Apple may loosen its grip on default iPhone apps, report says

Some changes may also be coming to Apple's HomePod speaker.

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Apple is reportedly looking at whether to let you change some default iOS apps to alternatives from its rivals. The tech giant is considering letting people chose third-party mail and web browser apps as their default options on iPhones and iPads , according to a report Thursday from Bloomberg. 

The change would let you replace Apple's Safari browser and Mail app with rivals such as Google's Chrome browser and Microsoft's Outlook mail app as your default apps, Bloomberg reported, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter. Currently, iOS defaults to many of Apple's own apps. For example, if you're sent a web link in a text message, clicking on that link will automatically open it in Safari.

Apple is also reportedly considering opening its HomePod smart speaker to third-party music apps.

The changes, which are still under discussion, could appear as soon as this year in Apple's expected iOS 14 software as well as a corresponding HomePod software update, according to Bloomberg. Apple hosts its annual developers conference in June, and it's likely it could talk about the changes during its keynote presentation.

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Apple didn't respond to requests for comment. 

Apple's services segment is one of its fastest growing and most important businesses, and the App Store, in particular, has been vital to that rise. The company has long tightly controlled what apps are allowed in its store, banning any that don't comply with its values (porn isn't allowed, for instance), and Apple takes a cut of each app or subscription sale. 

Apple's services push

Apps are what helped turn the iPhone into more than a phone. They're what get users hooked on their devices. But Apple has been facing scrutiny -- from everyone from regulators to software makers -- over the way it runs its App Store. While people with Macs can circumvent the Mac App Store and download software from web browsers, Apple's App Store is the only way to purchase apps for iPhones, iPads and Apple Watches

A year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that iPhone owners can sue Apple for allegedly operating a monopoly through its App Store. And there was outcry from makers of parental control apps that Apple unfairly banned their software because their apps competed with Apple's own software. AmazonNetflixSpotify and other heavyweights also have criticized Apple's App Store model, and the US Justice Department last year kicked off an antitrust review of Apple and other big tech companies. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the Democrats running for president, has said Apple's App Store gives the company too much of a competitive advantage. 

By letting people set non-Apple apps as their default services on the iPhone, Apple would be taking steps toward being more open.

But at least one app developer doesn't think the move goes far enough. Blix, which makes the BlueMail app, has been battling Apple during the past year over its App Store practices. Apple banned BlueMail from the Mac App Store for eight months, which the tech giant said was because it didn't comply with Apple's store rules. But Blix has argued that Apple made the move after introducing a feature -- Sign In With Apple -- that resembled its own technology. Apple reinstated the app earlier this month.

"It sounds like a small evolution for Apple ... to open up," Blix co-founder Ben Volach said in an interview. "But it's very far from allowing real competition to actually happen."

He noted that there are multiple layers a user has to go through to select a non-Apple app. If users want to access, say, Google Chrome instead of Safari, they have to seek out the app in a store that highlights Apple's offerings instead of rivals, download it from the App Store and then specifically select it when web browsing. Currently, clicking on a link in something like iMessage would still load Safari. It's that third layer, the default choice, that Apple is considering changing.

Instead, Blix would like users to have options like setting what apps are preloaded on a new iPhone. They could choose Chrome, or BlueMail, from the start, he said. 

"There are many ways in which Apple can open up to true competition," Volach said. 

Originally published Feb. 20, 7:02 a.m. PT.
Update, 2:17 p.m.: Adds background information and comment from Blix. 

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