Big change is here for big tech — and it might just improve your life along the way.
First, some context is in order. For the past several years, tech companies and EU regulators have been battling it out over app stores, fair access, and the digital market in general. This led to the EU bringing the Digital Markets Act (DMA) to life in 2022.
While the DMA is complex and multifaceted, its rules are broadly aimed at making the digital economy fairer and more open. This means companies that are often gatekeepers to digital content, such as Apple and Google, will be forced to open up, allowing interoperability and more competition on everything from payments to messaging.
So why are things heating up now? Well, when the DMA entered into effect, companies affected by its rules were given a timeframe to become compliant — but that deadline is coming up very soon. On March 6th, in fact.
This leaves us with a few questions: what exactly will the DMA change? What will the future of the digital world look like? And how will it impact you?
To find out more, we spoke with Enrique Collado, VP of Growth and Marketing at Softonic, a software distribution platform founded in 1997.
Why is the DMA important?
First things first. Collado tells me that the Digital Markets Act will “
the monopoly” that big tech has on its platforms, the services they provide, and the way their systems are built.
He points out that the word the EU uses to talk about these massive companies — “gatekeepers” — is particularly appropriate, as that is literally what businesses like Amazon and Google do: control access.
“They force you to go through a specific path in order to interact,” Collado says, whether that’s manipulating how a regular person can use an app, or how software providers can work with users.
In other words, before the DMA, tech companies had free reign to dictate behaviour, decide what’s allowed, and cut down on freedom of choice. Businesses like Apple, Google, and Amazon became, in effect, digital barons.
So what does the DMA mean for people engaged in the digital economy as either providers or users? Simple: more freedom.
The real threat to big tech is the global action the DMA could inspire.
The interesting thing is that although the regulation isn’t yet being enforced, a shift is already underway.
The looming spectre of the DMA
Collado points out to me that the DMA is already having an impact on companies. “It’s causing a change in the spirit and behaviour of the six big platforms,” he says. The six he is referring to are Google parent company Alphabet, Meta, TikTok-owner ByteDance, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple.
Continuing, Collado explains that although how the DMA will impact each company will vary, they’re united in seeing the regulation “as a threat.”
Apple, for example, makes a huge amount of money from its App Store monopoly, so will do all it can to mitigate the regulation’s impact, something it issued a statement on already.
Other companies, though, are in “the unique position of sharing users across platforms.” For Meta, for example, there could be upsides, as the regulation could allow easier access to these users and more interoperability.
The real threat to big tech is coming from how the Digital Markets Act is inspiring global action.
“This serves as an example for other markets that are starting to roll in the same direction,” Collado tells me.
He points to the US, UK, and Japan — some of the “most advanced economies in the world” — as where this is happening with the most zeal. Here, lawmakers are proposing various bills that would have a similar impact to the EU’s regulation.
By being the first, the DMA is providing a model that could benefit users across the entire globe, not just those who live inside the bloc.
Big tech won’t go down without a fight
Change is already afoot, but what happens when the deadline for complying with the DMA expires?
Unfortunately, Collado believes it is unlikely that there will be any huge changes immediately. In fact, it might take some time for people to see the impact.
“It will be a slow process,” he says, explaining that this is because it takes time to change user habits. This is especially pertinent when companies will do all they can to dissuade users from taking advantage of the benefits of the DMA, whether that’s using alternative app stores or integrating messaging apps.
Apple has shown its hand already, outlining that developers will be required to submit apps for review and pay a fee to the company, even if they use different payment methods.
“This is where the fight is going to be,” Collado says.
Android already shows users huge amounts of warnings when they try to install third-party app stores — and we can almost guarantee Apple will do the same soon.
This is a deliberate strategy, one that aims to instil uncertainty in the user. The message is clear: you can leave our walled garden, but you really shouldn’t.
The way to avoid this, Collado explains, is “building [user] trust over time.” Third-party providers of software and services will need to provide a safe environment and get that message across.
This isn’t something that’s likely to happen neither quickly nor soon.
“But it will,” Collado says, “I’m convinced it will happen.”
Digital Markets Act: The great equaliser
While the DMA may not change things at first, given enough time, people will see a genuine difference.
Collado believes there will be two groups that will be impacted materially by the regulations: those who work with software, and those who consume it.
For the former — which includes companies and professionals such as developers — Collado believes this will “open up a new world of opportunities.”
Smaller companies will finally have a chance to compete on a level playing field.
Currently, they’re obliged to go through a certain path when building things like authentication certificates, user identification, or payments into their software. The DMA could blow this out of the water.
“This opens the possibility for players in different grounds to be more competitive and to give better offers on different platforms that today are non-existent,” Collado says.
He points towards Softonic, his own company, as an example of how the DMA could revolutionise businesses in this way. Currently, on Android, more than 20 million apps are downloaded a month through Softonic — even though Google tries to dissuade users from doing so.
“If the DMA enforces that the experience through alternative stores is competitive with the official one, we see an enormous growth potential in this area,” Collado says.
And if iOS is opened up in the same way? Collado believes it “will be a complete game changer,” with huge numbers of people flooding to alternative distributors like Softonic.
“For developers and businesses it’s also extremely relevant,” he says, since they will not be tied to a single solution to get their software out in the world. This gives them a choice. Options.
Whether it’s new distribution, payments, or identification providers, entire new sectors could be opened up by the DMA, the creation of which could push the whole tech industry forward.
The winners: You and I
So what about the second group that will be impacted hugely by the DMA? Well, that’s us: the end consumer. The change, over time, could be seismic. It all comes back to what we discussed earlier: freedom.
This is the choice to download things from where you want, to work across different services and platforms, to break free from the way things currently are.
Here’s a small example: why shouldn’t instant messaging apps work like email? Why can’t we send someone a note on Facebook Messenger and expect them to see it on iMessage? The only reason we can’t is because big companies decided so. The DMA could solve this and a myriad of other issues, from being able to download older versions of apps to how we settle payments.
Hoping for a bright future
“It’s time for the entire ecosystem to change,” Collado says.
While the internet was originally built on ideas of openness and interoperability, the rise of big tech has seen much of this pushed aside and replaced with monopolies and gatekeepers.
The Digital Markets Act aims to fix that.
Smaller companies will finally have a chance to compete on a far more level playing field.
Yet, in the long run, the DMA and similar regulations could be good for tech as a whole. Startups and burgeoning businesses getting more market share will increase competition, drive innovation, and shape the sector for the better.
The Digital Markets Act is just the start. We may not know exactly when, but a change is gonna come.