The UK’s competitions watchdog is to investigate Apple and Google’s ‘effective duopoly’ on mobile ecosystems.

The Competition and Markets Authority consulted on launching a potential market investigation into concerns that the Big Tech firms exercise a stranglehold over operating systems, app stores and web browsers on mobile devices.

It said responses revealed substantial support for a fuller investigation into the way that Apple and Google dominate the mobile browser market and how Apple restricts cloud gaming through its App Store. 

“Many of those came from browser vendors, web developers, and cloud gaming service providers who say that the status quo is harming their businesses, holding back innovation, and adding unnecessary costs,” stated the CMA.

“Web developers have complained that Apple’s restrictions, combined with suggested underinvestment in its browser technology, lead to added costs and frustration as they have to deal with bugs and glitches when building web pages, and have no choice but to create bespoke mobile apps when a website might be sufficient.

“Ultimately, these restrictions limit choice and may make it more difficult to bring innovative new apps to the hands of UK consumers. At the same time, Apple and Google have argued that restrictions are needed to protect users. The CMA’s market investigation will consider these concerns and consider whether new rules are needed to drive better outcomes.”

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Browsers are one of the most important and widely used apps on mobile devices. Most people use their browser at least daily to access online content such as information, news, videos and shopping. 

97% of all mobile web browsing in the UK in 2021 happens on browsers powered by either Apple’s or Google’s browser engine, so any restrictions on these engines can have a major impact on users’ experiences.

Computer games are a multi-billion pound industry in the UK, played by millions of people. There are already more than 800,000 users of cloud gaming services in the UK but restrictions on their distribution on mobile devices could hamper growth in this sector, meaning UK gamers miss out.

“We want to make sure that UK consumers get the best new mobile data services, and that UK developers can invest in innovative new apps,” said Sarah Cardell, interim CEO of the CMA.

“Many UK businesses and web developers tell us they feel that they are being held back by restrictions set by Apple and Google.”

The Digital Markets Unit, announced by the government last year, aims to ensure that Big Tech cannot exploit its position to crowd out competition and stifle innovation online. 

It proposes to drop the turnover threshold for immunity from financial penalties from £50 million to £20m and hike potential maximum fines to 10% of global annual income.

Based within the CMA, the body will ultimately have powers to block deals. However it will not be able to levy fines until Parliament approves legislation governing its oversight power. A parliamentary committee last month urged the government to prioritise the legislation.

Cardell continued: “When the new Digital Markets regime is in place, it’s likely to address these sorts of issues. 

“In the meantime, we are using our existing powers to tackle problems where we can. We plan to investigate whether the concerns we have heard are justified and, if so, identify steps to improve competition and innovation in these sectors.”

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