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Is Apple losing the battle over its App Store?

I get the impression Apple is losing the battle with its App Store.

It came to a head when Epic games deliberately violated the iOS App Store's policies with its popular Fortnite game. In August last year Epic added a feature to the game that allowed users to pay Epic directly for in-app purchases, thus depriving Apple of the 30% cut they take from developers via the App Store. This is in violation of Apple's policies.

Apple kicked Epic off the App Store and Epic took Apple to court citing monopolistic and anti-competitive allegations. The court case is outstanding and Epic asked the court to allow Fortnite to remain in the App Store in the interim. However, the judge allowed Apple to kick Fortnite off the App Store for now, but not the underlying game engine Epic also maintains.

It turns out Epic had long been planning to take on Apple in this manner. Epic's so-called Project Liberty had been in the works for three years and they had formulated a 60-page lawsuit.

Tim Sweeney, Epic's CEO, said:

Epic's frustration with Apple especially, and Google to some extent, had been building up for at least three years.

Ever since Fortnite grew to have a large audience, we felt stifled by several things.

I grew up in a time in which anybody could make software.

So I felt all along that open platforms are the key to free markets and the future of computing.

We're still a highly independent company who's not beholden to public markets in which we have to show ever-increasing profits, and anything like a fight like this, which loses us money for a year or more, would never be tolerated. So we have the financial independence to do that.

The thing is, Epic were not alone. A lot of developers resented paying Apple 30% and made that clear once Epic had announced their stand against Apple.

Apple responded by halving its fees for developers who earn less than a million dollars from the App Store. 15% seems a lot more reasonable than the extortionate 30% it was, although this is unlikely to appease Epic as I presume they were earning more than a million dollars from the App Store.

The fee isn't the only thing that's bugging Epic and the others who object to the App Store. It's also the exclusivity of the App Store on iOS. On macOS you can download software from a developer's site and run it, albeit after a cautionary warning from the operating system. But iOS is locked down tightly and there's no easy way to side-load apps directly. What Epic is arguing is that this is monopolistic and anti-competitive and Apple should allow other app stores on iOS.

Apple is resisting this of course, and I don't believe it's just because of the fees they'd forego if they allowed other app stores. That will undoubtedly be one influence, but Apple also likes to control everything in its ecosystem where possible: hardware, software, services and app stores.

But controlling things and charging 30% seems a bit unfriendly. True, they have dropped that fee for some, as detailed above, but they must also back up the App Store as per its alleged benefits.

Apple defended its App Store with a page extolling these benefits. It begins with:

For over a decade, the App Store has proved to be a safe and trusted place to discover and download apps.

They claim the App Store to be a "safe and trusted place", but Kosta Eleftheriou, a mobile developer, recently pointed out that the App Store is rife with dishonesty. Scam apps are getting top billing on the App Store thanks to fabricated reviews.

Eleftheriou said:

It's surprising more people don’t know about this. The extent to which this has been going on and is currently going on is absolutely mind-blowing.

In particular now with the App Store, which is my main concern, the problem has grown to such an extent that having the rating and review system is making it worse. It gives consumers a false sense of security and a false idea that the app is great as you’re entering it through a glowing App Store page with raving reviews.

I'm not gonna stop. Whenever I see a scam, I'm going to call them out. I just can't wait for some actual proper change from Apple to make me feel like I should concentrate on what I should be concentrating on, which is app development.

If you're going to charge developers 30% — or even 15% — and claim that these fees help make the App Store a "safe and trusted place" then you have to make sure that's true.

In a previous article I argued that Apple could allow other app stores and make a case as to why its own app store is a better place. If it is and it's worth the fee, developers and users would still prefer it, but that argument seems moot in light of Eleftheriou's claims.

Apple is being attacked from all angles on this. North Dakota recently introduced a new bill to its Senate that would force Apple to allow side-loaded apps on iOS.

Erik Neuenschwander, Apple's chief privacy engineer, robustly defended the App Store against this bill, claiming:

[The bill] threatens to destroy iPhone as you know it.

It would undermine the privacy, security, safety, and performance that’s built into iPhone by design. S

Simply put, we work hard to keep bad apps out of the App Store; the bill could require us to let them in.

Yet if Eleftheriou's claims are anything to go by, the bad apps are already there.

This is all in addition to antitrust allegations from Congress. The heat is on, as Glenn Frey once crooned.

The sheer weight of opposition to Apple's policies does not bode well for them. This will rankle with the bigwigs in Cupertino. Apple are used to running things their way and are disinclined to listen to others. Apple appear to have a vision they work to and refuse to be too distracted by what users or third-party developers want.

This single-minded vision might be what's made them so successful. Having used a number of platforms, I favour macOS and iOS for desktop and mobile computing. You'd have to drag me screaming to get me back to Windows, but that's another matter.

Apple may win a few battles over their App Store but, ultimately, I'd be surprised if they win the war in this case.