Epic and Apple v. You

Epic and Apple v. You

Videogame maker Epic has been involved in a legal and public relations battle with Apple for much of August. Most coverage pits it as one aggrieved party vs another, and the “good” side depends on which company you’re a fan of. Each side says the other is being both unfriendly to users and harmful to the other side.

The reality is that the Epic v Apple fight is two corporate giants fighting over your money. I’m writing this article on a MacBook Pro with an iPhone next to me and an Apple Watch on my wrist; I’ve never played Fortnite and probably couldn’t recognize it if it were on screen in front of me. And I refuse to ‘side’ with either entity in this battle.

How It Began

MacRumors has a nice timeline of how we got here, starting with Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeny saying “the iOS App Store’s monopoly protects only Apple profit, not device security” in The Washington Post.

Sweeny continues to jab at Apple in the media for the next couple months. Finally, on August 13, Epic added a new way to buy the V-Bucks in-game currency that really pissed off Apple. Their new purchasing system gets around Apple’s in-app purchasing model, which developers are required to use. If you use an iPhone, you’ve seen this when you’re asked to confirm if you want to make a purchase in a game or other app:

Apple’s in-app purchase confirmation screen.

By working around this, Epic violated the terms of service for Apple’s App Store, and Apple pulled the game: no one is able to download it. (If you had it on your phone you can still play it, for now.)

Epic also did this in the Android version of Fortnite, which was summarily removed from the Google Play Store.

Epic immediately sued Apple and Google. In response, Apple threatens to turn off Epic’s entire developer account at the end of the month. This wouldn’t just prevent Epic from distributing Fortnite, but for writing software for any Apple device again in the future. This would significantly damage Epic’s business.

Where We Are Today

On August 24, a U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary ruling that Apple can keep Fortnite out of the App Store until Epic falls in line with the App Store’s guidelines, but the company cannot terminate Epic’s developer account entirely.

Meanwhile, Epic has launched the #FreeFortnite campaign, co-opting the language of the struggle for freedom for political prisoners in its own quest for more money.

Finances of In-App Purchases

Both Apple and Google offer their app stores for free to developers – so long as your application is free. On the iPhone, it’s the only way for most people to install an application: Workarounds involve jailbreaking, or modifying the code that runs on the phone. Doing so can be difficult and open you up to security issues.

If your app isn’t free, or if you charge for items in-game, both companies charge 30% of that fee. If you sell a $0.99 game or add-on, the companies make just under 30 cents on it. Epic claims these fees aren’t fair.

The App Store is a huge piece of business for Apple. The company doesn’t break down its “services” by category (Apple Music, video, storage and the App Store) but the category provided $13.4 billion in revenue in the 3rd quarter of 2020.

For small developers, this 30% cut can be substantial. For large corporations like Epic, they view it as a real hit to their bottom line.

Allowing customers to get around in-app purchases has another downside for Apple and Google: They lose access to your data. Currently on the App Store model, the app developer doesn’t get information on who has purchased their app – not even a name or email. By getting direct payment, Epic (or others) could ask for – and receive – any information they want.

This Is Unreal

Apple’s arguments during legal arguments on August 24 show its contempt for its users. Fortnite is built on software called the Unreal Engine, which Epic makes freely available to programmers (until your game makes over $1,000,000, you don’t have to pay them to use it). According to MacRumors, “Apple’s lawyer argued that if Fortnite and other games are blocked from the ‌App Store‌ but development of the Unreal Engine is allowed to continue, Epic could just transfer its bad behavior to other entities.

Thousands of games are built on the Unreal Engine, the vast majority of which have nothing at all to do with Epic. Banning the Unreal Engine itself would rip these games off the App Store to the detriment of customers and developers alike.

The Unreal Engine aspect might me slightly more sympathetic to Epic, but this remains a fight between two multi-billion dollar companies. Whoever wins, those of us that use the software are casualties.

Can We Escape Walled Gardens?

Apple’s argument for the App Store itself is one of security. In general, this is a benefit of iOS devices (iPhone, iPad): Apple can vet the apps that run. It can remove apps that are dangerous. Unfortunately it also puts us at the mercy of a for-profit company that long ago shed its rebellious veneer: Apple’s policies exist for its own profit, including making its 30% cut on purchases.

This is called a walled garden: It’s clean, manicured and nicely taken care of. But what you may not notice while enjoying it is that there are 50-foot walls surrounding it. The owner controls the gate, only letting in those they deem acceptable and kicking the rest out.

There is often a balance to be had between security and usability. This is much of Apple’s argument for preventing apps from being installed any way except the App Store: The iPhone becomes a beautiful garden that won’t be infested with worms. It’s possible, though, to have an open and beautiful garden without these walls, though.

Through the use of advanced AI and analytical tools, dangerous software – apps that can damage your phone or steal your data – could still be rooted out. So long as profit continues to be a motive, technology will advance only so long it fulfills that drive.