in" effect where they are restricted to one app or platform.

Another facet of the DMA is that companies must "allow users to easily un-install any pre-loaded software apps and to easily change default settings that steer users towards the gatekeepers products or services." Apple has already made inroads here, allowing people to set default mail and web browser apps. Most Apple apps can also be uninstalled from devices, too.

As for what's next, it's a waiting game. Now that the DMA has been provisionally approved it's down to a final vote in July. If that goes the same way, the DMA will come into force just 20 days after its publication in the EU Official Journal. From there, Apple and other companies will have six months to comply.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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.

  • So only “smaller platforms” will be able to request access/interoperability with iMessage? Who decides who is a smaller platform? WhatsApp has like 2 billion monthly users. SnapChat only has like 500 million. So can SnapChat request access to WhatsApp? I understand the idea behind this, but there are different features of each app. How are those supposed to work? Is every app/service expected to have all the exact same features? If so, what is the point behind different ones? If iMessage and the Google/android equivalent of the month both end up having all the same features as WhatsApp, what differentiates WhatsApp? What about apps that use ads. Will iMessage be forced to allow those ads? The principle behind the idea is solid. Just don’t think any government (not just the EU) has really thought about the consequences, the impacts, etc. I don’t think many of them have the expertise to even understand the impact they are creating. Hopefully they’ve secured the right resources to do their due diligence, but so far, it sounds like a lot of politicking against “Big Bad Tech”
  • The DMA is very comprehensive. It doesn't just say "smaller platforms" for example. But WhatsApp would never be granted access to iMessage under the DMA. Both WhatsApp and iMessage are too big. You have to think of apps like Signal, Threema, maybe Teams for Consumer, Skype, etc.
  • Fair enough. But the article uses WhatsApp as the example. This kind of proves my point. And take Threema (one I’ve not heard of before). What if they get bigger than iMessage or WhatsApp? Can they be booted?