Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) Apple Music has finally erased one of the biggest user-facing differences between itself and competitors like Spotify. At long last, users can access an officially released Apple Music app within a web browser.
Apple Music's in-browser app officially launched April 17. The long process that led to this point reveals Apple's long-standing reservations about the in-browser app model.
It's about time
Apple's in-browser app appeared as a public beta for the first time in September 2019. By contrast, competitor Spotify's public beta for its own in-browser app appeared in November 2012 and got a full official release before the end of that year.
To say that Apple has taken its time in delivering an in-browser app is a major understatement. Spotify wasn't the only service to reach browsers much more quickly than Apple Music: Alphabet's streaming music services, Google Play Music (which launched in 2011) and YouTube Music (which launched in 2015), have been supporting web-based applications pretty much all along. Other competitors at home and abroad, including India's Gaana, are also at home in a user's browser window.
Yet, even now, Apple Music seems reluctant to run there. Open up Apple Music in a web browser, and you'll find shortcut buttons that will send you right back to the relevant desktop or mobile app (either Apple Music or iTunes, depending on your platform). Clearly, Apple still wants you to listen using its stand-alone apps, which make sense.
What's with Apple's anti-browser vibe?
Apple's philosophy is all about controlling hardware and platforms. End users, including Apple customers and fans of rival Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows operating system, used to complain (and sometimes still do) that Apple treated customers as though they were merely renting their devices. Users couldn't tweak settings and make changes on Apple devices in the way they could on a PC. On some Apple devices, users didn't even have the freedom to download and install any program they wanted. iPhones, for example, could only download applications from Apple's app store (barring the device being "jailbroken" -- hacked in order to allow customization and unapproved programs).
For the most part, all of this remains true today. The only difference is that there are more tech companies using Apple's methods.The Android and Amazon Fire TV platforms, for example, have curated app stores, though the workarounds for adding programs without the app store are much simpler on those platforms than they are on iOS.
Alphabet, unlike Apple, is all about web-based services. Aphabet's ecosystem lives online, where services like Gmail and Google Docs can be found within web apps.
And, of course, the most popular web browser on the planet is Alphabet's own Chrome (Apple's Safari is a distant second). And, like Internet Explorer before it, Chrome has begun to dictate how websites and web apps are designed. It's not always easy to get websites and apps to work in the same ways on different browsers. And when developers have to choose, they tend to pick the most popular browsers to focus on.
For Apple, creating a web app means catering, at least in part, to a browser run by a tech competitor (and one that has a music streaming business of its own, no less). It's likely that part of Apple's reluctance to go into the web app space is related to its rival's dominance in browser market share.
There aren't huge direct costs to this dilemma for Apple. Users who sign up for Apple Music pay Apple regardless of which app they use. But there are certainly indirect costs. Apple would prefer to keep users in its own ecosystem, because it can make more money off other apps and services on its own platforms via the infamous Apple "platform tax." For the same reasons, Apple would presumably like to see other platforms -- including the Chrome browser and the web-based ecosystem that Google has developed -- become less important and less essential. In other words, a web-based app is more or less mandatory for Apple Music, but Apple surely would prefer that it wasn't.
Browsers, apps, and platforms
Apple's slow approach to an in-browser app meshes with Apple's desire to push users to its own platforms, including iOS and MacOS. But it's not just what Apple wants -- it's also what Apple doesn't want. The Chrome browser and web apps are in some ways a Google platform. In web apps, customers can sign up for all kinds of (non-Apple) services without Apple getting a cut, and Google's web-based approach relies on web apps being popular and familiar things. Web apps are already popular, of course, which is why Apple Music's missing web app was a liability and why this official release was probably inevitable -- but it's easy to see why Apple is not exactly thrilled that this is the case.