By John Gruber
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Ben Gilbert, reporting yesterday for Business Insider (italic emphasis added):
This September, Microsoft plans to launch a major coup in the video game business: The world’s first game streaming service with a built-in library, Netflix-style. For $15 a month, you’ll be able to stream over 100 games to smartphones and tablets — but it won’t be available on Apple’s ubiquitous iPhone and iPad.
The reason, an Apple spokesperson said on Thursday, is because Apple isn’t able to review each game that’s available through Game Pass.
Following hot on the heels of the controversy over Basecamp’s Hey app, and Tim Cook being called to testify at an antitrust Congressional hearing regarding App Store policies, and given the high profile of Xbox Game Pass, it’s no surprise that this has gotten a lot of attention, almost all of it focused on taking the italicized paragraph from Business Insider at its word. But that’s Ben Gilbert’s interpretation, not a quote from Apple. Gilbert’s interpretation is not an unfair or sensationalized take on Apple’s statement, but it’s adding a “because” that Apple did not state.
Here is Apple’s statement to Business Insider, apparently in its entirety. Apple seemingly sent this statement only to Business Insider, which itself is a bit unusual:
The App Store was created to be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. Before they go on our store, all apps are reviewed against the same set of guidelines that are intended to protect customers and provide a fair and level playing field to developers.
Our customers enjoy great apps and games from millions of developers, and gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search. In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.
Running this statement through my Applespeak-to-English decoder ring, what I hear is not that they won’t allow Xbox Game Pass because they can’t review each game separately. What I hear is that game streaming services are not allowed in the iOS App Store. Period, full stop. I don’t even think this has anything to do with whether Microsoft offers in-app subscriptions, or whether those subscriptions get a discount from the standard 70/30 split for the first year. I think Apple’s stance is that game streaming services like Microsoft’s xCloud project are simply verboten.1
App Store guideline 4.2.7, “Remote Desktop Clients”, seemingly makes this clear, too — it’s a written rule, not an unwritten one. This rule is why Steam Link is in the App Store and Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia are not:
(a) The app must only connect to a user-owned host device that is a personal computer or dedicated game console owned by the user, and both the host device and client must be connected on a local and LAN-based network.
It’s like this: Business Insider asked Apple why they won’t allow Xbox Game Pass. Apple didn’t say why they won’t allow Xbox Game Pass, and instead gave a non-answer answer by describing what they do allow:
… gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search.
Submitting games individually and appearing in charts and search — presumably App Store charts and search — is just an obfuscated way of saying that native iOS game apps are allowed in the iOS App Store. Well, duh. Everyone is distracted by the interpretation that Apple won’t allow Xbox Game Pass because they can’t review each game. It is a nonsensical justification, no doubt about that. But the comparison to Netflix or Spotify is beside the point. Of course Apple doesn’t and can’t review every movie on Netflix or every song on Spotify. But if you think about it, they could review every game on Xbox Game Pass. Even if it’s 100 games, they could look at them all. I’m sure they could find quite a few volunteers among the App Store reviewer corps to spend the time to play these games thoroughly.
The point is that streaming video and music services are allowed in the App Store; streaming software (games or otherwise) is not, unless it works over the web. Apple just doesn’t want to say that. Here, in my opinion, is how this conversation is best decoded:
Business Insider: Why are game streaming services like Xbox Game Pass not allowed in the App Store?
Apple: Native iPhone games are allowed in the App Store. Native iPhone games are good because we review them individually, and they appear in App Store charts and search results.
It’s a perfect example of the difference between bullshit and a lie. Every word in Apple’s statement is true, but not a word of it answers why they won’t allow Xbox Game Pass or any other cloud game streaming service.
