Apple placates Japan Fair Trade Commission with token app store concession

Apple iOS 13 launch

A five-year Japanese investigation into Apple’s app store practices has been resolved with a superficial tweak.

Apple is going to introduce an update next year that will allow certain apps to link through to an external site for the purpose of setting up an account. The stated reason for not allowing this to-date is some vague talk of ‘safety’ but it also happens to prevent any attempt to circumvent Apple’s billing platform, from which it takes up to a 30% cut of every payment.

This is a source of major grievance for app-makers, especially those that rely on in-app purchases for their business models such as games developers. They contend, quite reasonably, that it’s unfair for Apple to continue to take such  a big chunk of their revenues after the app has been downloaded and the practice is drawing increasing political scrutiny around the world.

The Japanese investigation seems to have proceeded at a glacial pace, taking five years to extract this tiny concession. Furthermore it only applies to ‘reader’ apps, which means those that provide access to content subscriptions such as Netflix. Right now most such apps don’t offer any way of creating a subscription because, if they did, it would be subject to the ‘Apple tax’. This tweak will allow App Store customers to navigate from the app to an external sign-up link.

“Trust on the App Store is everything to us,” said Phil Schiller, Apple Fellow who oversees the App Store. “The focus of the App Store is always to create a safe and secure experience for users, while helping them find and use great apps on the devices they love. We have great respect for the Japan Fair Trade Commission and appreciate the work we’ve done together, which will help developers of reader apps make it easier for users to set up and manage their apps and services, while protecting their privacy and maintaining their trust.”

Apple seems to have been very reluctant to make even this tiny concession. While it does nothing to address the in-app purchase issue, it could possibly represent a thin end of the wedge when it comes to broader antitrust concerns. Apple seems determined to identify the bare minimum required to make each investigation go away but the matter is snowballing regardless and there may come a time when only a more fundamental change will do.

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