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DOJ v.s. Apple - Super Apps

Super Apps: Apple prevented apps from threatening its smartphone monopoly by undermining mini programs that reduce user dependence on the iPhone

For years, Apple denied its users access to super apps because it viewed them as "fundamentally disruptive" to "existing app distribution and development paradigms" and ultimately Apple's monopoly power. Apple feared super apps because it recognized that as they become popular, "demand for iPhone is reduced." So, Apple used its control over app distribution and app creation to effectively prohibit developers from offering super apps instead of competing on the merits.

A super app is an app that can serve as a platform for smaller "mini" programs developed using programming languages such as HTML5 and JavaScript. By using programming languages standard in most web pages, mini programs are cross platform, meaning they work the same on any web browser and on any device. Developers can therefore write a single mini program that works whether users have an iPhone or another smartphone.

Super apps can provide significant benefits to users. For example, a super app that incorporates a multitude of mini programs might allow users to easily discover and access a wide variety of content and services without setting up and logging into multiple apps, not unlike how Netflix and Hulu allow users to find and watch thousands of movies and television shows in a single app. As one Apple executive put it, "who doesn't want faster, easier to discover apps that do everything a full app does?" Restricting super apps makes users worse off and sacrifices the short-term profitability of iPhones for Apple.

Super apps also reduce user dependence on the iPhone, including the iOS operating system and Apple's App Store. This is because a super app is a kind of middleware that can host apps, services, and experiences without requiring developers to use the iPhone's APIs or code.

As users interact with a super app, they rely less on the smartphone's proprietary software and more on the app itself. Eventually, users become more willing to choose a different smartphone because they can access the same interface, apps, and content they desire on any smartphone where the super app is also present. Moreover, developers can write mini programs that run on the super app without having to write separate apps for iPhones and other smartphones. This lowers barriers to entry for smartphone rivals, decreases Apple's control over third-party developers, and reduces switching costs.

Apple recognizes that super apps with mini programs would threaten its monopoly. As one Apple manager put it, allowing super apps to become "the main gateway where people play games, book a car, make payments, etc." would "let the barbarians in at the gate." Why? Because when a super app offers popular mini programs, "iOS stickiness goes down."

Apple's fear of super apps is based on first-hand experience with enormously popular super apps in Asia. Apple does not want U.S. companies and U.S. users to benefit from similar innovations. For example, in a Board of Directors presentation, Apple highlighted the "[u]ndifferentiated user experience on [a] super platform" as a "major headwind" to growing iPhone sales in countries with popular super apps due to the "[l]ow stickiness" and "[l]ow switching cost." For the same reasons, a super app created by a U.S. company would pose a similar threat to Apple's smartphone dominance in the United States. Apple noted as a risk in 2017 that a potential super app created by a specific U.S. company would "replace[ ] usage of native OS and apps resulting in commoditization of smartphone hardware."

Apple did not respond to the risk that super apps might disrupt its monopoly by innovating. Instead, Apple exerted its control over app distribution to stifle others' innovation. Apple created, strategically broadened, and aggressively enforced its App Store Guidelines to effectively block apps from hosting mini programs. Apple's conduct disincentivized investments in mini program development and caused U.S. companies to abandon or limit support for the technology in the United States.

In particular, part of what makes super apps valuable to consumers is that finding and using mini programs is easier than using an app store and navigating many separate apps, passwords, and set-up processes. Instead of making mini program discovery easy for users, however, Apple made it nearly impossible.

Since at least 2017, Apple has arbitrarily imposed exclusionary requirements that unnecessarily and unjustifiably restrict mini programs and super apps. For example, Apple required apps in the United States to display mini programs using a flat, text-only list of mini programs. Apple also banned displaying mini programs with icons or tiles, such as descriptive pictures of the content or service offered by the mini program. Apple also banned apps from categorizing mini programs, such as by displaying recently played games or more games by the same developer. These restrictions throttle the popularity of mini programs and ultimately make the iPhone worse because it discourages developers from creating apps and other content that would be attractive to iPhone users.

Apple also selectively enforced its contractual rules with developers to prevent developers from monetizing mini programs, hurting both users and developers. For example, Apple blocked mini programs from accessing the APIs needed to implement Apple's in-app payment (IAP) system—even if developers were willing to pay Apple's monopoly tax. Similarly, Apple blocked developers' ability to use in-app payment methods other than directly using IAP. For instance, super apps could create a virtual currency for consumers to use in mini programs, but Apple blocked this too. Apple, however, allows other, less-threatening apps to do so.