Apple would have been much better off saying nothing at all than offering this bullshit non-answer answer, that in fact was so easily and reasonably misconstrued. And, purely as a guess on my part, I think Apple realized this, which is why they didn’t send this statement to any other outlet and haven’t added a word of clarification since. ★
Maybe it is just about the money, or even partially about the money2 — which certainly wouldn’t be shocking — but we don’t know, because Apple didn’t say, and neither did Microsoft in its own testily worded statement, which, unlike Apple’s statement, was distributed to numerous news outlets. ↩︎
I really hope it’s not about the money. I mean let’s face it, no matter what the story is here, it’s sad in some way. Microsoft has made something technically impressive and cool and fun, and millions of Xbox-playing iOS users would love to play these games on their iPhones and iPads and but they can’t because of some sort of business or strategic shit that’s between Apple and Microsoft. But if it’s really just a dispute about goddamn money — between, of all companies, two of the richest in the history of the world — man, that’s just tawdry. It’s just two corporations fighting over one more stream of money neither even knows what to do with atop the Scrooge McDuckian mountains of cash they each already have flooding into their coffers each day. That’s business, but that’s a stale saltine of a story.
But what if it’s not Apple being a dick about money? What if it’s Apple being a dick about control?
That’s not cold and dry — that’s a goddamn sizzling hot juicy steak of a story. That’s personal. For one thing it would explain the pissy, petulant tone of Microsoft’s statement. Maybe Microsoft went into this whole endeavor gearing up for a knockdown drag-out knife-fight negotiation about how exactly to split the money, and Apple just went stone cold Michael Corleone on them: “You can have our answer now, if you like. Our offer is this: nothing. Not even the 30 percent fee for the gaming subscription, which we would appreciate if you put up your ass.” The idea being, in this scenario, that Apple has something Microsoft needs, Microsoft has nothing to offer in return that Apple wants, and so Microsoft just has to sit there grooving on it, stuck with a premium paid subscription service that’s only available on the low-rent mobile platform where people don’t pay for things.
Apple is clearly being a dick to Microsoft about something here, and if it’s platform control not money, well by god at least there’s some delicious poetic justice at play. That’d be a veritable vintage bottle of wine being uncorked. Not having any control over the world’s most lucrative computing platform and wanting something from the company that does — and which has a real taste for exerting its dictatorial control over said platform in mercurial fashion — would fucking suck, wouldn’t it? ↩︎︎
The president of the United States, on, of course, Twitter (random capitalization and frenetic punctuation sic):
With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???
In 1845, Congress decided that Election Day would be the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. If Trump wants to change that, he has to convince Congress — a likely impossible task. And the January Inauguration Day was enshrined in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in 1933.
This is the biggest litmus test for maintaining democracy we’re going to get. No pretending you haven’t seen his tweet, no insisting he’s kidding, no waffling. If you enable the thought of delaying elections because of rumors and whims, you’re enabling the end of democracy.
In short, it is enormously consequential that the president of the United States would float such an idea — a true and genuine threat to American democracy. But: the system is holding up. Hours after the fact, no Republican has backed Trump’s contemptible spitball, and rather than hide or duck, many have stepped forward to flatly reject it, including the Republican leaders of both the House and Senate:
“Never in the history of the federal elections have we not held an election, and we should go forward,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, dismissed Mr. Trump’s suggestion in an interview with WNKY television in Bowling Green, Ky. “Never in the history of the country, through wars, depressions and the Civil War, have we ever not had a federally scheduled election on time, and we’ll find a way to do that again this Nov. 3,” Mr. McConnell said.
This tweet is the low point in this whole years-long nightmare of a presidency, and yet simultaneously the reaction to the tweet is the high point. Democracy is the singular most important concept in our society, culture, and Constitution. Everything else, no matter how important, is secondary, insofar as our system of dealing with those issues depends upon democracy through open and fair elections. Civil rights (racial, gender, LGBT), gun rights, judicial nominations, tax rates, military actions, health care, education. Anything and everything enumerated in the Bill of Rights. All of these issues are, no matter what any of us individually feel or think about them, secondary to the conduction of free and fair elections. With this tweet Trump is doing no less than testing the water for ending democracy. It is but a tweet, a word that feels inherently diminutive, but make no mistake, this is the most historically significant and potentially consequential statement Trump has ever made. Rather than walk away from it, he has since pinned this one atop the 54,000-tweet stack of abject aggrieved lunacy that is his Twitter history, and reiterated the notion again in a just-completed televised press conference.
It is what until four years ago we would rightly have considered a logical contradiction — a profoundly consequential inanity. A probing hammer tap testing for cracks on the keystone of democratic rule.
What must Trump do for his Republican enablers in Congress to abandon him? is the question the rest of us have been asking on a near-daily basis, often in desperation but always in utter exasperation, since before he was even elected. We now seemingly and hopefully have an answer. The line they won’t cross is ending American democracy. History, I firmly believe, will judge Trump’s Republican enablers harshly for not having drawn a line long ago, but this, ultimately, is the singular line that matters. We must now hold our collective breath that they stick to it.
For this, Trump ought be subjected simultaneously to universal contemptuous scorn and gleeful ridicule, more so than for any of his nearly uncountable contemptible and ridiculous statements and actions of the past. The oath of office to which he swore is to uphold the Constitution. Merely proposing postponing the election makes a mockery of it.
It is no coincidence that Trump floated this perverse notion mere moments ahead of official confirmation of the obvious: the United States economy has collapsed in historically horrific fashion, and as the economy goes, so go elections. Donald Trump cannot win an honest fair election held 96 days hence, and by law an honest fair election must be held in 96 days.
Donald Trump is, thus, desperate and alone.
I set the odds at 1-in-3 that he drops out of the election before the Republican convention at the end of August. To suggest the election be delayed is an explicit admission that he cannot face his now likely defeat. His deranged mind might plausibly conclude it better — more face-saving to him personally, his only genuine concern — to drop out now on the bullshit claim that the election is “rigged” against him, than lose in a humiliating blowout and cry “rigged” after.
Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Sundar Pichai, and Mark Zuckerberg all provided written opening statements in advance of today’s hearing. The canonical versions are PDFs, but Politico has conveniently transcribed them on a web page.
Cook’s whole statement is cogent, and though Bezos’s is clearly the most personal of the four statements, I think Cook wrote this or at least was very involved in the writing of it. This is how he sounds and thinks. His entire statement is worth reading, but I’ll just quote the portions I have comments on.
Apple is a uniquely American company whose success is only possible in this country. Motivated by the mission to put things into the world that enrich people’s lives, and believing deeply that the way we do that is by making the best not the most, Apple has produced many revolutionary products, not least of which is the iPhone.
This “making the best not the most” line is true, and captures what made Apple Apple, and what Apple should continue to focus on as its North Star in all of its varying endeavors. The question, now that Apple has parlayed this formula into becoming the largest (by market cap) and most profitable company in the world, is whether Tim Cook truly still leads the company based on this axiom, or if he’s just saying it because “we don’t have a majority market share of any product category, including phones” is a pretty strong starting position for an antitrust hearing. They don’t sell the most things but they do make the most money, so it’s not like “most” doesn’t apply to Apple.
I think the answer is a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. There’s a part of Cook that clearly wants to argue that Apple shouldn’t even be here.
We do this, in part, by making ourselves and our customers a promise — a promise that we will only build things that make us proud. Apple’s founder Steve Jobs used to put it a little differently: we only make things that we would recommend to our family and friends.
This rings fundamentally true but falls flattest in the areas where Apple is, or at least should be, getting the most antitrust scrutiny. Take for example the Netflix Rule — the “reader apps” exception that allows Netflix (to name the most conspicuous example) to offer an iOS app that does not use Apple’s in-app purchase system. To sign up for Netflix, a new customer has to do so at Netflix’s website. A lot of other apps — many from very large companies, like Microsoft and Google — take advantage of the same rule. The way the rule works:
Only certain categories of apps qualify. Apple calls them “reader apps” but most of them don’t involve reading.
These apps offer paid services, but accept payment only on their own respective websites, not through the apps, cutting Apple out of the financial transaction.
These iOS apps are free to download, but when launched, are allowed to show only a way to sign in, not sign up. Not only do Apple’s rules forbid these apps from offering sign up within the app (which, in my opinion, is fine), or offering a tappable link to sign up on the web, but the apps are even forbidden from simply explaining in written words what you need to do to sign up. Apps using this rule can’t even say “To create a new account, visit our website” — even if they don’t tell you the URL of the website.
I wrote about this regarding Netflix in particular last year, noting that Netflix does offer a telephone support number in the app. I called it, and a helpful customer service rep told me that to create a new account I needed to go to Netflix’s website and sign up there. They can’t just print those simple words in the app, but they can set up a phone number where they tell you what to do. As I wrote then:
Again, Apple can make the rules — it’s their platform. But it’s just wrong that one of the rules is that apps aren’t allowed to explain the rules to users. Apple should be earning its share of in-app subscription revenue by competing on convenience, not confusion and obfuscation.
It is prima facie wrong that one of the rules is that an app is not allowed to explain the rules.
Is Apple proud of this rule against explaining the rules, and do they enjoy explaining it to their friends and family?
Back to Cook’s opening statement:
The smartphone market is fiercely competitive, and companies like Samsung, LG, Huawei and Google have built very successful smartphone businesses offering different approaches.
Google does not have a successful smartphone business, if by smartphone business Cook means selling smartphones. Google certainly derives many benefits from being the company behind Android, the operating system, and the Google Play ecosystem that is effectively a user-facing OS on top of Android, but that’s nothing at all like Samsung, LG, or Huawei.
And Huawei is an odd company to mention in the context of the U.S. market, where their phones and telecom equipment are banned because of national security concerns. Worldwide, though, yeah, Huawei sells a lot of phones.
Apple does not have a dominant market share in any market where we do business. That is not just true for iPhone; it is true for any product category.
No M-word, but the meaning is clear: Apple has no monopoly so why are they here? Mind you, I’m not saying I think Apple doesn’t belong here — I think they do — I’m saying that’s what Cook is implying. No monopoly, no antitrust. And it’s undeniably true that antitrust laws, as written, don’t address a company that has attained a dominant position with only minority market share.
We created the App Store in 2008 as a feature of the iPhone. Launching with a little more than 500 apps, it was our ambitious attempt to drastically expand the features and customizability of every user’s device. We wanted to create a safe and trusted place for users to discover apps — and a means of providing a secure and supportive way for developers to develop, test and distribute apps to iPhone users globally.
No mention here of Steve Jobs’s statement, announcing the App Store in 2008: “We don’t intend to make any money off the App Store. We’re basically giving all the money to the developers and the 30 percent that pays for running the store, that’ll be great.”
It would be interesting to ask Cook when Apple’s perspective on that changed.
Curation has always been one of the App Store’s chief features and sources of value for our users. We held a quality department store as a model: a place where customers can find a great variety of options, but can feel confident that the selection is high-quality, reliable and current.
The analogy to a “quality department store” holds as much water as a sieve. The App Store is analogous only to something like Amazon, an everything store, with apps ranging from premium products to abject junk.
When the App Store was created, the prevailing distribution options available to software developers at the time did not work well. Brick-and-mortar stores charged high fees and had limited reach. Physical media like CDs had to be shipped and were hard to update.
To omit the fact that there was — dating back to the mid-’90s, well over a decade before the iPhone App Store — a thriving market for software sold directly over a thing called “The Internet” is sophistry. Most Mac software is still sold and distributed this way today. If App Stores are so great why is most Mac software sold outside the Mac App Store?
Rob Pegoraro today wrote an entire piece for Forbes on just this point: “What Tim Cook Left Out of His Version of App Store History”. Highly recommended.
Brick-and-mortar software stores and middlemen distributors did charge exorbitant fees, and distributing software on physical media, no matter how it was sold, sucked. But talking about brick-and-mortar retail software sales in 2020 is like talking about when cars sucked because you had to crank their motors by hand to start them. Or even like talking about when our city streets were ankle deep in horseshit before cars existed.
Talking about brick-and-mortar software distribution without even mentioning direct downloads and sales over the web is flat-out dishonest, and clearly the most disappointing aspect of Cook’s prepared testimony.1 ★
This same point came up in my WWDC 2020 interview with Greg Joswiak and Craig Federighi. Joz more or less made the same argument, talking about the App Store being the next step after brick-and-mortar, completely omitting direct web distribution and sales. Which, again, wasn’t just an intermediary step, but a market that thrives to this day. I let that slide without pressing back, and it’s my biggest (only?) regret of that interview. What I recall was being taken aback by the reference to brick-and-mortar — how is that relevant? — and completely missing Joz’s omission of the web as a