Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
If you weren’t watching tech news yesterday, you missed an entire afternoon’s worth of cramming handfuls of popcorn in your mouth as you stared wide-eyed at the screen wondering what madness was coming next. It was A Day. Epic baited both Apple and Google into banning Fortnite from their respective app stores and did so with a full game plan in mind — including an in-game anti-Apple video event and two very public lawsuits.
Beyond Epic, I have many tech topics to weigh in on from this week that I haven’t had a chance to tackle because I’ve been working on our review and video for the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra — hit me up if you have questions you’d like to see addressed in that.
But before we get to the Battle Royale between these three companies, I can’t not quickly talk about the Microsoft Duo. Holy wow that phone/not-a-phone looks really interesting but also looks like it might be overpriced and underpowered. I am decidedly on team “specs don’t tell the whole story” but I am also on team “better specs are a safer bet, especially when the thing costs $1399.” Long story short: I love the idea of folding devices but the burden of proof is on Microsoft with this one. I absolutely cannot wait to review it.
We’ll have plenty of analysis that goes much deeper into everything Fortnite on The Verge today. Expect a long discussion on The Vergecast and articles from reporters on our tech and gaming crews. We have a page where you can see all the updates, too: Everything you need to know about Epic’s fight against mobile app stores.
For my part, I’m just going to give you a brief and very incomplete timeline of some of the relevant app store dramas that bought us to the point where the most important gaming company on the planet created a video parodying Apple’s famous 1984 Superbowl commercial. I will start… earlier than you might expect.
January 22nd, 1984: the national Super Bowl broadcast of Apple’s famous Macintosh advertisement. It was a stunning, wildly influential ad. Directed by Ridley Scott, it told the story of a revolutionary upstart that was going to break the totalitarian rule of the monopolist behemoth who dominated the industry.
June, 2016: Apple very slightly changed its App Store rules to lower its cut on subscription apps from 30 percent to 15 percent after their first year. It was a moment when Apple finally started easing up, if only slightly, on the rules that give it a 30 percent cut on everything in the store.
August 3rd, 2018: Epic took Fortnite off of the Google Play Store because it was angry about Google taking that same 30 percent cut. Epic was able to do this in the first place because Android, unlike iOS, allows people to install apps directly from any source. It just requires clicking “OK” on a bunch of relatively intimidating security warnings.
January 17th, 2020: the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Colorado about how big tech treats smaller companies in its orbit. Short answer: it’s often a “shakedown.” Sonos (which is suing Google), PopSockets, Tile, and Basecamp all testify to having been kicked around by Apple in various ways.
April 3rd, 2020: we learned that Apple had given Amazon a special deal that let it do things that other developers couldn’t. Apple claimed it was “an established program,” but we all saw through it: Amazon got a deal because Amazon had leverage.
April 21st, 2020: Fortnite returned to the Google Play Store. Turns out all those warnings about third party apps (and maybe the lack of easy discovery) was too much of a problem for Epic. Epic’s CEO, Tim Sweeney, was pretty blunt about how unhappy he was that his app had to come back.
June 16th, 2020: Basecamp’s new email app, Hey, was rejected from the Apple App Store because it didn’t offer a way to sign up directly on the iPhone — mainly so that it won’t have to pay Apple’s fee. Exactly one week later (just in time to keep it from ruining Apple’s developer conference) a compromise was reached: Hey offered a kind of minimum functionality that let it sneak on to the App Store.
July 29th, 2020: the judiciary committee met again, calling in the CEOs of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook over video conference. It went better than expected, if only because the committee displayed some semblance of technical knowledge. Still, it didn’t create any enduring moments. In particular, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai didn’t get pressured on App Store issues in any meaningful way.
August 6th, 2020: Apple reiterated its policies surrounding streaming games platforms: not allowed. Microsoft, Google, and Facebook all would like to offer their streaming game services to iPhone users, but Apple insists that it get a cut on digital purchases and that it have the ability to directly review and list every game. Microsoft and Facebook issued condemnations of the policy.
Alright, that’s a lot of history. Believe me when I tell you it’s very incomplete — there’s a whole other Spotify timeline, European Union timeline, and Android timeline we could do here. Anyway, from this incomplete timeline, here are the key points you should remember as we digest yesterday’s hijinks.
- First, there has been a lot of unhappiness related to Apple’s monopoly over app distribution on the iPhone, and anger at both Apple and Google over their 30 percent cut. Developers are seeing an opportunity to push back.
- There’s also been a general decline in trust and faith in big tech (duh).
- Finally, there’s been growing interest from regulators to start enforcing some antitrust laws.
