By Geoffrey A. Fowler
Have you ever tried to swap Siri for a better voice assistant on your iPhone? Don't bother, you can't.
Tried to buy e-books from the Kindle app? Can't do that, either.
Send iMessages to someone with an Android phone? Nope. Backup your iPhone to Google Drive? Nope. Get your own iPhone repair parts from Apple? Nope. Transfer your digital life to a different kind of smartphone? Good luck, my friend. When you buy an iPhone, it isn't really yours.
It's time to reclaim our iPhones. The debate that's happening in courts and Congress about Big Tech's power is also playing out in the palm of our hands.
I've used an iPhone for the last 12 years, and like most of you I am not looking to change. But we've become so accustomed to restrictions Apple built into the iPhone, we don't even realize how we're contorting ourselves to comply - or what we're missing out on. One sign we're being manipulated by a monopoly is when it's hard to even consider an alternative. Apple says it's protecting our security and privacy, but it has become clear that locking down our iPhones is also about controlling us so Apple can make more money.
This column - an iPhone owner's Bill of Rights, we-the-people style - is an inventory of the things we ought to be able to do with our iPhones, but Apple won't let us. Let me know what you agree with, disagree with, and what else you'd add - I'll accept quill on parchment or email.
This week, a federal judge finished hearing a case that helped expose how damaging Apple's unregulated power has become for consumers. A lawsuit from Epic Games, the company that makes the video game "Fortnite," put a literal price tag on Apple's monopoly: 30%. That's the markup top developers have to pay on app purchases because Apple is the only store allowed on the iPhone.
Apple thinks it's handcuffing us for our own good. During the "Fortnite" trial, CEO Tim Cook said Apple needs to tightly integrate software and hardware in the iPhone to make sure it's easy to use. "We take a lot of the complexity of technology away from the user," Cook said. That's part of why the iPhone gets very high customer satisfaction ratings, Apple often says.
What Apple doesn't mention is that rival Android phone maker Samsung actually now rates slightly higher with owners, with a score of 81 versus 80 for the iPhone in the independent American Customer Satisfaction Index. And unlike Apple, Samsung offers two voice assistant choices, lets us buy digital media from any app and download from different app stores, just to name a few basic digital liberties.
I'm not arguing Samsung phones are better - I have written lists of reasons you should buy a new iPhone and applaud Apple's recent steps to stop invasive app tracking. My point is that Apple's rationale for locking down the iPhone doesn't make as much sense for consumers in 2021 as it might have in 2011, when smartphones were unfamiliar and brought unknown risks.
What about security and privacy? "The parade of horribles out there is pretty long," Cook said about the risks of bad apps that Apple helps keep off iPhones. I obsess about security and privacy more than most people, and frequently criticize tech companies that betray our trust. But it's a false choice to say Apple alone can prevent app Armageddon.
It's partly a philosophical question: Is an iPhone just a phone that does more stuff, or has it now become a full-fledged computer? Could you imagine spending $1,000 on a laptop, but not being allowed to use whatever software, games or e-books you want? That's how the iPhone works. "It's a computer. It's my computer. Whether it fits in my pocket or sits on my desk just doesn't matter," software pioneer David Heinemeier Hansson wrote earlier this week.
I want Apple to make the best iPhone for how we live our lives today, which might involve relationships with one company's virtual assistant, a different company's smartwatch and yet a third company's backup service. I can understand why Apple might want a piece of all those businesses, but it's too many aspects of life for one tech company to control, or to always get 100% right. Competition would make digital products and services better - and customers would choose the Apple ones when they're truly superior.
Don't just take my word about Apple's mixed motives. Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs held a 2010 planning meeting to talk about how to "tie all of our products together, so we further lock customers into our ecosystem," according to an internal Apple email. In another email that surfaced during the "Fortnite" trial, Apple senior vice president Craig Federighi laid bare why Apple wouldn't make a version of iMessage that works on non-Apple devices: "I am concerned [that] iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones."
Lately, Apple has allowed a monopolistic way of thinking to overrun even basic product functions. Ads for Apple services - Arcade, Fitness Plus, TV Plus, iCloud storage - have colonized once-simple menus, and the only way to remove some of them is to subscribe.
More proof that some of Apple's restrictions are bad for consumers is that Apple actually reversed course on a few under the spotlight of government scrutiny. It loosened up iCloud Photos so we can move our pictures in bulk to Google's more-functional Photos service (if you know where to click). And with iOS 14.5, we can force Siri to play music from streaming service Spotify by default instead of Apple Music (if we know how to train it).
Our digital lives are on a collision course with Apple's monopoly mind-set. So let's make it clear to Apple - not to mention lawmakers - that we demand to be in control of our most-important device. We, the iPhone owners, should be able to:
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Download apps and subscriptions from different stores
What Apple does: Only Apple's App Store is allowed on iPhones, and we can't easily download and install apps without the store. That means Apple alone gets to set its markup price, and alone gets to decide what app content is and isn't allowed.
Apple says it reviews every app, and the control is critical to its ability to protect our privacy and security.
Why we should be independent: Apple's control literally makes owning an iPhone more expensive. Apple taxes app developers up to 30%, and they pass the cost along to us. Apple is also making unilateral decisions about what should be allowed in the App Store that not everyone agrees with, such as removing apps the Chinese government doesn't approve of.
Android device owners have a choice of app stores including ones run by Google, Samsung and Amazon. With competition, customers could still choose Apple's App Store if they prefer its values - but stores could also emerge focused on different values, such as apps vetted to not rot kids' brains.
