Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, whose high-profile antitrust lawsuit against Apple is now under appeal, is today calling out the iPhone maker for giving itself access to an advertising slot its competitors don’t have: the iPhone’s Settings screen. Some iOS 15 users noticed Apple is now advertising its own services at the top of their Settings, just below their Apple ID. The services being suggested are personalized to the device owner, based on which ones they already subscribe to, it appears.
For example, those without an Apple Music subscription may see an ad offering a free six-month trial. However, current Apple Music subscribers may instead see a prompt to add on a service they don’t yet have, like AppleCare coverage for their devices.
Sweeney suggests this sort of first-party advertising is an anticompetitive risk for Apple, as some of the services it’s pushing here are those that directly compete with third-party apps published on its App Store. But those third-party apps can’t gain access to the iPhone’s Settings screen, of course — they can only bid for ad slots within the App Store itself.
Writes Sweeney: “New from the guys who banned Fortnite: settings-screen ads for their own music service, which come before the actual settings, and which aren’t available to other advertisers like Spotify or Sound Cloud.”
Zucchetta tells TechCrunch he spotted the ad on an iPhone 8 he owned which was running iOS 15. But others have seen the ads on newer devices, as well. And some respondents noted they were receiving Apple’s promotions as push notifications, too.
The issue here is tricky because the promotion isn’t always a situation where Apple is disadvantaging a rival to its own benefit.
For example, on an iPhone 13 Pro Max we have which is running iOS 15.1, the prompt was used to inform us we still had a certain number of days left to add AppleCare+ coverage. (We already have most of Apple’s other subscriptions.). But in this case, there aren’t third-party apps offering a direct competitor to AppleCare, in the same way that Spotify directly competes with Apple Music. Instead, warranty companies like Asurion partner with mobile carriers like AT&T and Verizon to sell their iPhone insurance plans, instead of selling direct to consumers through the App Store.
Some might even argue that a reminder to add warranty coverage is a useful feature, not an unwanted intrusion.
While Sweeney’s tweet has raised awareness of the first-party promotions in Settings, they are not new.
Apple has often used the iPhone’s Settings screen to market its services to its customers in much of the same way as it’s doing now.
Last year, for example, it was spotted running promotions for Apple Arcade, AppleCare and Apple TV+ in Settings. Outside of this screen, Apple has also promoted its own services in other unusual ways, including through the use of push notifications. And it has cross-promoted its services inside its own apps for years — like prompts to subscribe to Apple Music while using iTunes.
But regulators today are taking a closer look at platforms and how they’re using or abusing their market power. Google is currently appealing a record penalty in the EU for its requirement that device manufacturers preinstall Google’s suite of apps with the phones they sell. Samsung, meanwhile, said it would stop running ads in its first-party apps on Galaxy devices. (It had displayed ads for other companies and those that promoted its own products, at times.)
Epic Games didn’t have any further comments on Sweeney’s tweet, including whether or not the company would be using this latest bit of information in its upcoming appeal. Apple has been asked for comment but has not responded.