Online fanboys will inevitably take sides, but none of the parties involved in this latest app store kerfuffle are saints, nor are they your friend.
In a meticulously planned publicity stunt this week, Fortnite developer Epic Games baited both Google and Apple into booting the hugely popular title off their respective app stores, before filing legal complaints against both companies and riling up its fanbase behind the banner of #FreeFortnite. As often occurs with high-profile legal beefs in the gaming and mobile spaces, it’s easy for fans to chug heartily of whichever company’s Kool-Aid and take up highly polarized positions.
Epic’s own statement paints Apple as the villain for “blocking” Fortnite from a billion iOS devices. Apple, in its statement, slyly takes some credit for some of Fortnite’s popularity, saying it’s “glad [Epic has] built such a successful business on the App Store.” Google offers essentially a 🤷 emoji extended to paragraph form by response, stating that Epic entered into its Play Store agreement freely — despite previous beef between the two — and noting how Android supports third-party app stores and direct app installs.
The reality is a bit more complex and less flattering for all parties involved. Epic Games and its founder Tim Sweeney have long railed against what they’ve described as this 30% “tax” on transactions made through apps hosted on the iOS App Store or Google Play. Clearly, though, operating the world’s biggest mobile app platforms costs money. Maybe 30% is steep, but painting it as a “tax” is a bit of a stretch. In the case of Android in particular, there’s a viable alternative of simply offering your app for download directly outside of the Play Store, something Epic itself has done in the past.
Epic Games, quite obviously, wants to keep a bigger slice of its Fortnite pie. Relatively speaking, the developer and engine-maker is small compared to an Apple or a Google, but it’s still a colossus by any reasonable standard. Fortnite itself is a cultural juggernaut, and generates enormous amounts of revenue — more than $1 billion on mobile alone in its first two years, of which a 30% cut represents hundreds of millions of dollars. For all the bluster and talk of app taxes and small-time developers being gouged by big-time platform holders, that’s the crux of what’s in it for Epic: It’s a company valued at an estimated $18 billion, led by a man worth $5.3 billion, that would quite like to have a few more hundred million dollars.
That same argument applies to Google and Apple also. But at least the platform holders have the additional defense of needing to maintain their ecosystems and their customers’ security.
David vs Goliath and another Goliath, except the David is also a Goliath.
It’s also worth underscoring that it’s Epic, not Apple or Google, choosing to have this particular fight at this particular time. Despite claims that Apple is “blocking” Fortnite on devices, it’s Epic that publicly forced the issue. It knew Google and Apple would have no choice but to act when it broke its agreements with them and offered in-app purchases outside of the mobile storefronts. And it had a clear plan to follow up with lawsuits, backed up by additional pressure on the platform holders through the mobilization of its fanbase. The #FreeFortnite hashtag and accompanying “1984” parody video are a little ironic, then. Epic triggered this whole situation in the first place, and could easily free Fortnite itself by reverting the deliberately provocative change that violated its agreements with Apple and Google. (There’s the additional irony, of course, of imagery from George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel being used to summon millions of normal people to the defense of Epic Games, a huge organization already rolling in an almost inconceivable amount of cash.)
Epic’s argument, though, doesn’t focus on the breach of its agreement with Apple or Google. As Nilay Patel of The Verge explains, the company isn’t disputing that it violated the agreements, it’s challenging the legality of them in the first place, on the grounds that they’re monopolistic and anticompetitive.
The timing here is no accident, with both Google and Apple in the crosshairs of antitrust investigations in the U.S. The theatrics of the past 72 hours are designed to further illuminate the very real control that both enjoy over the mobile landscape, eventually forcing more favorable terms for Epic, its game, and presumably other developers.
Apple’s iron grip on iOS is well known. The walled garden of the App Store provides game developers with an unparalleled potential audience, but only if they submit to Apple’s rules, and agree that the platform holder gets to take a considerable, non-negotiable cut of all revenue generated through the app. It’s this demand that caused such a stink with Amazon’s Kindle platform a decade ago. If users bought books through the Kindle app on iOS, Apple would want the purchase routed through its systems, along with the 30% share of any sales that would entail. As a result, the awkward workaround of buying content on the web before reading it in the app still applies today.
iOS has been built from the ground up to give Apple total control, both in the kind of content iPhone and iPad owners get access to and how they pay for it. Apple would argue that it maintains this control for the security of its users and to ensure the quality of experience on an iPhone. For example, Apple doesn’t want iPhone owners being pushed to random, unsecured payment services; the solution to that just happens to be the enforcement of a single payment provider — Apple — which demands a nontrivial chunk of anything passing through it. This behavior makes cries of “monopoly” understandable. And bigger companies than Epic have found themselves frustrated by the App Store’s rules.
You don’t get to be worth close to $2 trillion through acts of charity.
As well as the Amazon Kindle example, Spotify and recently Microsoft have condemned Apple for its restrictive policies and its intransigence. The App Store’s strict terms have kept game streaming platforms like XCloud and Stadia off the iPhone and iPad. Unlike the Android world, if you’re outside the App Store, there’s no viable alternative whatsoever. Play by Apple’s rules, and pay for the privilege, or the door to a billion-plus customers slams shut.
