Opinion

The Hidden Casualties of Epic’s App Store Crusade

To convince Icelanders to help him settle the vast slab of inhospitable ice he found during his exile, Erik the Red reportedly called this new land, “Greenland” and made-up fantastical stories of the bountiful lands he found and the opportunities it offered to all. Taking a page out of Erik’s book, Epic Games, the maker of the Fortnite video game, chose to call its war against Apple and Google “Project Liberty.”

Last year, Epic filed separate civil antitrust lawsuits against Apple and Google over alleged anti-competitive practices in Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store. Now with Epic’s case against Apple in the courtroom before the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, testimony from Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney shows the case has little to do with improving competition on the App Store or in the app ecosystem for all app developers.

Under questioning from Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, Sweeney  stated he “personally did not know” how the complaints in its case would impact app developers in categories beyond mobile video games. But time and time again in press events and interviews leading up to the case, Sweeney stated that “liberating” all developers from Apple’s app store model was the core of Epic’s mission, even going so far as to liken it to the struggle for civil rights at a conference sponsored by The New York Times.

Epic’s financial success means it can divorce itself from the realities that the rest of the app economy faces. And maybe the video game industry is different, but app developers need more than a third-party payment option to grow and compete with the global brands currently seeking to remake the app ecosystem to fit their terms.

Small businesses develop the apps that enable us to work and play from anywhere. From apps that facilitate telehealth visits with mental health providers to creating apps for restaurants operating virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these developers drive the app economy. But these developers don’t have the resources to weather a storm brought about by Epic’s contract dispute with Apple and Google.

Any uncertainty in operations of the platforms means a radical change to our members’ business models. As we’ve seen from the current economic climate brought about by COVID-19, small businesses that cannot afford a sudden change are the first to shut their (virtual) doors, resulting in job losses and a continued downturn in their state and local economy. When Epic speaks for “app developers,” it is really speaking for an elite class of global brands well beyond the days of making every dollar count.

Small business app developers must make choices every day about their financial capital, sometimes weighing bringing in a higher speed broadband line versus hiring one or two new employees. Epic’s latest valuation came in at $28.7 billion, which underscores the “champagne problems” aspect of Project Liberty. Simply put, Epic doesn’t speak for small app developers we represent around the globe.

Our members understand the immense value of the software platform model to their own success. App stores, in their brief history, revolutionized software distribution and the economy at large and established a symbiotic relationship between software developers and platforms.

Curated app stores like Apple’s create instantaneous trust that gives consumers the confidence their apps are safe and their payment secure — and if they don’t live up to expectations, the stores can help rectify the situation. Integrated services like payment processing and download capacity allow small companies to offload overhead and scale quickly and compete with the world’s largest companies without massive investments in human capital or developing their own suite of systems. Finally, curated app stores give small businesses access to a global market and the opportunity for their software to sit right next to those from the biggest companies in the world.

Our members know there is no perfect software platform and there is more rather than less that companies like Apple and Google can do to meet their needs. App companies today are pushing for several things that Epic’s case would likely undermine, including:

  • More expedient removal of scam apps, fake reviews, and fraudulent actors
  • Better security
  • Better privacy
  • More investment in developer relations

Project Liberty is simply another empty promise of a utopia built on the backs of the people who cannot afford to pack up and move yet again.

 

Morgan Reed is the president of ACT | The App Association, which represents over 5,000 small to midsized app developers and connected device makers around the world.

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