Apple Caves to Russian Government Demands to Pre-Install Apps on New iPhones

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Russia isn’t messing around when it comes to anti-competitive allegations surrounding Apple and the App Store. Rather than wringing its hands over lengthy antitrust investigations, the country’s government is taking a much more direct approach to ensure that developers in its own country get a fair shake against the Apple juggernaut.

We first heard back in late 2019 that Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed legislation that would require all “app-enabled electronics” sold in Russia to have Russian software pre-installed on them out of the box.

While this legislation didn’t target Apple specifically — it would technically apply to Windows PCs, smart TVs, and probably even game consoles — there’s little doubt that the iPhone and its accompanying App Store were a big factor in crafting the new laws.

Originally, the law was expected to go into force last July, in the hopes of both giving Russian software developers a leg up while also making it easier for Russian consumers to start using their devices right away. However, it wasn’t simply a requirement that a certain percentage of Russian apps be pre-installed, but instead it was intended to include a list of specific Russian apps that would need to be included on every iPhone sold in the country.

While Apple didn’t comment publicly on the new legislation at the time, it’s not a stretch to believe that the iPhone maker wasn’t thrilled with the prospect, and at least one anonymous source within Apple hinted at the company’s opinion by telling a Russian news publication that it would be “equivalent to jailbreaking,” and “post a security threat,” while adding that Apple “cannot tolerate that kind of risk.”

This certainly raised the spectre of Apple pulling out of Russia entirely should its hand actually be forced by such a law, especially since the iPhone has become legendary for avoiding this kind of mess of reinstalled third-party apps. In fact, when the iPhone originally debuted in 2007, it was a breath of fresh air, since Apple made it abundantly clear to carriers that it would not under any circumstances allow them to pre-install any of their apps on the iPhone.

Essentially, Apple wanted to make sure every user got the same, clean, first-party Apple experience no matter where they purchased their iPhone from.

Apple Aquiesces

For whatever reason, the original date of July 1, 2020 for the new law to come into effect was extended at some point to April 1, 2021, likely as a concession to give manufacturers more time to prepare for the coming changes.

In the end, however, it doesn’t look like the law has had quite as dramatic of an effect as some folks predicted. Apple has chosen to comply with the new legislation rather than pulling out of Russia in protest, but that probably also has to do with the requirements for Russian apps to be pre-installed being less extreme than many feared.

According to a new report from Russian publication Vedomosti, Apple will be playing along, but perhaps only because the new requirements simply force Apple to offer the specified apps rather than actually pre-installing them.

It’s a subtle but important difference, since this means that every iPhone will still ship from the factory with effectively the same set of Apple first-party apps installed, with no special exceptions for Russia. Instead, this list of Russian-sanctioned apps will appear as “suggested apps” during the initial iPhone set up process.

It’s a far less egregious requirement than it originally sounded like, and it’s likely the reason for the new suggested apps feature that was found in the iOS 14.3 beta last fall.

More to the point, however, users won’t be forced to install any of these suggested apps; while they’ll all be selected by default, users can simply uncheck any that they don’t want, and then proceed to install only those that they do.

Other than the prompt to install them during the initial set up, these apps will be installed in the same way as anything else from the App Store, and users will be able to choose to delete them later.

It’s an approach that aligns with the Russian government’s stated purposes for the feature, which is not about forcing apps on its citizens, but rather simply a matter of making sure that Russian developers get more prominent placement in an app economy where they may not otherwise get much exposure.

According to sources within Russia’s Ministry of Digital Affairs, this approach came as a result of an agreement between the Ministry and Apple as to exactly how the new laws would be implemented in practical terms, and there’s no doubt that Apple pushed hard to force a solution that was palatable to its approach to pre-installed apps and the App Store.

Officials within the Russian Ministry of Communications noted that Apple suggested that the law “could lead to a revision of the company’s business model in Russia” — an oblique way of saying that they were prepared to stop doing business in the country altogether.

Most importantly from Apple’s perspective is that every one of these suggested apps will still come from the App Store and therefore be subject to the same privacy, security, and content standards as any other app. Other than their “front-page” placement during the iPhone set up process, none of the apps on the Russian government’s list will be getting any special treatment from the App Store. Apple also dug its heels in on requiring that users have the freedom to decline or uninstall any of the apps on the list.

The Ministry is not interested in the fact that popular programs included in the list for mandatory pre-installation occupy a dominant position. If there are alternative offers of interest to users and rapidly gaining popularity on the market, they will be included in this collection and will also be offered for pre-installation.

Russian Ministry of Digital Affairs

Now that the foundation has been laid, all that needs to be done is for Apple and the Russian Government to put together a list of “promising Russian applications” to suggest to users. While the report says that Apple and the Ministry of Digital Affairs are “discussing the issue,” it’s likely that the selection will be mandated by the Ministry and Apple will simply be forced to comply.

The list of suggested applications reportedly includes browsers, antivirus and cartographic software, messengers, mail apps, and online cinema apps. Specific apps for Russian Government public services and the Mir Pay payment system are also expected to be on the list.

While the lists vary between different platforms — Android devices appear to have a longer list of “required” apps than the iPhone does — developers behind the apps on the list include Yandex, Group, Kaspersky Labs, Rostelecom, Channel One and several other major Russian Internet and media companies.

It’s ultimately hard to say whether Apple would have ever carried through on its threat to leave Russia, as there’s certainly precedent for the company making concessions for the laws in different companies. For example, until 2018, the FaceTime app was conspicuously absent on every iPhone sold in the UAE, and of course Apple frequently pulls content from the App Store in China at the behest of the Chinese Government.

However, it’s fair to say that forcing Apple to pre-install mandatory apps would have been a bridge too far, as that has a much greater impact on the iPhone design ethos. On the other hand, simply suggesting apps during initial set up is probably not a big deal for Apple at all, and could arguably be seen as improving the user experience, especially for users in foreign countries.

The bigger question at this point, however, is whether Apple will roll out its suggested apps feature worldwide, or if it’s simply something that the iPhone maker cooked up specifically for scenarios like this one. Either way, now that Russia has made the first move, we suspect that we’ll be seeing it pop up in at least a few more countries as other government regulators decide that it’s a good idea for their developers and consumers as well.

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