And so, as highlighted by Epic’s “Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite” parody trailer, it’s very easy to make the argument that Apple has come to resemble the all-controlling monopolistic force — IBM — that it pushed back against in the early 80s. Again, understandable given the status of Apple in 2020 as the most valuable company in human history. You don’t get to be worth close to $2 trillion through acts of charity, nor through making deals that aren’t skewed heavily in your favor.
In a recent tweet, Epic founder Tim Sweeney gives an hypothetical example of Apple’s walled garden taken to its absolute extreme: “If colleges hold virtual classes through an iPhone app, Apple could demand 30% of the tuition.”
“The tying of the operating system to a monopoly software distribution channel and monopoly payment processor and monopoly tax doesn’t need “policy tweaks”, it needs to stop,” Sweeney adds. “All of these components must be unbundled to support fair competition among stores, apps and suppliers.”
Just how that unbundling could conceivably work on iOS will be the subject of fierce debate in the coming months.
One possible example is the Android approach, allowing apps to be installed through third-party sources, or even allowing third-party app stores on the platform. But even that is unsatisfactory from the perspective of Epic, which is also suing Google and alleging similarly uncompetitive behavior. App stores outside of Google Play exist as second-class citizens on Play-certified devices, displaying what Epic calls “scary” security messages whenever they need to install or update apps.
Google, like Apple, needs to ensure the security of its platform. But like Apple, the resulting system works very clearly in Google’s commercial interests.
Epic is all too familiar with the compromises involved in trying to get its game onto Android phones by the back door. During a period of previous drama between the two, Epic either did or didn’t (depending on who you believe) request an exemption from Google’s 30% cut of in-app purchases, before caving and bringing Fortnite to the Play Store anyway.
Google, too, wants a cut of those sweet sweet V-Bucks.
More recently, as the Epic/Google complaint alleges, the search giant was apparently able to scupper deals between Epic and two major Android OEMs, LG and OnePlus. The deals, it’s claimed, were to preload a version of the Epic Games app on these phones, through which Fortnite could be installed or updated outside of the Google Play Store.
The complaint states:
OnePlus informed Epic that Google was “particularly worried that the Epic Games app would have ability to potentially install and update multiple games with a silent install bypassing the Google Play Store”
Or in other words, Google may have been concerned that someone could install Fortnite from the Play Store, and then the Epic app would immediately “update” it in the background to a non-Google Play version. Such an APK switcheroo would deprive Google of a cut of microtransactions in Fortnite, since Epic would be free to do as it pleased in the updated, non-Google Play version of the game. To do this, the preloaded Epic app would take advantage of the elevated, system-level permissions only available to apps loaded onto phones by the device manufacturer.
It’s one thing for Google to allow OEMs to preload Facebook services, quite another when Fortnite money is involved.
What that doesn’t explain, however, is that LG, Samsung and some other Android phone makers load their own app stores alongside Google Play on devices — with Google’s blessing. Similarly, OnePlus itself preloads its phones with Facebook services, a similar app that sits in the background and silently updates apps like Facebook and Messenger without user knowledge.
The key difference with Fortnite is the sheer amount of money at stake. Google isn’t missing out on any cash if Facebook updates its stuff in the background on OnePlus or LG phones. But Google potentially loses a cut of hundreds of millions in revenue if gamers switch (or are unknowingly switched in the background) to non-Google Play versions of Fortnite.
Although for Epic Games, Apple and Google there are other things at stake in this fight, the primary motivator of all three sides is money. All three are corporate giants wanting a bigger slice (or to maintain their current share) of the massive amount of revenue that Fortnite generates on mobile. While this issue has been brewing for years, Epic has chosen now, with antitrust investigators eyeing Google and Apple, as the opportune moment to try and force the platform holders to decouple their app stores and payment mechanisms from their operating systems.
An Epic victory would mean more profound changes for Apple than Google.
Epic set this whole thing in motion, and so it’s embarked on a publicity campaign to portray Apple and Google as the villains of the piece. The developer has warned that unless Apple “frees Fortnite,” they’ll miss out on the next season of the game. In reality, Epic bears just as much responsibility for Fortnite players’ predicament as the companies it’s now locked in legal combat with.
If Epic is successful, the consequences for mobile software could be profound — for iOS, arguably more than Android. (Third-party Android stores are, after all, already very much a thing. An Epic victory would mostly just put them on a more level playing field.) But Tim Sweeney would likely have to claim the keys to iOS’s walled garden from Apple’s cold, dead hands — such is the value of this level of control over iPhone and iPad software.
Relinquishing control of iOS app distribution could make for a less secure but more vibrant and competitive iPhone software scene — possibly a good thing for developers. But, most importantly of all for Epic, the Fortnite developer would achieve its actual goal of enjoying a few extra hundred million dollars in mobile revenue over the coming years.
Or, if not, the dominance of the current platform holders will continue, and they’ll be a bit richer instead.
Neither outcome will be a life-changing development for Fortnite’s hundreds of millions of players. And for the rest of us: Ultimately, when the choice is to root for either a multi-billion dollar company, a bigger multi-billion dollar company, or an (almost) multi-trillion dollar company, perhaps it’s best not to pick sides.