Epic ver­sus Ap­ple? I’m root­ing for the users

What are the out­comes that would most ben­e­fit reg­u­lar users?

iPad&iPhone user - - CONTENTS - Ja­son Snell re­ports

You’ve seen the sto­ries (see page 33): it’s an epic (eye-rolling pun in­tended) war be­tween two tech­nol­ogy gi­ants. In one 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, 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 per cent 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 long-stand­ing 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 per cent 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 per cent 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-touse 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

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 past 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 op­er­at­ing sys­tem and run ma­li­cious soft­ware.

Ap­ple’s in­ven­tions to boost Mac se­cu­rity might be a way for it 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?

It’s com­pli­cated

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 firms 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 wild card 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.

Comixol­ogy on the iPhone.

There are count­less of iOS apps out there that aren’t al­lowed on the App Store.

Ap­ple would pre­fer to stick with the sta­tus quo when­ever pos­si­ble.

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