App store competition would also help us because Apple has proven it doesn't always do a great job at vetting apps to protect our privacy and prevent scams. In January, I discovered the privacy "nutrition labels" Apple attaches to app store listings are filled with inaccuracies.
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iMessage and FaceTime anyone (and anywhere) we want
What Apple does: The default iMessage chat app encrypts conversations and adds useful capabilities - but only works with people using Apple-made devices. Messages sent to people on Android phones come through as SMS text in green bubbles, which are less functional, less secure and can be flaky when people change phones.
In 2010, Jobs promised in a keynote presentation that Apple would make FaceTime video an open industry standard, but that has yet to materialize.
Why Apple should open up: Limiting iMessage and FaceTime makes the iPhone less useful. Many of Apple's customers don't live in a world where family, friends and work use all-Apple devices. Even iPhone owners can't read their own message correspondence on a Windows PC.
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Choose a voice assistant (or two)
What Apple does: The iPhone limits the use of a wake word and physical buttons to the Apple-made voice assistant Siri. We can deactivate Siri, but can't just replace it with a competitor such as Google Assistant.
There is a workaround, but it shows just how much we have to contort around Apple's control: We can create a Siri Shortcut to ask Siri to ask Google a question. (After setting up the hack, we literally have to say, "Hey Siri, Ok Google.")
Why Apple should open up: Even though Siri has been improving, many of us have invested in a relationship with a different voice service to look up answers, go shopping or operate our smart homes.
Even better, let us have more than one assistant, like Samsung offers on its Galaxy phones with Google and its homemade Bixby. Maybe we'd choose to call out "Hey, Siri" for certain queries, but "OK, Google" for others.
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Buy movies, e-books and other digital media anywhere
What Apple does: Only Apple's own apps - or ones approved by Apple - can sell movies, e-books and music on the iPhone. Making payments for digital goods go through Apple ensures there isn't fraud.
Why Apple should open up: It makes no sense that we can buy an $11,000 canoe on the Amazon app but not a $10 e-book. Apple's restrictions make it very cumbersome to patronize stores that might have better prices and selection. To purchase books from Amazon's Kindle store, the most popular e-book retailer, we have to quit the app and pull up the Amazon website, make the purchase there, and then return to the Kindle app. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.)
For movies, Amazon is now a member of Apple's Video Partner Program and allowed to sell movies directly, but other retailers including Fandango Now and Vudu still have to send us through a rigmarole.
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Set our own default apps
What Apple does: Last year, iOS finally began letting us choose our own mail and web-browsing app. But the iPhone still won't let us choose system-default apps for some other really important functions, including messaging, phone calls, camera and maps.
Why Apple should open up: Competition for these core app functions would encourage all of them to get better. For example, camera apps with special features are already among the most-popular downloads on iPhones.
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Clear away ads for Apple services
What Apple does: If you compared today's iPhone software to how it looked even 5 years ago, you might be shocked by all the ads for Apple services. There are Settings ads for AppleCare Plus and iCloud storage, App Store ads for Arcade, TV app ads for Apple TV Plus, Fitness app ads for Fitness Plus, Apple News app ads to subscribe to Apple News Plus, Music app ads to subscribe to Apple Music and more.
Apple says its services are superior because they collect as little data about us as possible to protect privacy.
Why Apple should open up: Android critics call the preinstalled apps and ads on those phones "crapware." But these Apple ads aren't much better.
One reason people choose Apple products is because it has a tradition of keeping menus simple and clean. If Apple insists on pitching new customers on its paid services, we should at least be able to tap "stop asking" and make them go away permanently. If it can make the case that its services are superior, we'll still choose them - and maybe the competition will spur other companies to compete on privacy, too.
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Make our data truly portable
What Apple does: When we plug in our iPhones at night, Apple makes a backup of them to iCloud. The Photos app also offloads our pictures to iCloud. But after the free 5 gigabytes of iCloud storage fills up, Apple asks us to start paying for an iCloud subscription. And then it asks again. And again.
We can't choose Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive for backups. Google's Photos app can offload extra photos, but Google Drive isn't a direct storage location in the native Photos app. And we can make a local backup copy of an iPhone on a Mac or Windows PC, but that requires plugging it in and waiting.
In 2019, Apple joined Google and Microsoft in an industry group called the Data Transfer Project, but changes that make moving data easy for consumers have been slow to come. Recently, Apple added the ability to automatically move an iCloud Photos collection to Google Photos.
Why Apple should open up: It's our data, and we should be able to take it wherever we want. We might already have a subscription to a storage service such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive and don't want to pay for another.
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Get repairs wherever we'd like
What Apple does: Apple won't sell customers parts to repair iPhones themselves. Instead, it pushes us to have repairs made by Apple stores or its authorized partners, who get access to its parts and instructions.
Independent repair shops can fix iPhones, but there are some repairs that they can't do because of Apple's software controls. For example, they can't reset a warning message about off-brand battery replacements - the equivalent of Jiffy Lube being unable to turn off the check-oil light.
Apple says repairs can be dangerous if they're not done correctly. And last year, Apple added new traveling repair people in some cities where an Apple authorized service provider will come to you.
Why Apple should open up: In some places, there are few authorized Apple service providers, and sending a device to Apple to get repaired would take a long time. Individuals, businesses and schools ought to have the right to tinker with their own equipment. It's good for us, not to mention for the environment, if we can repair our gear rather than buying new.
Video: baranj/The Washington Post
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