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EU to charge Apple with anticompetitive behavior this week
SOPA Images | Getty

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, will later this week issue charges against Apple stating that its App Store rules break EU law, according to several people with direct knowledge of the situation.

The charges relate to a complaint brought two years ago by Spotify, the music streaming app, that Apple takes 30 percent commission to distribute apps through its iPhone App Store and forbids apps from directing users to pay for subscriptions elsewhere.

Brussels opened an official competition investigation in June, when Vestager said Apple appeared to be a so-called gatekeeper “when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple’s popular devices.”

Apple, which has denied any allegations of anticompetitive behavior, did not immediately reply to a request for comment. At the time of Spotify’s initial complaint, Apple said the music app wanted to “keep all the benefits” of its App Store “without making any contributions to that marketplace.”

The case is one of the most high-profile antitrust cases in Europe against a US tech group. The people familiar with the process warned that the timing could still slip.

Brussels is also investigating Apple for allegedly breaking EU laws when it comes to promoting its own ebooks over rivals on the App Store and over concerns that it undermines competition in mobile payments by limiting access to the near-field communication chips in iPhones for rivals to Apple Pay.

If Apple is ultimately found guilty of breaking EU rules, after a long period of potential appeals, the company faces a fine of up to 10 percent of global revenues.

Separately, Brussels is pushing through a new Digital Markets Act that seeks to define when Big Tech companies are behaving in an anti-competitive way so that remedies can be applied faster.

SOPA Images | Getty

Spotify’s complaint against Apple

March 2019: Spotify launches official complaint against Apple in the EU. Spotify CEO Dan Ek warns of rising prices due to App Store’s fees.

May 2019: EU officials say they are preparing an official investigation.

June 2020: The EU begins probes against Apple Music, Apple’s ebook business, and Apple Pay.

March 2021: The EU says it is considering formal charges for Apple over Spotify’s complaint.

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

Maybe this textbook is from the Ma Bell era? #ThanksStockGettyImages
Enlarge / Maybe this textbook is from the Ma Bell era? #ThanksStockGettyImages
designer491 / Getty Images

Josh Hawley had some questions about how Apple came up with the money to buy back $58 billion in stock over the past year.

“I just want to focus on one major source of that income,” the Republican senator said to Apple’s lawyer. “It’s not innovation, it’s not research and development. It’s the monopoly rents that you collect out of your app store.”

I suspect you, unlike me, had better things to do last Wednesday than watch the Senate antitrust subcommittee hearing on Apple’s and Google’s mobile app stores. But if you did tune in, and you’re not an economist, you might have been baffled by that exchange. What is a monopoly rent—a term that was mentioned over and over at the hearing—and why is it bad? What does it have to do with app stores?

In economics, the concept of rent refers to money that a business makes in excess of what it would get in an efficient, competitive market. In other words, it’s money that isn’t earned by actually creating value. When corporations lobby government to give them a tax break or a special regulatory favor, they are often accused of “rent seeking.” It’s a pejorative term, and the precise limits of it are up for debate; it can be hard to draw the line between fair profits and unreasonable rents. But the basic premise is that businesses should try to get rich by improving their products and services, not by gaming the system.

Rents are a central concern of antitrust law. One of the most basic reasons why monopolies are bad is that when a company takes over a market, it can raise prices without worrying about being undercut by competitors. A “monopoly rent” is thus the money that a monopolist earns not because it offers the best product or service, but merely because it has the power to charge more. Which is exactly what the subcommittee accused Apple and Google of doing. Each company forces app developers to use their payment systems for digital purchases made within apps downloaded through their stores. And each takes up to a 30 percent cut of those purchases. This state of affairs costs companies like Spotify, which testified at the hearing, a huge amount of money, because Google and Apple control the entire mobile operating system market: Any customer who signs up on their phone, rather than on desktop, has to go through the app store toll booth. (Technically Google allows apps to be “side loaded,” without using its app store, but in practice few people bother to do that.) The commission is also at the heart of the video game developer Epic’s civil antitrust lawsuits against both companies. And, according to the senators who took Apple and Google to task, it leads app developers to pass those higher costs on to consumers.

At the hearing, Google’s and Apple’s representatives argued that most developers don’t end up paying the 30 percent rate. But they also insisted that the commission, which the biggest, most revenue-generating apps do have to pay, are competitive and industry standard. The problem is, they are the whole US industry. And no one on the antitrust subcommittee, from either party, seemed persuaded that the tens of billions in annual revenue the companies make via the commission represent anything close to what they would make if they didn’t have such control over the app market. As subcommittee chair Amy Klobuchar put it toward the end of the hearing, summing up the views of her Democratic and Republican colleagues, “I just think there’s something pretty messed up about this.”

