The current war between Apple and Facebook

This is the first article in a three-part series. For part two, see: The future of mobile content platforms. For part three, see: Navigating the post-platform mobile future. And for background on the topic, see: The coming war between Apple and Facebook.

In January 2017, I wrote The coming war between Apple and Facebook, in which I laid out the case for why I thought a cold war between Apple and Facebook would eventually turn hot. I concluded the piece with four hypothetical “first shot” scenarios:

What if Apple refuses to allow developers to link directly to their App Store pages in the future, instead only allowing them to link to a search result for the app’s name? That’d result in Apple being able to siphon off some amount of advertising revenue on every ad click by positioning its own ads first (passive aggressive);

What if Apple cuts off linking to the App Store altogether or somehow blocks the ability for mobile app installs to be attributed? (hostile);

What if Facebook starts allowing for developers to buy ads that link to their Instant Games content? (passive aggressive);

What if Facebook builds out an IAP economy for Instant Games and, to add insult to industry, encourages users to purchase credits on the Facebook website so as to avoid paying Apple’s 30% platform fee, as Spotify does? (hostile)

The first of these doesn’t seem likely in light of the wisdom accumulated since 2017, but the last three have either happened or are imminent. And Facebook Gaming née Facebook Instant Games may be the initial front on which the war between Apple and Facebook erupts.

In a blog post on Monday, Facebook’s VP of Play, Jason Rubin, announced the launch of Facebook Gaming, a cloud gaming portal that will live in the Big Blue app on Android and on the web. The announcement begins with a list of things that Facebook will not do with respect to cloud gaming:

Item number five is important: the new Facebook Gaming product is not available in the Big Blue app on iOS, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. That Facebook is not launching its streaming gaming service on iOS should not be a surprise to those following the Epic v. Apple saga or Apple’s recent drive for more control over the iOS ecosystem, generally: back in September, Apple announced new rules that somewhat relax its stance toward cloud / streaming gaming (that is, it allows it, in a very narrow capacity) but nonetheless prevents companies from publishing a “Netflix of Gaming” app that promotes a catalogue of games within a single app. The “no app stores within the app store” principle persists.

What Facebook is doing here seems straightforward: it’s subsuming new functionality into its Big Blue app as opposed to splitting it off into a new app. This is a reversal of the erstwhile dominant “constellation strategy”: rather than publish a constellation of single-use-case apps, linked via a federated authentication system, multiple functional mechanics are bundled into an OTT app that serves many use cases. Facebook announced in September that it would unify chat between Messenger and Instagram direct messages; integrating Facebook Gaming into the Big Blue app is another step in the same direction.

That Facebook is not launching Facebook Gaming on iOS is not the core narrative from Facebook’s announcement; actually, it’s a red herring. Facebook is seizing this moment of developer discontent with Apple — what I call the pyre of animus in the above tweetstorm — to establish a new norm of content bundling and multiple use case facilitation. Apple is perhaps too occupied in trying justify its platform fee and content curation policies — to Epic, to other angry developers, to the Department of Justice — to stem this nascent paradigm shift.

Facebook is ushering in an era of what I call the Nexus of Attention at a degree that will fundamentally compete with iOS as a platform, and Apple has exhausted its cache of ammunition by deprecating the IDFA and defending its 30% platform fee. Facebook’s PR maneuvers have mostly been a distraction from this point, but Facebook has very much escalated its war with Apple from cold to hot.

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash