NYT on Apple’s Screen Time failures and the assault on third party alternatives

The New York Times has a pretty good article on the existential crisis facing vendors who have tried to provide parental control (parenting support) services for iOS devices:

Apple Cracks Down on Apps That Fight iPhone Addiction – The New York Times, Jack Nicas, April 27, 2019
… Over the past year, Apple has removed or restricted at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen-time and parental-control apps, according to an analysis by The New York Times and Sensor Tower, an app-data firm. Apple has also clamped down on a number of lesser-known apps.

In some cases, Apple forced companies to remove features that allowed parents to control their children’s devices or that blocked children’s access to certain apps and adult content. In other cases, it simply pulled the apps from its App Store…. 

…. On Thursday, two of the most popular parental-control apps, Kidslox and Qustodio, filed a complaint with the European Union’s competition office. Kidslox said business had plummeted since Apple forced changes to its app that made it less useful than Apple’s tool.

Apple also faces an antitrust complaint in Russia from Kaspersky Lab …  which said Apple had forced it to remove key features from its parental-control app. The company is exploring a similar complaint in Europe, a Kaspersky spokeswoman said.

… In early 2018, two prominent Wall Street investors urged Apple to address concerns that people were becoming addicted to their smartphones. In June, the company announced plans for tools to help iPhone owners track and limit their and their children’s phone use. It began offering the tools in September, tucked into the phone’s settings menu.

Shortly after announcing its new tools, Apple began purging apps that offered similar services.

Apple told the companies that their apps violated App Store rules, like enabling one iPhone to control another, although it had allowed such practices for years and had approved hundreds of versions of their apps.

Apple allows corporations to use such software to control employees’ phones. But last year, the company stopped apps from using the software to enable parents to control their children’s devices. The Apple spokeswoman said Apple had blocked the practice because app makers could gain access to too much information on the children’s devices. [jf: I think this means ability to access protected data that can be misused by vendors, such as Contacts.]

Unlike apps such as OurPact, Apple’s tools don’t allow parents to schedule different times throughout a day when an app is blocked — for school or family dinner. And Apple’s tool blocks adult content only on its Safari web browser and some apps, not on other browsers or many popular apps, like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram…

Apple’s tool has another shortcoming: It requires the whole family to own iPhones. Many apps removed by Apple allowed parents with iPhones to control their children’s Android devices.

Apple has also limited the options for adults who want to fight their own phone addiction. In August, it abruptly pulled down the Freedom app, which allowed users to temporarily disable certain apps and websites. Mr. Stutzman, Freedom’s chief executive, said that to return to iPhones, he was forced to stop blocking apps and to block sites only on Apple’s Safari browser.

Apple’s tool now appears to be one of the few ways to disable apps, if not the only one. Yet when a user hits an app’s time limit on Apple’s tool, it provides a single option: “Ignore Limit.” [jf: This is not quite correct, but I understand why they got his wrong.]

The app makers said they were most frustrated by the process of meeting Apple’s sudden demands. In many cases, Apple alerted them that their apps would be removed — and their businesses crippled — via a short note, according to correspondence viewed by The Times.

When app makers asked for more information, responses were often perfunctory and slow in coming…

I give the NY Times a lot of credit for tackling this topic. Mr Nicas probably needed a stiff drink after finishing this. It’s a complex problem.

On the one hand, Apple is right. I spent quite a bit of time testing Qustodio and it’s competitors prior to the release of enhanced Screen Time. None of them were acceptable. They all had business model issues or were easy to bypass, or didn’t quite work, or had weird side effects. I can believe they all broke App Store rules and that good devs would have known that.

On the other hand … Apple tolerated these apps. Then Apple both abruptly enforced rules and added new ones (allegedly blocking use of corporate MDM). Apple also shipped a half-built solution that has big bugs (if you enroll a device in remote Screen Time you can never truly remove it), almost non-existent documentation (especially for remote Screen Time), works only within the iOS ecosystem (no web interface), is both very complex and also insufficient, requires complex side-effect rich family sharing that ends abruptly at age 18, and is understood by almost nobody. Did I mention the #$! bugs?

Oh, yeah, and Apple’s new Screen Time is really lousy at managing web sites and the Safari app. It’s a significant regression from iOS 11 Restrictions. (My guess is that Apple figures the web is dead, so not worth worrying about.)

So there are sins on both sides, but as the best outside judge anyone is going to get I rule against Apple. They made a good initial effort on Screen Time but then they stopped work. They aren’t fixing their bugs. They haven’t provided a toolkit outside vendors can use to provide features Apple doesn’t provide. They have been as brutal to these vendors as they’ve been to all but the big and powerful. The one thing Apple has succeeded at is ending the external pressure they were getting.

I’d love to see Congress put some pressure on Apple. They need to finish the work they started, then they need to refine it and provide an API vendors can use to support unique needs, such as extended support for special needs adult. I’m available to testify!


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