The Epic case may hinge on how the court defines the relevant market. In Apple’s eyes the App Store is part of a broader universe of digital platforms in which it can reasonably claim not to be a monopolist. Epic takes a narrower view, arguing that iPhones are a market unto themselves.
Most lawyers think Apple had the better of the initial exchanges. The judge seemed unconvinced by Apple’s attempts to stop Epic from updating the iPhone version of the software behind “Fortnite”, which is licensed to other gamesmakers. But she reserved her strongest words for Epic, which she admonished for inviting trouble.
The case looks likely to go to a jury trial next year. With no clear precedent, big ramifications for the tech industry and the odds that the losing party will appeal, the dispute may end up in the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Apple is facing other pressures. Epic is being cheered on by fellow members of the “Coalition for App Fairness”, like Spotify, a music-streamer, and Match Group, owner of Tinder and other dating apps. In June, at Spotify’s urging, the EU opened an antitrust probe into the App Store, and David Cicilline, who chairs a committee in America’s Congress that examines antitrust issues, described Apple’s fees as “highway robbery” and lamented the lack of “real competition” on iPhones.
While it battles Epic in the courts, Apple may tweak its rules to placate some developers. It has done so on occasion in the past, for instance exempting Amazon from the 30% commission on in-app purchases for the e-commerce giant’s Prime Video streaming app. On September 25th, following criticism from Facebook, Apple announced a temporary waiver on the 30% fee on in-app purchases for companies that had been forced by the covid-19 pandemic to switch to online-only events.
Such concessions may be as far as Apple will go, at least willingly. When Steve Jobs launched the App Store in 2008, he didn’t think it would ever make much money. He was wrong. Although the company does not break out the platform’s financial results, it probably makes up the bulk of its services business, which accounts for nearly 20% of revenues—and rising, as iPhone sales slow. Seeing what a promising profit engine it has turned into, Apple’s late boss would doubtless have fought tooth and nail to hang on to it.