Apple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone addiction
They all tell a similar story: They ran apps that helped people limit the time they and their children spent on iPhones. Then Apple created its own screen-time tracker. And then Apple made staying in business very, very difficult.
Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parentalcontrol apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm. Apple has also clamped down on a number of lesser-known apps.
In some cases, Apple forced companies to remove features that allowed parents to control their children’s devices or that blocked children’s access to certain apps and adult content. In other cases, it simply pulled the apps from its App Store.
Some app makers with thousands of paying customers have shut down. Most others say their futures are in jeopardy.
“They yanked us out of the blue with no warning,” said Amir Moussavian, chief executive of OurPact, the top parentalcontrol iPhone app, with more than 3 million downloads. In February, Apple pulled the app, which accounted for 80 percent of OurPact’s revenue, from its App Store.
“They are systematically killing the industry,” Moussavian said.
The screen-time app makers are the latest companies to suddenly find themselves both competing against Apple and at the mercy of the tech titan. By controlling the iPhone App Store, where companies find some of their most lucrative customers, Apple has unusual power over the fortunes of other corporations.
Executives at the app makers believe they are being targeted because their apps could hurt Apple’s business. Apple’s tools, they add, aren’t as aggressive about limiting screen time and don’t provide as many options.
“Their incentives aren’t really aligned for helping people solve their problem,” said Fred Stutzman, chief executive of Freedom, a screen-time app with more than 770,000 downloads before Apple removed it in August. “Can you really trust that Apple wants people to spend less time on their phones?”
Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said at a conference this month that Apple had added screen-time tools to help people monitor and manage their phone use. “We don’t want people using their phones all the time,” he said. “This has never been an objective for us.”
On Thursday, two of the most popular parentalcontrol apps, Kidslox and Qustodio, filed a complaint with the European Union’s competition office. Kidslox said business had plummeted since Apple forced changes to its app that made it less useful than Apple’s tool.
Apple also faces an antitrust complaint in Russia from Kaspersky Lab – a Russian cybersecurity firm that American security officials claim has ties to the Russian government – which said Apple had forced it to remove key features from its parental-control app. The company is exploring a similar complaint in Europe, a Kaspersky spokeswoman said.
“We treat all apps the same, including those that compete with our own services,” said Tammy Levine, an Apple spokeswoman. “Our incentive is to have a vibrant app ecosystem that provides consumers access to as many quality apps as possible.” She said Apple removed or required changes to the apps because they could gain too much information from users’ devices. She said the timing of Apple’s moves was not related to its debut of similar tools.
Apple is facing other accusations that it is abusing its dominant position to lift itself and bury rivals – an issue that has become more important as the iPhone maker expands into
new markets like television, news and gaming.
Spotify has complained to European regulators that Apple used the App Store to give its Apple Music service an unfair advantage over Spotify’sapp. Dutch regulators said this month that they would investigate whether Apple abused its control of the App Store.
In the United States, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic candidate for president, recently suggested separating the App Store from Apple as part of her proposal to rein in the American tech giants.
In early 2018, two prominent Wall Street investors urged Apple to address concerns that people were becoming addicted to their smartphones. In June, the company announced plans for tools to help iPhone owners track and limit their and their children’s phone use. It began offering tools in September, tucked into the phone’s settings menu.
Shortly after announcing its new tools, Apple began purging apps that offered similar services.
Apple told the companies that their apps violated App Store rules, like enabling one iPhone to control another, although it had allowed such practices for years and had approved hundreds of versions of their apps.
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 47year-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, Chantry said.
“It didn’t make managing these new digital threats any easier,” he said. “It actually made it more difficult.”
Apple’s tool also requires the whole family to own iPhones. Many apps removed by Apple allowed parents with iPhones to control their children’s Android devices.
Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm.