Enlarge / The iPhone 11.
Samuel Axon

Apple is seriously considering the possibility of allowing users to change the default apps for Web browsing, mail, or music on their iPhones. The company might also allow users to listen to Spotify or other music streaming services besides Apple Music via Siri on the iPhone or on the HomePod smart speaker.

These revelations were outlined in a report by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman this morning, who cited multiple people familiar with Apple’s internal plans.

While Apple’s plans are not final, the changes could go into effect as soon as Apple’s iOS 14 release later this year, which means they would likely be introduced during Apple’s developer conference this June.

Currently, iOS users can download third-party applications for mail or Web browsing like Outlook or Firefox, but they cannot set them to be the default apps that the system opens when a link or email address is tapped in another application, for example. Apple does allow users to do these things in some cases with its macOS software for desktops and laptops, even though it’s not possible on the company’s mobile platforms.

This could help Apple’s iOS platform compete with Google’s Android, which has the dominant position in the smartphone market; this lack of flexibility in iOS is sometimes cited by users as a reason for opting for Android instead, as Android has long given users these kinds of choices.

And as Bloomberg notes, more elegant support for streaming services besides Apple Music would almost certainly be a boon for sales of Apple’s HomePod smart speaker, as that lack of flexibility is a major limitation for that product compared to its competitors. Yes, HomePod users can stream Spotify to the HomePod using Apple’s AirPlay technology, but many users may feel that is not a complete solution.

If these changes occur, they would be welcome ones for many iPhone owners. And they may help Apple preempt or address some lawsuits or antitrust complaints.

Taking music as an example, Spotify filed an antitrust complaint with European Union officials claiming that Apple unfairly prioritizes its own Music streaming service over Spotify’s, even when users are deliberately seeking out Spotify. Among other things, Spotify has pointed out that Apple stacked search results in its on-device App Store with first-party software results at the expense of third-parties like Spotify, though Apple has already responded to those complaints by at least partially rectifying that specific issue). Spotify also cited the almost-unique-in-the-industry lack of direct Spotify support on the HomePod.

By making these changes, Apple may find itself in a better position when it argues against accusations of unfair business practices. And some users will be delighted to have more options, even as some others may be frustrated or confused by a more open platform. In any case, the change would probably make iOS more attractive for more users.

Bloomberg’s sources were careful to clarify that no final decisions have been made yet, but given Apple’s longstanding commitment to a different philosophy, the fact this change is being seriously considered at all is on its own a major development.

When it released iOS 13 and iPadOS 13 in 2019, Apple already began lifting some smaller limitations on how users could customize the mobile operating system. So if these changes for default apps do go forward, they could herald a dramatic shift in Apple’s software strategy—whether they’re made to make things better for users, to appease regulators, or both.

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