Epic's Monopoly Royale

The anticompetitive scrutiny on the App Store has been growing for a while. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact starting point, but a big push came out of Apple’s souring relationship with Spotify. This spat became public in 2018 when Spotify removed the ability to subscribe to its service using in-app purchase. Recent court filings have revealed that the two companies had been privately exchanging tense discourses for several years leading up to that happening. Seemingly following Spotify’s lead, Netflix followed suit later in the same year by removing any ability to sign up in its app. New users would have to go to the web, allowing it to avoid paying Apple a cut of its subscriptions.

It wasn’t so much that Apple had changed its App Store policies, most of the rules currently under public review date back to Steve Jobs. What did happen is that Apple began applying them ever more strictly. It was cracking down on things like Spotify including links in its app that directed people to to sign up online. The enforcement was so stringent that it even extended to banning apps that included help and support buttons because they would indirectly allow users to get to an account creation page, like with a link in the website footer. Today, many companies have resorted to setting up completely separate privacy policy and FAQ pages, stripped of all website navigation, just to appease App Review.

The discontent among big companies gradually evolved into a bigger issue as Apple itself started to seriously invest in building competitors to the services that the App Store was restricting. Spotify’s complaint to the EU holds so much weight precisely because it can make the case that it is disadvantaged in competing against Apple Music. Without that incendiary motivation, this stuff may never have come to the fore in the eyes of government. We’ve even seen Tile testify to a judiciary hearing because Apple is merely rumoured to be entering the smart tracker market.

Epic’s public protest will be remembered as the apex of this fight. It has officially reached the point of no return. Something is going to change. I don’t know how and I don’t know what, but something is going to change. Apple is not going to escape from all of this completely unscathed.

Some people think that Apple will use the Fortnite blackout as the time to reconsider and relax some of its policies to placate Epic and diffuse the looming antitrust lawsuits. I don’t see it. Apple has had plenty of chances to re-evaluate its position and it has plainly chosen to remain steadfast. It’s not budging until it is forced to. I think the likely resolution of the standoff is that Epic relents in a couple of weeks time. They will retract the direct payments feature and Fortnite will then return to the App Store. The stunt has served its purpose as a mildly-embarrassing smear campaign against Apple, and its effect won’t be lessened by Epic backtracking. In fact, that might only serve as legal ammo: Epic could argue that Apple’s retaliatory action was so harsh that it left them no choice but to back down.

Assuming Apple sticks to its convictions, we must wait for some government body to enact change through an arduously long court and appeals process. When the dust settles, there are a few different avenues Apple could negotiate. Possible release valves include supporting applications that are installed outside of the App Store, allowing alternative payment methods, or merely letting Netflix tell its customers that users can purchase its services on the web. I do not expect the 30% cut to be meaningfully reduced: Google Play is living proof that an app store can justify taking 30% even when alternative app distribution options are available.

The money is one thing. Personally, I care more about reining in the power Apple has to deny entire categories of apps from existing. The most recent example of this is Apple’s decision to outlaw all game streaming services. These services pose no risk to the security or stability of the operating system, and frankly provide access to games that have been examined far more meticulously by age rating boards than anything App Review does. Apple has no justifiable reason to ban them, and yet here we are. That just doesn’t sit right with me.

A common refrain in support of Apple’s position is to compare iOS devices to game consoles. Microsoft and Sony operate curated platforms for Xbox and PlayStation, with unilateral control over what software is available and mandatory revenue sharing agreements. If Microsoft is allowed to block Google Stadia from being available on the Xbox, why must Apple be compelled to allow it? I wish I hard a straight answer to this question, but I don’t. Maybe it is just the sheer dominance of the iPhone in consumer culture, it touches lives far more deeply than any generation of PlayStation. I can’t fully vocalise why an iPhone is different to a games console, but it is. The ‘console argument’ may be a legitimate legal defence, but it doesn’t convince me. It’s the old adage: you know it when you see it.