The in-app payment commission is not the only app-store-related accusation being lodged against Apple and Google. Among other things, they also stand accused of using their access to competitors’ data to inform their own proprietary apps, and then preferencing those offerings. (In one spicy moment, Senator Richard Blumenthal asked whether the companies maintain a firewall between the teams handling data from the app store and the teams responsible for product design. The answer was not yes.) But the commission looms especially large because it is perhaps the purest distillation of monopoly rents from all the Big Tech antitrust inquiries. This helps explain why the subcommittee was uncommonly, almost eerily on-message—the usual grandstanding and weird off-topic partisan rants were basically absent. The term “monopoly rent” might be jargon, but the concept it describes is intuitive. Don’t underestimate the power of a simple argument. Google’s and Apple’s alleged rent-collecting days might be numbered.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

Promotional image of tablet synced with smartphone.

AirDrop, the feature that allows Mac and iPhone users to wirelessly transfer files between devices, is leaking user emails and phone numbers, and there’s not much anyone can do to stop it other than to turn it off, researchers said.

AirDrop uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy to establish direct connections with nearby devices so they can beam pictures, documents, and other things from one iOS or macOS device to another. One mode allows only contacts to connect, a second allows anyone to connect, and the last allows no connections at all.

A matter of milliseconds

To determine if the device of a would-be sender should connect with other nearby devices, AirDrop broadcasts Bluetooth advertisements that contain a partial cryptographic hash of the sender’s phone number and email address. If any of the truncated hashes matches any phone number or email address in the address book of the receiving device or the device is set to receive from everyone, the two devices will engage in a mutual authentication handshake over Wi-Fi. During the handshake, the devices exchange the full SHA-256 hashes of the owners’ phone numbers and email addresses.

Hashes, of course, can’t be converted back into the cleartext that generated them, but depending on the amount of entropy or randomness in the cleartext, they are often possible to figure out. Hackers do this by performing a “brute-force attack,” which throws huge numbers of guesses and waits for the one that generates the sought-after hash. The less the entropy in the cleartext, the easier it is to guess or crack, since there are fewer possible candidates for an attacker to try.

The amount of entropy in a phone number is so minimal that this cracking process is trivial since it takes milliseconds to look up a hash in a precomputed database containing results for all possible phone numbers in the world. While many email addresses have more entropy, they too can be cracked using the billions of email addresses that have appeared in database breaches over the past 20 years.

“This is an important finding since it enables attackers to get hold of rather personal information of Apple users that in later steps can be abused for spear phishing attacks, scams, etc. or simply being sold,” said Christian Weinert, one of the researchers at Germany’s Technical University of Darmstadt who found the vulnerabilities. “Who doesn’t want to directly message, say, Donald Trump on WhatsApp? All attackers need is a Wi-Fi-enabled device in proximity of their victim.”

Sender leakage vs. receiver leakage

In a paper presented in August at the USENIX Security Symposium, Weinert and researchers from TU Darmstadt’s SEEMOO lab devised two ways to exploit the vulnerabilities.

The easiest and most powerful method is for an attacker to simply monitor the discovery requests that other nearby devices send. Since the sender device always discloses its own hashed phone number and email address every time it scans for available AirDrop receivers, the attacker need only wait for nearby Macs to open the share menu or nearby iOS devices to open the share sheet. The attacker need not have the phone number, email address, or any other prior knowledge of the target.

A second method works largely in reverse. An attacker can open a share menu or share sheet and see if any nearby devices respond with their own hashed details. This technique isn’t as powerful as the first one because it works only if the attacker’s phone number or email address is already in the receiver’s address book.

Still, the attack could be useful when the attacker is someone whose phone number or email address is well known to many people. A manager, for instance, could use it to get the phone number or email address of any employees who have the manager’s contact information stored in their address books.

In an email, Weinert wrote:

What we call “sender leakage” (i.e., somebody who intends to share a file leaks their hashed contact identifiers) could be exploited by planting “bugs” (small Wi-Fi enabled devices) in public hot spots or other places of interest.

Say, you plant such a bug in a conference room or an event where politicians, celebrities, or other “VIPs” come together (e.g., Oscar Awards). As soon as one of them opens the sharing pane on an Apple device, you can get hold of at least their private mobile phone number.

From a reporter perspective a scenario for what we call “receiver leakage”: Say you have been in email contact with a celebrity to cover a story. In case the celebrity has therefore stored your email address, you can easily get hold of their private mobile phone number when being in proximity (e.g., during an interview). In this case, the celebrity [does] not even have to open the sharing pane or otherwise touch their device!

Two years of silence from Apple

The researchers say they privately notified Apple of their findings in May 2019. A year and a half later, they presented Apple with “PrivateDrop,” a reworked AirDrop they developed that uses private set intersection, a cryptographic technique that allows two parties to perform contact discovery process without disclosing vulnerable hashes. The implementation of PrivateDrop is publicly available on GitHub.

“Our prototype implementation of PrivateDrop on iOS/macOS shows that our privacy-friendly mutual authentication approach is efficient enough to preserve AirDrop’s exemplary user experience with an authentication delay well below one second,” the researchers wrote in a post summarizing their work.

As of this week, Apple has yet to indicate if it has plans to adopt PrivateDrop or employ some other way to fix the leakage. Apple representatives didn’t respond to an email seeking comment for this post.

What this means is that every time someone opens a sharing panel in either macOS or iOS, they’re leaking hashes that, at a minimum, disclose their phone numbers and likely their email addresses, too. And in some cases, just having AirDrop enabled at all may be enough to leak these details.

Weinert said that, for now, the only way to prevent the leakage is to set AirDrop discovery to “no one” in the system settings menu and to also refrain from opening the sharing pane. When using AirDrop at home or other familiar settings, this advice may be overkill. It may make more sense when using a computer at a conference or other public venue.

Despite its apparently unwavering commitment to using the Lightning port in iPhones, Apple is not usually squeamish about ending support for old accessories and products when it heralds the latest, greatest version of something.

That’s especially apparent this week, as it’s been revealed that the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro won’t work with the Magic Keyboard Apple made for its predecessor just one year ago.

French website iGeneration was the first to cover the news, explaining that although the 2020 and 2021 12.9-inch iPad Pro are mostly similar, the new one is 0.5 mm thicker. The site claimed to have seen Apple documentation saying that the older Magic Keyboard would not be supported. AppleInsider later claimed to receive confirmation directly from Apple that this is the case.

It’s important to note, though, that the Apple Store website does claim that the new Magic Keyboard works with the older iPad Pro models. Also, this only affects the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro; the 11-inch model still works with the previous Magic Keyboard.

That’s not the only legacy support issue with Apple’s new products this week. While the divisive Siri remote for the 2017 Apple TV 4K included a gyroscope and accelerometer, the redesigned remote for the new Apple TV 4K lacks those features. This change would have no impact on the TV-viewing experience with that device, but it does matter for games. Certain Apple TV games used those sensors to enable iPhone-like inputs and gameplay experiences.

That said, Apple has added support for the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series controllers to the Apple TV platform, and while all Apple Arcade games are required to run on Apple TV, a large portion of them require dedicated gamepads to do so. Apple may see efforts to make games playable with its own remote as a dead end and could be looking toward those more traditional controllers for support in the future.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

Apple began taking orders Friday for its new AirTags location-tracking product and the new purple color for the iPhone 12, but AirTag supply is already falling behind demand.

Announced earlier this week, AirTags are Apple’s answer to the already established and relatively popular Tile product. Each AirTag is a small disc that can be attached to a valuable possession so you can track it with your iPhone if you lose it.

Each AirTag sends out a Bluetooth signal that nearby compatible devices in the “Find My” network detect. When a device detects the AirTag, it reports its location, and you can use the newly rebranded “Find My” app to locate it; Apple claims the process is anonymous, secure, and encrypted.

Additionally, recent iPhone models that have Apple’s U1 ultra-wideband chip (the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 families) enable a feature called precision finding, which guides you directly to the AirTag with more precision.

A single AirTag costs $29, but they are also sold in packs of four for $99. If you order through the Apple store, you can get your AirTag engraved at no additional charge, but that service is not available through other retailers.

Unfortunately for those excited to snag AirTags imminently, orders are already backed up two to five weeks in Apple’s online store. When you might get an AirTag depends on whether you opt for engravings; as of this writing, AirTags that are engraved are estimated to deliver as late as June 1, while AirTags that are not engraved could arrive as soon as May 3.

In addition to the AirTags themselves, Apple is selling numerous AirTags accessories, like key rings and luggage tags that can house the devices. They come in a range of colors, like saddle brown, sunflower, pink, and blue. Many of the accessories are made with partners Apple has worked with on iPhone or Apple Watch accessories in the past, like Belkin or Hermès.

As noted above, Apple is also selling a new purple variant of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. At present, the purple iPhone 12 is still showing its initial intended delivery date: April 30.

Apple announced iMac updates today at its event in Brooklyn, New York. As expected, the updates improve the desktop’s performance with new processors while maintaining the design we’ve known iMacs to have for the past couple of years.

Apple says the new system was designed from the ground up around the M1 system on a chip (SoC), allowing for a much smaller motherboard and cooling system than that seen in the company’s earlier Intel-powered iMacs. The new iMac’s overall volume is down by 50 percent and comes in at only 11 mm thick, with a single sheet of glass across the entire front of the device.

The iMac comes with a 4.5K Retina 24-inch display with very small bezels, resulting in a device not much larger than earlier 21-inch iMacs. The new displays also include TruTone technology, which dynamically adjusts color temperature in response to changes in the surrounding ambient light.

The M1 iMac’s 1080 p camera is also improved, taking advantage of the M1’s onboard image processing and neural engine. Tone mapping increases detail and reduces noise in highlighted areas automatically. Similarly, beamforming on the mic array improves the quality of your voice (and decreases ambient noise) during videoconferencing.

The new iMac includes a six-speaker system, which Apple confidently declares as “the best sound system ever in a Mac.” The system supports spatial audio for both games and movies.

Like M1 Macbooks and Mac Minis, the M1-powered iMac wakes near-instantly from sleep. Apple also says that apps like xCode, Lightroom, and iMovie are up to 85 percent faster than previous models. Final Cut Pro can now simultaneously edit up to five 4K video streams without dropping a frame.

The M1 processor also allows iPhone apps and games to run directly on the iMac. Phone calls and text messages can also come directly to the iMac, and Universal Clipboard allows copying and pasting directly between iPhone and M1 iMac. There’s also a phone-like biometric fingerprint sensor on the new keyboard.

The M1 iMac offers up to four USB-C ports (two Thunderbolt), a new magnetically coupled power cord, and an Ethernet adapter on a dongle, which passes network traffic through the power cord itself.

The new iMacs will be available in four colors and will start at $1,299, and a second model will come in seven colors and start at $1,499. Preorders begin on April 30, with delivery beginning in the second half of May.

This story is developing. We’ll add more details as they become available. For the most up-to-date information, follow our liveblog.

Listing image by Apple

An Apple logo in colorful scribbles
Enlarge / The teaser image on this event’s invitation looks like Apple Pencil scribbles, perhaps supporting the idea this will be an iPad-focused event.

It might have taken longer than expected (the event has historically taken place in March), but Apple announced its spring product unveiling event this week. Executives from the company will take to the stage in a livestream from Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, where they’ll introduce and discuss new products that Apple plans to ship in the near future.

As has become the custom, we’ll do our best to outline what you should or shouldn’t expect in terms of announcements from the unveiling.

While each Apple event’s accompanying graphic and name—this one is called “Spring Loaded,” and you can see the graphic above—can sometimes (not always) act as a sort of teaser for what kind of announcements are to come, the name doesn’t tell us much this time around. That said, the scribbled lines that make up the Apple logo above look like the work of an Apple Pencil, one of the key accessories for the iPad.

And indeed, all signs point toward this being an iPad-centric event. So let’s start there.

iPad Pro

If there’s one product we’re relatively certain we’re going to see on April 20, it’s a new iPad Pro.

Rumor has it that the new iPad Pro will come in the same two sizes as before—11 and 12.9 inches—and that it won’t have many, if any, visible design changes. So what will be new?

Well, for starters, the new tablets are sure to include a new system-on-a-chip from Apple that will include an updated CPU, GPU, Neural Engine, and so on. We don’t know what it will be designated, though “A13X” seems like a strong possibility given past naming conventions. Reports say it will be similar in at least some ways to the M1 processor Apple put in low-end Macs last year, but we don’t know exactly what that means yet.

In any case, the Pro is sure to offer improved performance for games and creative apps. We’ll have to wait to see how big that performance bump is.

Below: Photos of the 2020 iPad Pro from our review. The new iPad Pro is expected to look similar.

Perhaps the bigger story is that the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (and not the 11-inch, apparently) will have a new display technology: Mini LED. It will still have an LCD screen, but this new approach will enable better contrast, among other improvements. Mini LED has already started shipping in high-end 4K TVs.

Supplies of Mini LED panels, however, may be limited, so the 12.9-inch model might be hard to get a hold of for a while if this rumor is true.

Apple may also choose to update the cameras in the iPad Pro, and a third-generation Apple Pencil accessory is not outside the realm of possibility. In fact, that’s the only possible hint we can imagine coming from the event’s name—there have been some rumors of spring-loaded components finding their way into future Pencil designs.

iPad mini

The iPad mini hasn’t been updated in a while, and it shows. The design of the product is ancient at this point, with enormous bezels wasting a significant amount of the device’s limited space instead of the better screen-to-body ratio seen in other recent iPads. The story is better with regards to the internals, but it’s still worth noting that the A12 chip included in the device will be 3 years old this year.

Given that Apple has more recently updated the other iPads in the lineup, the iPad mini is the only non-Pro iPad we see as a possibility for this event. That said, we’re not sure exactly what to expect from it.

Below: The current iPad mini, from our most recent review. Those are some chunky bezels by today’s standards.

If Apple does update it, the mini will probably have a more recent chip—most likely the A14 we saw in last year’s iPhone lineup. But what we’re really hoping for is a redesign that increases the screen size without changing the actual footprint of the device.

It’s also possible that Apple could add support for newer, better version of the Apple Pencil, as the current mini only supports the previous iteration.

Apple Silicon Macs

We believe this event will focus primarily on the iPad, but Apple did commit last summer to update its entire Mac product line to replace Intel’s chips with Apple Silicon within two years from that date. We’re coming up on one year in, and so far Apple has just updated the low-end configurations of the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini.

Various reports have claimed that Apple plans to introduce higher-end MacBook Pro models and a new iMac this year, with the Mac Pro desktop tower getting an Apple Silicon refresh sometime in 2022. There’s also talk of a redesigned MacBook Air, though that computer already got the M1 treatment last year.

Most of those reports have said that the MacBook Pro and Air are slated for the second half of the year, so if we see any new Mac at this event (that’s definitely not a slam dunk, to be clear), it might be a new iMac.

Apple is believed to be working on a totally redesigned iMac with more screen real estate, a different body shape, Apple Silicon, and other improvements.

Below: The M1-equipped Mac mini from our review last year.

We’re just speculating here, but it’s possible Apple will do the same thing it did with the laptops last year: start with an M1-equipped lower-end iMac before bringing out a much faster high-end model with an “M1X”-type chip alongside the new MacBook Pro models later. But we don’t know for sure.

It seems worth mentioning that Apple just discontinued the iMac Pro, which you might read as a hint that a big, high-end update for the standard iMac is right around the corner to take its place. But we’re not totally confident in that reading, because the current specced-out standard Intel iMac already matches or beats the languishing iMac Pro.

Whatever form it takes, a new iMac might be accompanied by a new Apple-designed display that would offer some of the benefits of the professional studio-targeted Pro Display XDR but at a more consumer-friendly price point. Apple used to design and sell excellent consumer desktop monitors, but for the past few years, it has loosely partnered with LG, which makes Mac-focused monitors that are variants of the South Korean company’s other products.

We don’t know what a new Apple monitor would look like at this stage, but we’re hoping it will be a triumphant return on that front.

HomePod or Apple TV successors

Apple may take this opportunity to refresh a couple of its less popular products, such as the HomePod or Apple TV.

HomePod

Until recently, Apple sold two HomePod products: the original, $300 HomePod, and a cheaper (just $99) HomePod mini. The former had an obsessive focus on audio quality, while the latter compromised that to bring the price down. The mini also tried to offer the smart speaker-type functionality people enjoy in Amazon’s Echo devices but with Siri instead of Alexa.

Apple, however, discontinued the more expensive HomePod last month. Let’s be clear: we don’t expect Apple to directly replace that product at this event or any other in the near future.

Rather, there’s a remote possibility the company will introduce a completely new kind of HomePod. A Bloomberg report citing people familiar with Apple’s plans earlier this week described a HomePod with a touchscreen, which would compete with similar screen-equipped smart speakers from Apple’s numerous competitors.

The report specifically described the device as a HomePod with a connected or built-in iPad; in fact, Apple has even explored attaching an iPad-like screen with a robotic arm that tracks you and stays pointing at you as you move around the space. This device would also have a microphone and camera to enable videoconferencing.

