App Store

There’s no shortage of apps on which to search for and listen to podcasts. The real challenge it seems is getting to those apps, at least for users of an iOS device. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal found Apple’s own apps ranked first in 95% of Apple’s App Store searches tied to revenue through advertising sales or subscriptions, including in music, books and podcast categories.

In the sort of experiment that anyone can try to replicate on their own, the Journal said it conducted a search for The Podcast App, the app created by Evolve Global. But rather than surfacing the tile to download that app first, the iTunes Store instead returned its own Apple Podcast app as the first result with Evolve Global’s app coming in fourth behind Find My Friends and Apple Books as well as Apple Podcasts.

A spokesperson for Apple said the search was based on “user behavior data” that it collected in the U.S. The company says a similar search conducted in the U.K. would give users the Evolve Global app as the first result.

But the podcast results are merely part of what the Journal claims is a broader move by Apple to leverage its advantages and thwart rival apps from threatening Apple’s bottom line. The paper says its review found Apple apps ranked first in more than 60% of basic searches. The results are based on more than 600 searches over two days in mid-June.

Apple insists it doesn’t put its thumb on the scale to give its own apps an advantage, however. “Apple customers have a very strong connection to our products and many of them use search as a way to find and open their apps,” Apple told the paper in a statement. “This customer usage is the reason Apple has strong rankings in search, and it’s the same reason Uber, Microsoft and so many others often have high rankings as well.”

But there has been growing frustration among other app developers. Spotify filed a complaint with the European Commission against Apple in March, alleging that rules governing its App Store give it an unfair advantage over competitors such as the streaming service.

“In recent years, Apple has introduced rules to the App Store that purposely limit choice and stifle innovation at the expense of the user experience—essentially acting as both a player and referee to deliberately disadvantage other app developers,” Spotify CEO Daniel Ek wrote in a blog post. He said that he has “unsuccessfully” tried to resolve the issues directly with Apple and Spotify hoped the European Commission would “take action to ensure fair competition.”

NAB Chief Supports More Scrutiny

The Wall Street Journal’s report lands just as the Department of Justice announced Tuesday that its Antitrust Division has opened an investigation into whether the leading online platforms are engaging in practices that have reduced competition, stifled innovation, or otherwise harmed consumers. The DOJ said its review will consider the widespread concerns that consumers, businesses, and entrepreneurs have expressed about search, social media, and some retail services online.

“Without the discipline of meaningful market-based competition, digital platforms may act in ways that are not responsive to consumer demands,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who heads the Antitrust Division. “The Department’s antitrust review will explore these important issues.”

Speaking before the DOJ’s announcement at a Media Institute luncheon in Washington on Tuesday, National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith said he believes the power of big tech companies is worthy of Washington’s growing attention. “They control these platforms which are certainly privately-owned platforms but which have huge public consequence. At what point does something private become so public that the public has an interest in making sure, for example, that iHeartRadio gets on their device,” Smith said. “Why shouldn’t broadcast provided video and audio be on those devices? In the end we want to be where people are so that they have the information that is the most trustworthy and the most-timely in case of emergencies.”

The DOJ review was welcomed by public interest groups that have been long been warning about the market power digital platforms were amassing. “We believe this review is needed, and urge the DOJ to invest seriously in getting this right, and rooting out any anticompetitive conduct that may have occurred or still be occurring” Public Knowledge attorney Charlotte Slaiman said. “The problem of concentration in digital platforms impacts huge swaths of our economy, our democracy, and our lives.” She thinks Congress still needs to pass laws to keep big tech in check.