Epic vs. Apple is not about 'freedom'

While Epic claims its fight with Apple is all about freedom, it it's hard not to think it's just about money.

Apple, Epic, Fortnite, App Store, iOS, iPhone
Apple / IDG

I’ve been trying to avoid writing about the Epic-Apple quarrel. While it serves to help consolidate App Store critics, it’s not the dramatic fight Epic seems to believe.

It’s about money and control

In my experience, when wealthy people talk about “freedom,” it doesn’t usually mean freedom for the rest of us, just freedom for them. This whole affair can easily be characterized as being little more than a company of millionaires fighting a company of billionaires over the right to take a cut from software sales.

I haven't completely waded through the verbosity of Epic’s complaint, but I think it’s fair to say the main thrust is that it wants to sell games to iOS users at its own store and doesn’t want to pay Apple 30% to do so. That’s a little inconsistent, as the only games store that doesn’t take 30% on sales is Epic’s. All the other games stores take exactly the same as Apple.

You can argue about the amount, and in time it now seems more likely regulators will step in to decide what a fair fee should be. But it's worth pointing out that even concession stores in major department stores pay to occupy space there.

Why should it be any different in the online world?

What does authenticity look like?

To me, authenticity doesn’t look like deliberately flouting rules you’ve signed up to follow, only to launch pre-prepared litigation and a flashy PR campaign the moment your business partner responds by terminating the deal you’d accepted.

I don’t think that’s an example of authenticity. It's more a classic case of passive aggression, in which someone does something they know is wrong and then acts as if they are being picked on when the wronged party responds.

In case you missed the tedious sequence of events in the spat:

  • Epic introduced an in-app payment system it knew contravened Apple’s rules.
  • Apple kicked its game (Fortnite) off the App Store.
  • Epic launched litigation and a PR campaign.
  • Apple threatened to withdraw Epic/Unreal’s developer licenses.
  • Epic asked the courts to prevent this.

Gamers got disappointed, and writers like myself rejoiced because it's a story that isn’t about the pandemic, climate change or wealth inequality. Except, of course, it is about wealth inequality – not the lack of equality between Epic and Apple, but between gamers and their platforms.

After all, when did the full value of lower cost games distribution get passed onto gamers? What did happen is that millions more people got access to them, thanks to the success of the iPhone, the App Store, Android and all the other platforms. Games development companies got rich. There’s even a TV show about game developers.

You should try it. It's on Apple TV.

One rule for all

I don’t know where in the Apple Developer agreement it says that if you knowingly break the terms, launch litigation to claim you have the right to break those terms, and have a slick PR campaign ready to roll seconds after you chose to break them, Apple will let you carry on business as normal. So it is to Apple's credit that it says it will do just that.

Apple doesn’t want to play hardball with Epic. Even now it says that all Epic needs to do is remove rule-breaking elements from its software in order to return to the App Store.

That doesn’t mean an end to the ongoing litigation but does mean the software can remain available to iOS users.

I don’t know whether Epic will take Apple up on this. It may just prefer to force players of the games it makes and those made by others using its Unreal engine to migrate elsewhere.

Apple’s deal with developers may not please everyone, but it charges just the same as every other platform (with the exception of Epic). However, Epic is also known to secure exclusive distribution deals, which means you can’t get those games elsewhere than its store. If that’s freedom, then it’s a rather one-sided kind of liberty.

And the poor will suffer what they must

In 431BC, Thucydides wrote:

"The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”

He was referring to a moment in history when Athens demanded the neutral state of Melos join it in its war against Sparta. Melos refused, so Athens destroyed it.

Despite its protestations, Epic is not Melos in this game of thrones. It is a protagonist. It is Athens, or it is Sparta.

Melos in this story represents people who like to play games on Apple products. They lose as protagonists clash.

So do games developers who rely on the Unreal game engine Epic creates; their  business will suffer as a result of actions they have no control of. (Don’t forget: Apple has already offered a partial olive branch so customers aren’t inconvenienced.)

While I think this quarrel will probably end up generating regulatory investigation into online business practises, it is important to note that part of that exploration may involve examining the business practices of other app stores, and any company with control of one.

Epic has such a store and it is open to challenge on this – just ask those Unreal developers and gamers who now face the threat of their games engine not working on Apple’s platforms simply because a developer they relied on chose this path.

How's their freedom looking?

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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