That said, the report seemed to indicate that this new product is not particularly close to release, so we’d be surprised to see it on April 20. It’s possible, though.

Apple TV

Between a new HomePod and a new Apple TV, we think the latter is more likely.

The company’s flagship set-top box, the Apple TV 4K, hasn’t been updated in more than three years. Plus, some code found in the latest tvOS beta releases pointed toward a feature (120Hz refresh-rate support) that is not possible with current Apple TV 4K hardware. We’re therefore expecting to see an updated Apple TV 4K sometime this year, though it’s not a sure thing.

A new Apple TV 4K could include an HDMI 2.1 port that makes that 120Hz refresh rate possible, and it would likely include a much faster processor. That’s because Apple has been pushing its Arcade gaming subscription service on the Apple TV—all Arcade developers are required to make their games support the device. But the aging A10X processor in the Apple TV 4K is inadequate to the task of running a lot of those games at the 4K target resolution.

Below: The Apple TV and Apple TV 4K, from our Apple TV 4K review. Both are getting long in the tooth.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see whatever processor ends up in the iPad Pro in an Apple TV 4K successor or at least an A14 like that found in the iPhone 12. An A14 or later processor would bring the Apple TV 4K into something resembling last-generation (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch) gaming console territory, performance-wise.

It’s also no secret that the Apple TV’s remote has been divisive, so Apple might make some changes there, too.

Why not both, actually?

The aforementioned report about a new HomePod discussed another device Apple has apparently been exploring: a HomePod/Apple TV hybrid, likely similar in some respects to the Roku Streambar.

Such a device would combine a speaker (possibly in a soundbar shape), an Apple TV streaming box with tvOS and all the apps and games that go with it, and microphones in a camera to try to handle all of users’ TV/movie streaming, home theater audio, living room gaming, videoconferencing, music, and smart assistant and smart home needs in one package.

As was the case with the other HomePod product discussed in the Bloomberg report, the report didn’t read like this device is necessarily imminent, but it didn’t say otherwise either. So we could see it on April 20. Don’t hold your breath, though; we’re guessing this one is still fairly early in development.

AirTags

We’ve written this same blurb about AirTags for every Apple event for a couple of years now, and yet the product never seems to materialize. So I’ll keep this bit short.

We’ve known for a while now that Apple has been working on an iPhone-centric competitor to Tile, those geolocation tags you can attach to valuables to track and find if you lose them. Rumors have called them AirTags, and the concepts we’ve been exposed to rely on the U1 ultra-wideband chip Apple somewhat recently started adding to iPhones to serve up ultra-precise location data on your phone about nearby objects you’re tracking.

Further, reports have said that some AirTags concepts have an augmented reality component; you could hold your phone or iPad up and see the location of the tags and whatever they’re attached to in real-world space, placed in 3D space within the camera’s image. Obviously, this would be even more useful if Apple’s long-rumored augmented reality glasses hit the market, but that product seems to still be a ways away.

AirTags could make their debut at long last this event, but that remains far from certain.

This cute little pig has obviously seen some things that iOS users will no longer be allowed to see on Discord.
Enlarge / This cute little pig has obviously seen some things that iOS users will no longer be allowed to see on Discord.

Discord users who access the app through iOS will now face restrictions on adult content that go beyond those for other platforms. The gaming-focused social networking app—which lets users create public or private servers to chat via with text, image, voice, and video livestreaming—announced this week that “all users on the iOS platform (including those aged 18+) will be blocked from joining and accessing NSFW servers. iOS users aged 18+ will still be able to join and access NSFW communities on the desktop and web versions of Discord.”

That NSFW designation can be set by the server owner or by Discord itself, in keeping with community guidelines requiring the label for loosely defined “adult content.” Individual channels within a server can be designated as NSFW without imposing limits on the full server, but an entire server may be labeled as NSFW “if the community is organized around NSFW themes or if the majority of the server’s content is 18+,” the company said.

Discord has set up an appeal process for server owners to challenge an NSFW designation. Individual users can also contact Discord if they were accidentally identified as minors during an age-verification process. But that age change will still be meaningless on iOS, where users of all ages will be barred from NSFW content.

Discord didn’t specify why iOS users are being treated differently from those on other platforms, but Apple’s Apple’s iOS Developer Guidelines say that apps with user-generated content “that end up being used primarily for pornographic content… do not belong on the App Store.” The guidelines allow for “incidental” NSFW content generated by users on web-based services if “the content is hidden by default and only displayed when the user turns it on via your website,” a caveat that apparently isn’t sufficient for Discord’s comfort.

