Apple has removed or imposed restrictions on at least 11 out of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental control apps on the App Store, the New York Times reported on Saturday, as it implemented its own screen-time tracker in iOS—a move that has threatened the viability of some of the companies involved and may result in increased attention from regulators.
Apple CEO Tim Cook recently claimed the company has “never been” about maximizing phone usage. But according to the Times, some of the developers behind the apps suggested that Apple is attempting to corral users into only using its own tools, where it has more leverage over users. Apple ordered the developers to gut key features or simply cut the apps from the App Store entirely with little explanation, they told the paper, using the justification that they violated policies such as a prohibition on allowing one iPhone to control another. Some of the apps had been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times or more, with OurPact coming in at over three million and Mobicip at around 2.5 million.
The Times wrote that Apple’s own screen-time features are less granular:
Unlike apps such as OurPact, Apple’s tools don’t allow parents to schedule different times throughout a day when an app is blocked — for school or family dinner. And Apple’s tool blocks adult content only on its Safari web browser and some apps, not on other browsers or many popular apps, like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
Bruce Chantry, a 47-year-old father of two outside Cleveland, said he had used OurPact and Mobicip for years until Apple forced them to gut key features.
He has found Apple’s tool more complicated and less restrictive. His children have already found workarounds to Apple’s web-filtering tool and, unlike the apps he had used, it has no kill switch to quickly disable certain apps on their phones, Mr. Chantry said.
Hitting the assigned screen-time limit for an app using Apple’s tool, the paper added, only returns a prompt to “Ignore Limit.”
“Their incentives aren’t really aligned for helping people solve their problem,” Fred Stutzman, CEO of screen-time app developer Freedom, told the Times. “Can you really trust that Apple wants people to spend less time on their phones?”
As the App Store is the only way to maintain officially supported access to Apple customers—and with Apple controlling a huge slice of U.S. market share—rejection by its reviewers can be the death knell for a company.
As the Times noted, the developers of the apps Kidslox and Qustodio recently filed complaints with the European Union’s competition office, while cybersecurity giant Kapersky Labs filed an antitrust complaint with Russian authorities in March 2019 and is considering doing so in the EU. Kapersky claimed that Apple said their use of configuration profiles in the Kapersky Safe Kids app was against company policy, kneecapping features that allowed parents to set which apps could be run based on App Store age restrictions and hide all browsers except for Kapersky’s “built-in secure browser.” Apple then refused to initiate any “meaningful negotiations,” Kapersky added.
Concerns over Apple’s control of the App Store and whether it abuses that control to further its own power at the expense of competitors have also motivated a fight between the company and Spotify, which is suing on antitrust grounds. Meanwhile, Apple has at times seemed to bend its own supposedly strict rules to promote its own in-house offerings.
According to the Times piece, Mobicip chief Suren Ramasubbu said that he was informed the company’s app would have to be changed or face removal in 30 days with a short note reading “If you have any questions about this information, please reply to this message to let us know. Best regards, App Store Review.”
Ramasubbu told the Times he replied four times asking for more information and resubmitted a revised app he hoped would pass the bar, receiving a message in triplicate three days before the deadline: “Your app uses public A.P.I.s in an unapproved manner, which does not comply with guideline 2.5.1 of the App Store Review Guidelines.” After he pleaded for more information on how the company could come into compliance, he did not receive any more guidance until he got an email saying “Your app has an unresolved issue and has been removed from the App Store.”
“No reason, no detail,” Ramasubbu told the Times. “Suddenly we don’t have a business anymore.”
“We treat all apps the same, including those that compete with our own services,” Tammy Levine, an Apple spokeswoman, told the Times. “Our incentive is to have a vibrant app ecosystem that provides consumers access to as many quality apps as possible.”