Apple update to allow iPhone users to choose default apps

iPhone users will be able to set Gmail as their default email app, Firefox as their main web browser, and listen to Spotify on their HomePod speakers, after Apple announced concessions to competitors who argue the company is abusing its monopoly.

The new openness will arrive with a wave of software updates in the autumn, Apple said, alongside the other new features the company promised at its Worldwide Developers Conference, held remotely from Cupertino, California, on Monday.

Unlike features such as a new translation app, support for cycling directions and a new look for macOS, Apple’s presenters did not mention the concessions on stage at its event. But documents published after the broadcast ended reveal a raft of new policies and features apparently targeted at placating regulators, users and developers who have complained about the perception that the company promotes its own applications over those of competitors.

On iPhones, users will be able to set a new default email service, and a new default browser. That change means that users who click on a web address in an app will now be able to open it directly in the browser of their choice, rather than being forced to use Safari, Apple’s own web browser. The biggest advantage will be felt by Apple’s main competitor, Google, which provides its Gmail app, and the Chrome browser, for iPhones and iPads.

But the company is retaining one limitation: iOS web browsers still need to be built on top of Apple’s own “rendering engine,” a technological layer that determines how a web page is processed on the device.

Apple’s HomePods, the beleaguered smart speakers first released in February 2018, are also opening up, with third-party music services such as Spotify allowed on the devices for the first time. Owners have been able to play music from other services with a clunky workaround involving Apple’s AirPlay 2 standard, but direct voice commands have been limited to Apple Music.

The company has also reached out an olive branch to developers who have complained about its sometimes capricious enforcement of guidelines that dictate what apps are and are not allowed on the App Store.

Developers will now be able to appeal against a specific guideline, as well as challenge the guideline itself. That means, for instance, that if an app is rejected for violating guideline 3.1.1, which requires the use of Apple’s in-app payment system (and commensurate 30% revenue cut), developers are able to lodge an appeal arguing that they have been wrongly targeted. The company has also promised that simple bug fixes will not be delayed over App Store disputes, allowing developers to continue to keep their applications working even while they are arguing with Apple.

The changes come after a difficult week for Apple. Last Tuesday, the EU announced two investigations into whether it was abusing its monopoly by requiring developers to use Apple Pay and the App Store in-app payment systems. The investigations were rapidly followed by a developer rebellion, prompted by an email app, Hey!, being banned from the App Store based on a controversial decision about those same in-app payments. Observers ranging from Microsoft’s president to the chair of the US House of Representatives antitrust committee weighed in to attack Apple’s position.

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