Discord’s move recalls Apple’s removal of the iOS Tumblr blogging app in 2018. At the time, Tumblr said that removal was due to “media featuring child sexual exploitation and abuse” that has slipped through its automated filters. Weeks later, though, Tumblr decided to ban all adult content from the service, a move that preceded a quick return to the iOS App Store.

Discord is using a bit of a lighter touch here, identifying and segregating NSFW content from iOS users rather than banning it altogether. Still, preventing adults from accessing adult content on one platform, specifically, seems like a counterintuitive way to stay in Apple’s good graces in this regard.

“Apple’s regressive stance on sexual content being available on its largest platform is verging on a full-on moral panic, and it’s really gross,” former Tumblr product manager Matthew Bischoff wrote on Twitter. “Entire businesses and communities have been crushed by it, and it often hurts queer and trans communities most. When we dealt with this at Tumblr, it became my full-time jobs for weeks to find incredibly complex ways to appease Apple’s censors. This happened every time they found a sexy blog they didn’t like. It’s absurd.”

Discord is reportedly in the late stages of acquisition talks with Microsoft and other parties that could value the service at $10 billion. The service has over 140 million monthly users and 300 million registered accounts.

Apple will host its first product unveiling event in more than five months, the company announced Tuesday. Invitations that went out this morning state that the event will take place at 10:00 am PST on Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

Many people didn’t learn about this event from the invitation that went out this morning. Rather, they learned hours before when Siri began answering the question “Hey Siri, when is Apple’s next event?” with “The special event is on Tuesday, April 20, at Apple Park in Cupertino, CA. You can get all the details at Apple.com.”

As has become the custom, the event has a tagline: “Spring Loaded.” The taglines usually harbor subtle clues about what products might be updated or how, as well as the general theme of the event.

It has become something of a tradition in recent years for Apple’s spring product events to be iPad-focused, and multiple reports and leaks over the past few months have indicated that a refreshed iPad Pro is imminent. Rumors have claimed it will have a new processor that provides performance in line with the M1 chip that shipped in Macs late last year, and they’ve said that at least the larger, 12.9-inch model will feature Mini LED technology, which offers better contrast than the LCD displays found in prior iPads.

It’s possible that Apple will finally announce AirTags, its augmented reality-focused Tile competitor. The company could also introduce one or more new Apple Silicon-equipped Macs. Late last year, the low-end MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac mini were updated, but Apple has committed to bringing its custom-designed silicon to the entire line within the next year and a half, and reports have said we can, sometime this year, expect Apple Silicon versions of the higher-end MacBook Pro models and the iMac, as well as a redesigned Apple Silicon MacBook Air.

As always, Ars will be covering the event next week. We’ll share the updates as they come in.

Listing image by Apple

<em>Fortnite</em> seen in the App Store on an iPhone on May 10, 2018.
Enlarge / Fortnite seen in the App Store on an iPhone on May 10, 2018.

With Epic Games and Apple set to face off before a judge in their high-profile trial in just a few weeks, new court filings from both companies outline the evidence and arguments each intends to make in detail.

Unsurprisingly, each document paints a radically different picture of Apple’s App Store and its role in the gaming and technology industry.

The disagreement between the two companies escalated publicly when Epic attempted to implement its own in-app payments system in Fortnite, one of the most popular games on Apple’s App Store. This set into motion a series of events that led to Apple removing Fortnite from the App Store as Epic ran a social media campaign around the hashtag “#SaveFortnite,” leveraging angry gamers against the tech giant.

Epic then went to court against Apple, alleging that the latter’s iOS App Store is a monopoly and its policy that app developers publishing to iOS must use Apple’s own payment system (among other restrictions in Apple’s review process) is anticompetitive.

Both Apple and Epic were required to file “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” in the lead-up to the trial. The documents are lengthy and detailed, but find some key arguments summarized below.

Apple’s argument

The top-level gist of Apple’s argument (key aspects of which we already covered in some detail previously) is that developers have the option to develop and publish games for numerous other competing devices and platforms, including storefronts from companies like Sony or Nintendo that enforce similar rules and fees. Developers can also publish for the web, where experiences would still be available to iPhone users even if developers choose not to abide by the rules of the App Store and publish there.

Because Apple is just one of many players in a broader competitive market for video game transactions, and it does not control that entire market, it does not have a monopoly, the company argues. Here’s a snippet from Apple’s filing:

Apple has no monopoly or market power in the relevant product market for game app transactions. And there is no claim that it had any such power when the restrictions at issue were imposed around the launch of the App Store.

