If you’re a typical iPhone user, there’s really only one place (aside from things like TestFlight) to get new apps: Apple’s App Store. For a long time, people have argued back and forth if this practice could be considered a form of monopoly, and after years in the courts, the Supreme Court finally weighed in one element of that question.
In a majority opinion written by the Supreme Court’s most recent addition, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh held that “iPhone owners were direct purchasers who may sue Apple for alleged monopolization.”
The original case stems from Pepper v. Apple Inc. from way back in 2011, which argued among other things that iPhone apps would be cheaper if there were multiple app marketplaces or other ways to install apps.
The Supreme Court’s decision then goes on to explain that this ruling is a straightforward interpretation of the Clayton Antitrust Act, which is the collection of laws passed in 1914 that defines what sort of business practices can be considered monopolistic and harmful to consumers.
Previously, Apple claimed that due to precedents set by cases such as Illinois Brick, Apple could not be targeted by antitrust lawsuits regarding the App Store because people aren’t buying apps directly from Apple, they’re buying from developers. However, the Supreme Court’s ruling specified that because Apple sells apps directly to consumers without the use of any third-parties or intermediary vendors, “Unlike the consumer in Illinois Brick, the iPhone owners here are not consumers at the bottom of a vertical distribution chain who are attempting to sue manufacturers at the top of the chain.”
While today’s Supreme Court decision has not awarded any damages or determined guilt on the part of Apple, it does open Apple to potential litigation, most likely in the form of class-action lawsuits in the future.
By comparison, the big difference between iPhones and other iOS devices and Android-based gadgets is that while the Google Play Store operates in a very similar fashion to the Apple App Store, because Android device owners can also sideload apps or install APKs without needing to go through the Play Store, Google steers clear of claims that it violates antitrust regulation in the same manner as Apple.
So where do we go from here? While the Supreme Court’s ruling does allow consumers to sue Apple for how it manages the App Store and controls iOS apps, it’s not clear if Apple will be forced to change is business practices just quite yet. Today’s Supreme Court ruling is just the first step in what is sure to be a long and drawn out series of legal battles.
But in the end, if Apple is forced to allow users to sideload or install apps on their own without going through the App Store, it will probably be a good thing for the average consumer. Either way, the App Store isn’t going to go away, but we may get more ways to install new software on iOS devices.