…And now, welcome to August 13th, 2020. I assure you, all of the events below happened in a single day.
┏ Epic offers new direct payment in Fortnite on iOS and Android to get around app store fees. Epic straight up pushed a server side update to its app that wasn’t reviewed by either Apple or Google. That’s no-no number one. No-no number two is the big one, though: offering direct payments without giving Apple or Google a cut.
You can already see the seeds of what’s to come here. The move was blatant and it was also designed to curry favor with users, presenting the new options with a 20 percent discount. (Interestingly, not 30 percent, but also there are credit card fees and other issues that could account for that discrepancy. Arguing about it misses the point.)
┏ Apple just kicked Fortnite off the App Store. Apple stuck to its guns. Fortnite broke the rules, Fortnite is out.
┏ Epic will mock Apple’s most iconic ad as possible revenge for Fortnite’s App Store ban. It becomes obvious that the original direct payment option was a setup all along. Epic intends to make it a big issue and rally its fans to its cause.
to be clear, I am quite confident that nobody was surprised by this move. I am sure that before it made the decision to kick the app out of the store, Apple knew Epic would do something like this.
┏ Epic Games is suing Apple. But did Apple know that Epic would sue? Who knows? There are two things to note about Epic’s lawsuit:
- It starts with very readable, very passionate language about how Apple used to be good but now it’s bad.
- It very carefully positions its anti-trust argument by saying that Apple has a monopoly over iOS distribution, not over all smartphones. The antitrust arguments for every big tech company tends to hinge on some question of “market definition.”
┏ Microsoft releases Surface Duo press event video with 30 minutes of demos. Yeah okay this has nothing to do with anything else, but it’s worth watching. I love gadgets, what can I say?
┏ Watch Epic’s Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite short mocking Apple right here. I cannot begin to express how savvy this video is. It mirrors Apple’s famous anti-IBM commercial shot for shot. It re-contextualizes Apple as the bully. It …tells the story of a revolutionary upstart that is going to break the totalitarian rule of the monopolist behemoth who dominates the industry.
┏ Epic rallies Fortnite players against Apple with a warning that they’ll miss the next season. Of course, there is a hashtag. But also, there are real and immediate stakes. Apple and Google banned Fortnite from their stores, but they still work on every device they’re already installed on. So a bunch of users might just shrug at this as a fight that will be over before it affects them. Epic is making even those people realize that this is a problem for them.
┏ Fortnite for Android has also been kicked off the Google Play Store. I have to be honest with you, I expected Google to just sit this one out and let Epic break the rules for a day or two. Nope. Late in the day, Google acted. It also pointed out that there are other ways you can install apps on Android. Not just side-loading, but via other stores.
You know how back in the day Microsoft was happy Apple existed because then Microsoft could say it wasn’t a total monopoly? That’s exactly the vibe I get when Google talks about the Samsung Galaxy App Store.
Sidenote! Both Epic and Microsoft are pointing users to Samsung’s store. That’s because they’re apparently able to get their in-app purchases in without paying a 30 percent fee. What fee are they paying Samsung? Unclear — and Samsung did not return a request for comment.
┏ Epic is suing Google over Fortnite’s removal from the Google Play Store. Epic had a lawsuit ready for Google too, but no video parody. Of course, it followed the same script as the Apple lawsuit. Google used to have this “don’t be evil” motto, you see.
┏ Google forced OnePlus to decimate a Fortnite launcher deal, claims Epic Games. One tidbit in the Google lawsuit: we got another example of Google pushing around companies who might not want to put Google’s services front and center on their phones out of the box. This seems like a small thing, but it’s very close to the practice that made the EU slap a huge fine on Google and force it to use a browser ballot on Android.
What have we learned? As I write this evening, I have a few very preliminary thoughts:
- Apple and Google do not want to be pushed around by anybody, not even the most important game company today.
- Apple and Google are so fabulously wealthy and powerful that maybe they’re just too big to be pushed anyway.
- Whether you like him or not, you have to admit that Epic CEO Tim Sweeney sure does know how to put on a show. No wonder Fortnite is so popular.
- The backlash against app stores is real and growing.
- Apple has largely managed to avoid being seen as a bully, but that perception could change. Really, that’s one of Epic’s main goals here.
- I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I would be very surprised if Apple backs down first.
- One of Epic’s intended audiences — maybe the main one — is the regulators who are looking at potential antitrust actions. There’s a lot of fodder here for them if they want it.
Disclosure: My wife works on the Oculus Store, including setting policies for that store. I recuse myself from reporting on Oculus, VR, and Facebook and so am not familiar with what Oculus’ policies are. Here’s my ethics statement.