Further:

Apple has no obligation to license its intellectual property, and aside from a limited exception not applicable here, businesses are free to choose the parties with whom they will deal, as well as the prices, terms and conditions of that dealing.

Apple says its 30 percent commission charged to developers who earn over $1 million per year on its app marketplace is an industry-standard rate that does not represent an anticompetitive strategy.

The filing contends that a cut like that is reasonable because Apple has spent billions building out and maintaining infrastructure that makes developers’ success on the platform possible, from the App Store itself to various APIs and other software development tools. Apple discloses that Epic earned $700 million on the iOS platform in just two years of Fortnite being available on iPhones and iPads.

Also key to Apple’s argument is the assertion that the particular Epic update to Fortnite which led to the game’s removal from the App Store was planned months or even years in advance with the specific intent to wage a broad public relations battle to make Apple look bad. If the judge agrees with that interpretation of Epic’s actions, that may weaken Epic’s case that Apple unfairly removed Fortnite from the App Store after Epic submitted the game for approval in good faith.

Epic’s argument

The major distinction at play in Epic’s own argument is that iOS is an entire market unto itself and not just one of many competing products in a larger marketplace of video game transactions. If the judge agrees with this classification, Apple may be more likely to be seen as monopolistic.

Another key part of Epic’s argument involves comparing and contrasting iOS with macOS. Apple claims that its strict rules about what apps can and can’t do on the iOS App Store are driven at least in part by concerns about security and privacy for users, but Epic points out that Apple claims macOS is secure and private without placing all the same restrictions on the Mac operating system.

This is key to Epic’s case that Apple has enforced its rules for the iOS App Store for business reasons, rather than user-centric ones like security or privacy, which could undermine part of Apple’s case.

Epic asserts that Apple’s controversial App Review process “does little to keep iOS devices secure,” and alleges that Apple has on multiple occasions screened apps “primarily for non-security issues—including specifically for anti competitive purposes.”

It singles out Apple’s policy that apps must use Apple’s own payment system (and thus provide Apple a 15 percent of 30 percent cut of the revenue) as one that has no security benefits. The filing says:

There were no widespread or significant security issues regarding payment with the App Store prior to the introductions of IAP or the requirement that apps selling subscriptions use IAP rather than alternate payment solutions, nor evidence that IAP is far superior to third-party payment alternatives with respect to security.

As a side note we thought worthy of mentioning, Epic says in its filing that its own currently PC-based game marketplace will become profitable in 2023. The company spent considerably on marketing, user acquisition, and exclusives to grow its install base in the early years, leading to expected losses in the first few years of operation.

The Rorschach test

The decision of the judge could have far-reaching consequences for not just Apple and Epic, but many other companies that trade in digital software, from platforms to individual developers.

Both Apple and Epic themselves have immense stakes in the outcome of this case. If the judge fully embraces Epic’s arguments, Apple will face an existential threat to a core part of its product development philosophy and business strategy going back many years, and the consequences of a ruling fully in Epic’s favor would be wide-reaching for the future of Apple.

Epic doesn’t have quite as much to lose in terms of its status quo position, arguably, but it has a tremendous amount to gain should it come out ahead. If it defeats Apple on this battlefield, the flood gates may open for Epic to launch its own store on iOS—and perhaps, after the precedent is set, on other gaming platforms like those owned by Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft.

The two arguments characterize the nature of Apple’s App Store completely differently, and it’s clear that the App Store has become something of a Rorschach test for onlookers.

There are many dimensions to the case that may end up being critical to the judge’s conclusions, like the question of whether Apple’s app review process actually provides security or privacy benefits to users, whether Epic pushed the app review policy-offending Fortnite update in faith, and more.

Wait until May

But it may come down primarily to this question: does Apple’s App Store—despite a minority install base in the mobile space (Google’s competing Android platform has more than 70 percent market share) and the presence of numerous strong competitors in the video game industry—constitute its own marketplace over which the company can hold a monopoly?

Or is the App Store just one one of many digital marketplaces in a vast and healthy competitive games industry, on a minority-market-position platform—with the implication that Apple is not truly limiting developers’ access to the marketplace in an anticompetitive way, because Apple does not have that kind of power over the larger marketplace?

We’ll see the arguments move forward when the trial begins on May 3 in Oakland, California, provided there are no delays.