The Epic vs Apple process will yield a judgment as to whether Apple is stifling competition. But if you looked at Wednesday’s testimony, you could easily end more confused about what the App Store actually allows.
Apple says iOS users are taking advantage of a locked down, curated platform. It rejects “retail stores” such as the Epic Games Store, which could expose users to malicious and unscreened software. However, it also fights against Epic Games’ claims that there is no meaningful competition on its platform. So this morning an Apple attorney grilled one of Epic’s witnesses about a slew of iOS-hosted gaming apps. The move may have helped refute Epic’s complaints, but it also highlighted how arbitrary Apple’s policies can seem.
Apple attorney Karen Dunn questioned Susan Athey, an economist who testified on Epic’s behalf. Athey yesterday criticized Apple for not allowing more “middleware” or third-party services such as alternative app stores. Dunn replied with several options that would fit that bill. The list included Valve’s Steam Mobile and Steam Link apps; Microsoft’s Xbox iOS app; Sony’s PlayStation app; and a mobile gaming subscription service called GameClub. “GameClub is a direct competitor to Apple Arcade, and GameClub is available on the App Store starting today,” said Dunn.
Apple rightly calls these apps gambling services, but as testimony progressed, it wasn’t clear that they were good alternatives to the App Store. Steam Mobile allows players to manage games for Windows, Mac and Linux, but not iPhones or iPads. The Steam Link, Xbox, and PlayStation apps all let you play a catalog of games on iOS, but only if you have a PC or console to stream them from.
GameClub is a cross-platform mobile gaming service. But right after Apple mentioned the app, a GameClub manager tweeted (and then deleted it) calling that comparison “immeasurably absurd,” due to limitations on how GameClub can operate. Athey testified that Apple has rejected GameClub more than 100 times and that Apple will only allow GameClub to play games for which it has an “exclusive license”. When The edge e-mailed Eli Hodapp, GameClub’s vice president of business development, noting that Apple had described it as a successful iOS game bundling service, Hodapp replied, “Are you serious?”
The past week has shown some extremely fine lines between what Apple considers good and bad. For example, remote play on console is possible with the iOS Xbox app. But as Microsoft’s Lori Wright testified, Apple and Xbox failed to secure a deal for xCloud, which allows players to stream games without an Xbox. Wright even accidentally got one approved a streaming app called Shadow started the store until Apple decided that Shadow offered a “full Windows 10 PC instead of a library of games.” From the outside, this looks more like a semantic avoidance than a decision based on privacy, security and quality.
Apple hammered on Epic for offering access to Itch.io, an adult content store. But Steam has a policy of almost everything when it comes to porn, and Steam Mobile and Link take those games a few taps away on iOS. Conversely, an App Store executive testified that Roblox user-built “experiences” were fine because they couldn’t sneak new malicious code onto iPhones. But cloud gaming services are said to threaten the “safe and trusted” model of the iPhone, despite the fact that it is essentially just video streaming.
Being confusing or inconsistent doesn’t make Apple’s App Store illegal. Epic must demonstrate that Apple’s ecosystem is a monopoly, and that it hurts users by producing higher prices or substandard service. But part of Apple’s defense is that it is an honest, consistent steward who puts users’ interests first. As the process progresses, it is sometimes difficult to say what it thinks those interests are.