Photo: Silas Stein/picture alliance via Getty Image

In terms of regulatory possibilities, the most vulnerable part of Apple is the App Store, which all iOS software flows through. The only way to get software onto an iPhone (without voiding its warranty) is by getting that software onto the App Store. And to get onto the App Store, software must comply with Apple’s labyrinthine, sometimes arbitrarily enforced rules. This structure makes the App Store incredibly powerful, much in the same way that ranking first on Google or at the top of Facebook’s feed is make-or-break for smaller players. How weird, then, that Apple’s first-party apps regularly outrank third-party equivalents. So weird and random!

A New York Times overview of App Store data compiled by an analytics firm found that “Apple’s apps have ranked first recently for at least 700 search terms in the store.” In some cases, “searches produced as many as 14 [sometimes irrelevant] Apple apps before showing results from rivals, the analysis showed.”

Perhaps most illustrative of this experience is Spotify’s app, which in 2013 ranked as the top result for anyone searching “music.” When Apple Music joined the App Store in June 2016, that app took the top slot and Spotify dropped to fourth. By the end of 2018, Apple Music remained No. 1, while Spotify dropped to No. 23. Search results 2–8 were other Apple-made apps. Spotify somehow, coincidentally, bounced back to No. 4 in April 2019 after filing a formal complaint about supposed anti-competitive practices in Europe.

Apple says it has since tweaked its software to minimize the issue. In a rare move — one I’d say signals Apple’s fear of antitrust action and its need to get out in front of a story — executives Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue spoke directly with the Times, calling the new search engine “not corrected” but “improved.”

In fairness to Apple, these types of skewed results are almost never intentional. That its own apps have outranked competitors is likely a combination of a number of factors. Search-engine algorithms are meant to be applied universally. The odds that Apple intentionally chose its apps to rank first is highly unlikely. Building carveouts and exceptions for queries that might contain Apple’s own products is, first, bad algorithm design, and second, an obvious smoking gun when it comes to anti-competitive behavior. If I were trying to ice out competitors, I probably wouldn’t hard-code that into my software and leave a paper trail.

So what might cause Apple’s apps to skyrocket up the charts? Schiller and Cue suggested that App Store results are designed to also offer up apps by the same developer, which explains why users might get not just one Apple-made result but half a dozen. I’d buy that. There are also plenty of other variables that tip the scales in its favor. Apple’s apps are intentionally straight-faced in their naming conventions. If you search “music,” is it really so weird that “Apple Music” outranks “Spotify”? Is it weird that Apple’s Podcasts app ranks at the top of results for “podcasts”? I’d say no. Some might argue it’s just very aggressive SEO. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Apple employees have a better idea of how the search engine works, although the best practices for creating an App Store listing are publicly available to anyone.

Additionally, first-party software generally has advantages that third-party apps don’t. Apple-made programs might be integrated more thoroughly into iOS and adhere to a consistent user-experience design philosophy. The idea of something being “designed by Apple” still carries some weight.

And all of this is before we get to the front page of the App Store, where an editorial team recommends apps to hundreds of millions of people on a daily basis. Being featured on the App Store is a lot like getting strapped to a rocket — immediate exposure and a pop in user installations. In my anecdotal experience, Apple regularly features apps that it directly competes with (which is, to be clear, good and commendable), but it also promotes itself, leveling the playing field almost immediately upon an Apple program’s introduction. Also, some apps come preinstalled on new iPhones, which maybe factors in.

The point is that the curious supremacy of Apple’s own work in the App Store is less the result of a malicious search algorithm and more the result of many other smaller behaviors that give the company a boost. Tech companies that encounter these problems are often less dastardly than they are careless. Still, that carelessness has the power to move markets and decimate industries, and it’s exactly that sort of clumsy power-wielding that has attracted the attention of regulators. In presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up Big Tech, companies like Apple wouldn’t be able to compete within the marketplaces they run. Every time a situation like this most recent one presents itself, it becomes a big liability.

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