In recent days, an ongoing discussion on the role of platforms such as the App Stores, and the limits they impose on innovation and competition, has been further ignited.
Epic, a US software house but with a substantial Chinese participation, has launched a direct challenge to Apple (and secondly to Google) by openly violating the rules that ensure 30% of fees for Apple and triggering an immediate response that resulted in the removal of the popular Fortnite game from download.
The alleged violation concerns a discount made on in-app purchases, in which Epic not only allows users to purchase “digital goods” from their app without going through Apple’s gateway, but also to save on the final price, making it much more attractive for consumers to choose the Epic gateway.
Following the breach, the consequences Epic faces are not only the removal of Fortnite from all Apple platforms, but also the complete suspension of the developer account and the exclusion of Epic (and all popular development technologies it created, like Unreal Engine) from the development, integration and optimization programs of the same with the Apple ecosystem (including iOS, MacOS, Apple TV, augmented reality and VR).
Epic’s reprisal moved on two distinct fields: on the one hand a legal case, open to Apple and Google, on the other a broader media campaign aimed at bringing public opinion to its side with viral videos and social hashtags.
It is not easy to take a clear position in this context. It is clear that Epic has carefully chosen the timing to move, in a context in which both the European Union and the United States are putting the spotlight on digital platforms and on the Apple-Google monopoly-duopoly of stores, even with the recent appearance of Tim Cook before the US congress on these issues.
From the point of view of app developers, the Stores have certainly represented an important innovation that has brought with it advantages and disadvantages. The benefits of a single point of distribution (and of discovery for users) and a homogeneous ecosystem are evident. The disadvantages given by the rigidity and excessive power (accompanied by the lack of transparency) exercised on these platforms has become progressively more evident, and in the same way the list of more or less large companies damaged by more or less arbitrary decisions that they have ousted or made them irrelevant on the platforms.
The lack of any possible alternative to the distribution of apps on Apple (which is possible with some precautions on Android) puts Apple in a position to exercise an undisputed and unappealable power, which can only strengthen its dominant position over time. The story of Epic highlights this situation only in a more blatant and striking way, but it is a very clear and known problem for the industry.
It could be objected that Apple, in its “walled garden”, can do what it deems in a free market logic, and that the position of Epic (and of those who violate the rules of the Store) is not defensible as these are necessarily accepted by anyone who decides to develop on these platforms.
It is also true, however, that the freedom in the use of IT tools has characterized the software industry from its beginnings, for example with Unix and the Open Source movement (from which Apple itself has drawn heavily by founding its current operating systems on BSD). The birth of “walled gardens” and closed platforms is a recent innovation, absolutely unnecessary and not even sufficient for a healthy growth of a digital ecosystem. Think for example of the MacOS platform, also from Apple, which was born open and which only recently has its own Store (that developers are not forced to use): over the years it has generated a very rich ecosystem of high quality software. On the other hand, Microsoft’s effort in creating a closed ecosystem for its Windows Phones has led to few applications, of poor quality, and ultimately to the abandonment of the platform by Microsoft itself.
I therefore personally believe that a greater openness of platforms, and the enforcement of a total transparency of processes, can only benefit digital ecosystems, companies that create software and content, and ultimately to all users and consumers.