In a typical courtroom drama–the kind you might with on TV–one side wins, and the other loses. In the real world, however, most disputes between large companies are settled far from a courtroom. In that case, no one really wins, they just come up with an outcome that makes no one happy, but everyone can live with.
In the legal battle between Apple and Epic, both sides are in it to win. Compromise isn’t an option for either side.
For Epic, the case is about the company’s plan to rid itself of having to pay Apple a commission on its highly lucrative in-app purchases. Ultimately, it wants to entice developers to create games and experiences within Fortnite, and charge them a commission of its own, cutting out the middle man–in this case, Apple.
For Apple, the fight is about maintaining the way it operates one of its most valuable assets. A loss to Epic would not only infringe on a major revenue stream for its services business but would also set a precedent for all developers.
I’ve listened to most of the first week of testimony from executives at Epic, Microsoft, Nvidia, and Apple. There’s been a lot of talk about everything from Epic’s deals with other gaming companies, Apple’s App Review process, and the privacy and security implications of various payment processing systems.
It’s been, well, a little overwhelming. I’m sure all of it is important in establishing the case each side wants to make before Judge Gonzales Rodgers. The problem, however, is that both sides seem to be missing what is arguably the most important thing.
Nothing about this fight is good for users.
Apple, for example, says it cares about the user experience, but its App Store guidelines clearly create weird restrictions and incentives for app developers. Netflix and Spotify are the most obvious examples. Neither allows in-app sign-ups because the companies aren’t interested in giving Apple a 30 percent cut.
As a result, not only can you not subscribe to the service, Netflix can’t even tell you that you have to visit its website in order to sign up. That’s a terrible experience for users, created entirely because Apple placed a higher value on its subscription revenue than on what was best for users.
Epic, on the other hand, isn’t trying to create a better experience for Fortnite gamers. Instead, it’s trying to figure out how to increase the bottom line. Don’t get me wrong, Epic is a business. It should be concerned with increasing its revenue and profit.
The thing is, Epic is fighting over the fact that Apple takes 30 percent of the real money it collects in exchange for fake money (known as v-bucks) that users can then exchange for virtual goods. Epic’s CEO, Tim Sweeney, admitted during his testimony that the marginal cost of a “v-buck” is zero.
Apple is almost certainly going to win the legal battle, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. A victory in court will protect the profit that flows from the App Store, but it won’t change the fact that the company’s policies aren’t nearly as good for consumers as Apple would like to think.
Epic, for its part, likes to say it’s in this fight for the benefit of small developers. Really, though, the only thing it wants to change is who collects the commission they pay.
And, for users, regardless of which side wins, very little will get better for users. True, if Epic wins, there’s a chance users might be able to download apps through alternate app stores, or use alternative methods of payments. That’s good for Epic, but I’m not sure it’s actually better for users.
For example, on Android, which allows “side-loading,” almost no one uses that method of downloading apps. It’s not actually a better experience. Then again, as this week has made clear, that’s not what this fight is about–even if it should be the only thing that matters.