iOS14, Fortnite, and the importance of controlling distribution

I articulated what I believe to be Apple’s four motivations in implementing its AppTrackingTransparency privacy policy, which is set to go live at some point in the coming weeks in Why is Apple rebuilding the App Economy? and again in iOS 14, Privacy, and the Future of Digital Advertising. In ascending order of priority, those are:

  1. To benefit its own ad network, Apple Search Ads (least important);
  2. To establish a competitive advantage over Android through improved consumer privacy;
  3. To hurt Facebook, which never built a fully self-sufficient user-content interface and has actively sought to obviate its platform dependencies;
  4. To regain total control of content distribution and discovery on iOS (most important).

The fourth motivation is fairly axiomatic: currently most app discovery happens through advertising, and therefore Apple has very little input around which apps become popular. This wasn’t always the case: Apple featuring was at one point very influential in terms of discovery, and featuring used to deliver a tremendous amount of earned media value to the recipient app.

But platform featuring is mostly seen as a minor victory by developers now: the real battle for user attention and adoption is fought in the advertising markets. Facebook has more distribution power than Apple does on iOS through its very efficient advertising platform. It is Facebook’s advertising algorithm, not Apple, that determines which content users interact with on their iPhones.

While the value of total ownership of distribution and discovery is self-evident, it is especially visible through the lens of Apple’s current legal battle with Epic, the creator of Fortnite. I have written extensively about Epic’s crusade against Apple’s App Store policies, and I won’t recapitulate those efforts in this article. But one component of Epic’s argument against Apple’s platform fee — the percentage of IAP revenues that Apple deducts from developer sales facilitated by its payments system — is that some developers would be better off if they operated completely outside of the App Store’s domain, despite the many benefits that the App Store (and Google Play on Android) confer.

The thrust of Epic’s argument is: Epic is a large company, and Fortnite is a once-in-a-decade cultural phenomenon. Yes, Apple offers various services through the App Store that are convenient to developers, such as fraud prevention, payment processing, tax accounting, discovery, etc., but given Epic’s scale and the popularity of Fortnite, Epic could potentially operate successfully on iOS without indulging in any of those benefits. Epic proposes that Apple should give developers like Epic recourse to operate totally independently of the App Store: if developers are content to function without the luxuries offered by the App Store, why should they be forced to distribute there exclusively and thus forfeit some percentage of IAP revenue for the privilege?

AppTrackingTransparency dismantles this line of argumentation across two vectors:

  1. Advertising. Epic is in the rarefied position of owning a globally-recognized gaming brand in Fortnite. Most developers aren’t so fortunate, and they must grow their audiences through paid user acquisition. If the efficiency of mobile marketing is degraded by ATT such that the locus of consumer content discovery shifts back to App Store search from advertising, then most developers will not be able to argue that they could exist independently of the App Store: their audience development will be totally conditional on App Store exposure. If it becomes the case that successful apps owe their prosperity to App Store discovery, then who is to question the App Store fee?
  2. Privacy. The broad, sweeping policy against “tracking” which ATT activates renders it less of an iOS mechanic than an App Store mechanic. Because ATT does much more than regulate access to the IDFA, it is really only governable through App Store approval: since fingerprinting can be accomplished via perfectly legitimate device settings, and because various server-to-server implementations could sidestep ATT’s IDFA control, it really takes the App Store approval process to propagate ATT compliance. Because of this, Apple can argue that the App Store is the only provably privacy-compliant distribution channel on iOS, and for that reason, it must insist that all app content delivered to iOS users’ iPhones be distributed through the App Store. In following the contrived, arbitrary logic of Apple’s definition of privacy, it makes total sense that that Apple’s provision of that form of privacy benefits Apple.

If Apple wrestles control of App Store distribution away from ad platforms in a way that prioritizes App Store search for discovery and consumer exposure, then its platform fee becomes much more defensible. The fact that consumer privacy is used as a cudgel to create this opportunity is almost irrelevant to the end goal: privacy is a vague and politically malleable tool that can be used to advance almost any platform agenda.