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Should Apple be allowed to kill one of Android’s best weather apps?

April 1, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC

Apple has acquired one of the top mobile weather apps, Dark Sky, sparking concern about the future of the well-liked service and raising questions among antitrust experts about big tech companies squashing competition.

For now, Apple is keeping the iOS version of Dark Sky available at its usual price of $4. But after announcing the deal on Monday, the tech giant removed the Android version from Google Play store and said service to existing Android customers would stop on July 1.

Also, immediately after the acquisition, Apple stopped offering rival weather apps on both iOS and Android new licenses to use Dark Sky’s meteorological data. Existing licensees, which include popular apps like Carrot Weather and Hello Weather, will be cut off at the end of next year.

The killing of the Android app brought complaints from its fans and also criticism from antitrust experts who said the move, along with the decision to cut off licensing of Dark Sky’s data, is an example of Apple eliminating competition among weather apps.

“Ugh,” was the first reaction from Stanford University law professor Mark Lemley, a noted antitrust scholar who has studied how large tech firms concentrate their power by buying up innovative startups.

“It’s worth asking whether there is any reason we should allow this merger,” Lemley adds. “True, it’s not the most important app in the world, but it seems to make consumers unambiguously worse off.”

Andrew Gavil, a Howard University law professor who has also worked for the Federal Trade Commission, adds, “Given what they’ve said they will do, it’s obviously anticompetitive.” Cutting off the Android app could be seen as a play to make iOS preferable to consumers, at least for weather app fans, he says. And cutting off access to the data licensing makes it harder for new weather apps to launch.

Apple, which did not disclose how much it paid for Dark Sky, did not respond to a request for comment about the changes.

Top tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook have been vacuuming up small app developers for many years, largely without much scrutiny beyond complaints from fans of the acquired software. Apps are often shut down, and features from the apps are sometimes integrated into the acquirer’s existing products. Apple bought a music streaming app called Swell in 2014, shuttered its app, and added features into its own Apple Music service, for example. Meanwhile, Microsoft plans to shut down acquired to-do list app Wunderlist later this year after buying it in 2015 and then creating its own to-do app.

On the other hand, sometimes the deals don’t spell doom for the acquired apps. Apple bought music app Shazam for $400 million in 2018 and still maintains both iOS and Android versions.

Dark Sky was a popular app in its category, according to data from mobile app tracking firm Sensor Tower. It is frequently the top-ranked paid weather app on iOS. Including all weather apps that charge in some form, Dark Sky ranked fifth on Android by revenue for the past year through February and 11th on iOS.

Small app and startup acquisitions have typically not received much scrutiny from antitrust regulators at the Federal Trade Commission or U.S. Justice Department.

With many other weather apps available to consumers, the Dark Sky acquisition probably isn’t significant enough on its own to draw serious review, Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute, says. And the concerning impact on the broader competition between mobile ecosystems hasn’t been a priority, she says.

“Enforcers have long focused their lens on narrow markets, often missing the forest for the trees, such as how acquisitions in large market ecosystems can help dominant firms leverage their market power from one market to another,” Moss says.

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