Ap­ple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone ad­dic­tion

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Insight - BY JACK NICAS New York Times

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.

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