You’ve probably seen the stories: it’s an epic (eye-rolling pun intended) war between two technology giants. In this corner is Apple, accused of being a greedy colossus using its tight-fisted control over its platforms to stifle innovation and ruin consumer choice. In the other corner, Epic Games, accused of posing as the victim of a controversy it manufactured in the name of keeping more cash for itself. Who do you back? Choose your side!
The thing is, I don’t really back all the actions of either party in this kerfuffle. Instead, I’m squarely on the side of the people who use technology. Let’s leave aside the tech giants. What are the outcomes that would most benefit regular users?
Easier to buy stuff
There’s no doubt about it. Apple’s restrictions on in-app purchases for digital goods—developers must use Apple’s payment system and Apple takes 30 percent of that—have degraded the customer experience on iOS. On Android, you can buy books in the Kindle app and comics in the Comixology app. But on iOS, you can’t. That’s because Amazon (owner of both apps) has decided that it can’t afford to hand Apple most of its profit margin in selling those products. Amazon is already the middleman here—there’s no room for another one. But Apple insists.
Amazon is hardly a fly-by-night company. I’ve got a longstanding financial relationship with Amazon, and they have my credit card information. What’s the harm in letting me buy my Comixology comics without exiting to Safari and buying via the web? The funny thing is, Apple already allows me to pay Amazon directly via the Prime Video app, and the world hasn’t ended. But Apple says that only video apps are eligible for this loophole.
Yes, Epic doesn’t want to share 30 percent of its sales with Apple—but this argument is also about how much better it is if users can buy digital goods directly within apps. And in many cases, Apple’s insistence on a 30 percent cut of all in-app transactions means that the commerce features of apps are entirely stripped out. There’s got to be a way for Apple to allow businesses with established relationships with customers to sell digital goods using their own payment systems, as Amazon does with the Prime Video app.
Cheaper stuff and better experiences
By the rule of the App Store, Apple’s in-app payment system has no competitor. What if Apple allowed other payment systems to operate within other apps, alongside Apple’s own system? Presumably it would force Apple to compete with those systems, on price or functionality or both. Lower prices and easier-to-use features are both direct benefits to the users.
I suspect that a lot of developers would continue to use Apple’s in-app purchase system, even if they had another choice, because of its relatively frictionless interactions and the fact that Apple handles pretty much everything on the back end. But right now, they don’t have a choice.
Safety from scams and crooks
Users also want to be safe. If Apple allows payments for digital goods from outside payment systems, it is potentially opening the gate for a new generation of scam apps and payment processors. The App Store is already full of shady apps of all kinds—stuff that Apple doesn’t appear to exert nearly enough effort to remove—but adding in direct credit-card payments potentially takes it to a whole new level.
Now imagine a world where the App Store is not the only game in town, and users can sideload apps and alternate app stores run by questionable operators. The door opens even wider. And while you, dear reader, may be a savvy enough operator not to be fooled, can you count on that relative of yours not to be hoodwinked? You know the one.
A variety of apps
There are apps that would be great on iOS and iPadOS that simply don’t exist, because Apple doesn’t want them to. In a world where sideloading or alternative app stores existed, we’d be able to use those apps if we wanted to.
These aren’t technical limitations. Anyone who has jailbroken their iPhone knows that there are countless apps out there that run just fine on iOS—but aren’t allowed in the App Store because of Apple’s restrictions. I’ve got numerous emulator apps on my Mac that let me do things like run old Apple II and Mac software, and old video games—but that stuff’s forbidden on the App Store.
And imagine the iOS apps that aren’t ever created because their developers fear that Apple will decide to reject them—and when it does, the developers have no recourse. Writing software for iOS is a bit of a gamble, and as users we are poorer because of the chilling effect that prevents many developers from taking the chance.
Security from cyberthreats
For the last few years Apple has been tightening the screws with regard to how the Mac runs software. That’s because the Mac and Windows are operating systems from a different and more innocent time. These days, malware vectors are everywhere and every large platform is a target. If the doors to iOS were opened wide, there is no doubt that malware would accumulate outside the App Store. And if the PC and Mac world have taught us anything, it’s that it’s pretty easy for a nasty person to use social engineering to convince a gullible non-technical person to turn off all the protective layers of an operatig system and run mailicious software.
Apple’s inventions to boost Mac security might be a way for Apple to at least mitigate a future where the App Store was not the only way to add software to an iPhone or iPad. You can turn off the defaults, but out of the box a Mac doesn’t really want to run software that isn’t from the App Store or signed by an Apple-certified developer. The new Notarization feature requires a developer to upload their app to Apple, where an automated process scans it and then passes it back with a seal of approval.
But if Apple is forced to change its processes by external forces—a judge, a government, or a regulatory body—would it be allowed to apply even that level of security, or would it be considered a bridge too far?
So what should happen? I guess it depends on what side you’re on. I’d like Apple to loosen up on its App Store restrictions, without sacrificing security and safety. I’d like Apple to let reputable companies process payments for digital goods directly, but I don’t want to pause every time an app asks me for money in fear that it’s a scam.
Above all else, I think that Apple has brought this scrutiny upon itself by failing to adapt to the times. When the App Store was formed, Apple was a much smaller company and the iPhone only had the beginnings of being a hit. Now Apple is a behemoth and the iPhone is one of the most popular products of our lifetimes, but sometimes it acts as if it’s a scrappy upstart that desperately needs to hold on to as much money and control as it possibly can. In 2008, its policies seemed straightforward and even innovative—and in 2020 those same policies seem cruel and tone-deaf and even greedy.
I really believe that Apple would prefer to stick with the status quo whenever possible. The wildcard here is an intervention from an external power—losing a lawsuit, facing new laws designed to curb its authority, or being forced to change policies in order to have access to certain markets. The results of such intervention are often unpredictable—and don’t always benefit the most important group of all, the users.
But just as Apple’s status quo isn’t necessarily great for users, an Epic victory wouldn’t necessarily be one, either. If a court opens holes in the App Store and prevents Apple from closing them, it might cause positive change and unfortunate side effects.
So who am I rooting for in this case? I’m hoping that the judges, along with the legislators and regulators, don’t get distracted by the sight of two large, profitable companies squabbling in court and lose sight of the most important party in this case—the people who use these products every day.