Decoding Apple’s Statement to Business Insider Regarding Xbox Game Pass

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. That entire sentence is not a paraphrase of something Apple said.

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.

  1. 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. ↩︎

  2. 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? ↩︎︎