Apple vigorously denies that its purge of parental control apps has anything to do with its new Screen Time feature but even its own words cast plenty of doubt on its excuse of “privacy and security”.
Parental control apps typically use a technology called mobile device management (MDM). This is administrator level software installed on the device that allows a 3rd party to see what is happening on the device, where it is, read the data, control installs and updates and so on.
Apple has tolerated this software on its devices for years but co-incidentally decided that MDM violates the policies of the App Store once it had launched its own version: Screen Time. Screen Time is not nearly as comprehensive as some of the 3rd party products and offers far fewer options, but this will no longer be a problem as many have been banished from the store.
Apple is entirely correct to say that privacy and security are critical and so RFM takes Apple at its word and judge it on the merits of its own statements.
First, privacy: In its commentary (see here) Apple says “No one, except you, should have unrestricted access to manage your child’s device”. There is no evidence whatsoever that any of the owners of the parental control apps had been spying on their customers’ data. Consequently, unless Apple has found proof that this has been happening, Apple’s position makes no sense as this is exactly what the parental control apps had been providing.
Second, security: Apple states: “research (uncited) has shown that MDM profiles could be used by hackers to gain access for malicious purposes”. However, companies have been using MDM on their devices for years and continue to do so today. Consequently, if MDM was as “incredibly risky” as Apple states, the practice would have died out years ago. The last thing that companies will do is put their trade secrets more at risk than they have to. Furthermore, Apple has not shut down the commercial MDM solutions meaning that it is being selective in how it applies its policies. Screen Time is a consumer-oriented service and it is the consumer implementations of MDM that Apple has targeted.
The net result is that it is difficult to accept that Apple’s arguments have merit and therefore conclude that this move has been driven more by Screen Time than any genuine concern for privacy and security. Apple has form in this department and other competitors like Spotify have complained to regulators with regard to Apple’s practices.
Apple’s hardware business is very mature where the growth outlook is weak and likely to go sideways for some time to come. Consequently, Apple has an incentive to limit competition for its own Digital Life Services as it is here where revenue growth is most likely to be found.
This is a boon for Android which has huge issues with security (see here) but curiously, has never really suffered a major breach. Hence, those parents that wish to prevent their children from circumventing the fairly weak Screen Time parental controls will be incentivised to switch their kids to Android. Given that Apple is generally not very good at Digital Life Services, this could do more damage in terms of market share loss compared to any service revenue that it might pick up as a result.
I continue to think that Apple’s good run in 2019 more than reflects the flat outlook and so would be taking money off the table.