Earlier this week, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California heard arguments in Epic’s anti-trust lawsuit against Apple. Epic’s lawsuit against Apple garners vastly more media attention than Epic’s lawsuit against Google, the complaint for which was launched for the very same reason on the very same day: Epic added proprietary payments to Fortnite on both Google Play and the App Store, after which the game was promptly removed from both platforms for contravening policy. Background on these lawsuits can be found here.
Both Google and Apple enforce similar rules for apps within their app store environments, but one fundamental policy approach differentiates iOS from Android: Google allows for app distribution outside of Google Play on Android, and Apple does not. Google is trying to have Epic’s lawsuit against it dismissed for this reason: Google contends that the case doesn’t overlap with Apple’s because of its allowance for direct, non-Google Play app distribution, and thus the anti-trust allegations against it have no merit.
Epic’s argument against Apple is that Apple exerts monopoly control over the iOS ecosystem by forcing developers to publish through the App Store. In contrast, Google just recently announced that it would provide further support for third-party app stores on Android while more strictly enforcing the commercial policy on Google Play that extracts its 30% platform fee from in-app purchases. Substantial daylight exists between Apple and Google on this particular policy choice.
And in fact, Epic did launch Fortnite for Android outside of Google Play with a standalone installer in an attempt to sidestep Google’s platform fee. But 18 months later, Epic also published Fortnite to the Google Play store, subjecting the game to that in-app purchase fee.
As I describe in the below Twitter thread, Fortnite’s Android launch outside of Google Play was fraught: the original Fortnite installer featured a serious security vulnerability, which was actually discovered by the Android engineering team.
One of the key benefits of a sandboxed software marketplace is security: the owner of the marketplace can vet the software that is uploaded to it for vulnerabilities. I outline the other benefits of publishing to Google Play and the App Store marketplaces in this article: search, featuring, advertising, and storefront optimization tools (only Google Play offers this).
Epic claimed that it was forced to publish Fortnite on Google Play because Android exposes an ominous warning message to users when they download standalone app installers. The warning message informs users that apps downloaded outside of Google Play can harm the user’s device.
Epic claims that this warning effectively privileges the Google Play store by scaring Android users into not downloading software outside of it:
Google puts software downloadable outside of Google Play at a disadvantage, through technical and business measures such as scary, repetitive security pop-ups for downloaded and updated software, restrictive manufacturer and carrier agreements and dealings, Google public relations characterizing third party software sources as malware, and new efforts such as Google Play Protect to outright block software obtained outside the Google Play store.
But if Epic, a company worth billions of dollars, couldn’t fortify its flagship product against security vulnerabilities, isn’t a popup like the above necessitated? Isn’t Google justified in warning users against the risks of downloading software outside of its sandboxed marketplace when one of the biggest games in the world, from a company that has every interest in proving the viability of non-Google Play app distribution, couldn’t completely and absolutely rid that software from vulnerabilities?
It is more convenient for Epic to focus media attention on its legal battle with Apple because its equivalent complaint against Google is muddy: that Google is too heavy-handed with its non-Google Play download warning screen, even though the warning screen is justified because Fortnite couldn’t avoid vulnerabilities when distributing a stand-alone app on Android.
What gets conflated in Epic’s more general complaints about the closed ecosystems are:
- The 30% fees that the platforms charge for in-app purchases facilitated by their payments systems (15% on subscriptions after one year);
- The fact that these platforms force developers to use their payments systems in their app store environments.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether 30% is too high of a percentage to charge for platform access. The magnitude of the fee is up for debate, but as I point out earlier in the article, developers do enjoy benefits from publishing to these platforms, and those benefits are worth something.
But the other arguments — over forced use of proprietary app stores, and of forced use of proprietary payment systems — are more difficult to defend in light of Fortnite’s problems with security vulnerabilities. Epic is a large company with a zeitgeist-defining hit game that has captivated popular culture: what other companies could apply as many resources to security concerns as Epic could for Fortnite?