Apple Rolls Out Major iOS Updates in EU to Comply with Digital Markets Act

In an effort to meet the European Union's Digital Markets Act (DMA) requirements before the March 7 enforcement date, Apple has unveiled significant changes for iOS users, which could reshape the browser landscape that has long been perceived as stagnant. The DMA seeks to invigorate competition in digital markets dominated by a few major tech companies, referred to as "gatekeepers." Among these, Apple finds itself under scrutiny for its control over the iOS App Store and the Safari web browser.

Traditionally, Safari is set as the default browser on iOS devices. Although it has been possible for users to change the default to another browser after downloading one, the process has not been made clear, leading many to continue using Safari simply for convenience. The DMA aims to alter this scenario by making it easier for users to uninstall default apps and change their preferences.

In anticipation of the regulations, Apple announced that with the iOS 17.4 update, users in the European Economic Area will encounter a choice screen when they first open Safari. This screen will present a list of the most popular browsers in their market and prompt users to select a default browser. Each option will come with additional information to guide users in their decisions.

Apple's representatives outlined that while users will be informed about the various browsers, it's yet to be seen how the company will present competitors' products. With the March 7 deadline approaching, the European Commission will be closely observing whether Apple's implementation aligns with the DMA's intent.

In the past, Google's Android platform has offered a similar choice screen in the EU, but its impact was limited due to an auction model that required competitors to bid for placement. Despite these efforts, Google still enjoys over 90% of the search market share in Europe.

One of the most transformative changes spurred by the DMA is Apple's concession to allow the submission of non-WebKit-based browsers to its iOS App Store. To date, Apple has only permitted third-party browsers that use the WebKit engine that also powers Safari. This has been criticized for stifling innovation and web development. However, following the DMA's interoperability provisions, users can expect an influx of browsers offering advanced features and unique experiences.

While Apple is considering incorporating a range of privacy, security, and performance conditions for developers who wish to use alternative browser engines, one notable requirement is that developers must default to blocking cross-site cookies unless the user provides explicit consent. This aligns with Apple's long-standing campaign against web tracking.

Furthermore, this move could indirectly benefit Google, as developers might be encouraged to adopt Google's Privacy Sandbox, an ad-tech ecosystem that aims to replace third-party cookie-based tracking. With no room for tracking cookies on iOS, browsers utilizing Google's system could become more prevalent on Apple's platform.

However, Apple limits the scope of these changes to apps only available in the EU, which implies that developers aiming to leverage the non-WebKit opportunity will have to maintain separate app versions for different markets, leading to increased complexity.

Mozilla and Opera, two prominent browser developers, have responded to Apple's announcements with contrasting sentiments. Opera praised the choice screen and signaled intentions to reinvent its iOS application with new AI-driven features. Mozilla, on the other hand, expressed disappointment, specifically over Apple's decision to limit the use of the non-WebKit browser engine to EU-specific apps, underscoring the challenges this poses for maintaining multiple browser versions.

EU officials, including Commissioner Thierry Breton, have shown readiness to take action if Apple's proposals are found inadequate, signaling the DMA's strength and the EU's determination to enforce it. Apple, compelled by the DMA's legal pressure, is making unprecedented changes, setting a potential precedent for technology and competition regulations in the EU's history.

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