Epic versus Apple? I’m rooting for the users

You’ve probably seen the stories: it’s an epic (eye-rolling pun intended) war between two technology giants. In this corner is Apple, accused of being a greedy colossus using its tight-fisted control over its platforms to stifle innovation and ruin consumer choice. In the other corner, Epic Games, accused of posing as the victim of a controversy it manufactured in the name of keeping more cash for itself. Who do you back? Choose your side!

The thing is, I don’t really back all the actions of either party in this kerfuffle. Instead, I’m squarely on the side of the people who use technology. Let’s leave aside the tech giants. What are the outcomes that would most benefit regular users?

Easier to buy stuff

There’s no doubt about it. Apple’s restrictions on in-app purchases for digital goods—developers must use Apple’s payment system and Apple takes 30 percent of that—have degraded the customer experience on iOS. On Android, you can buy books in the Kindle app and comics in the Comixology app. But on iOS, you can’t. That’s because Amazon (owner of both apps) has decided that it can’t afford to hand Apple most of its profit margin in selling those products. Amazon is already the middleman here—there’s no room for another one. But Apple insists.

comixology ios 2020 Amazon

Comixology on the iPhone.

Amazon is hardly a fly-by-night company. I’ve got a longstanding financial relationship with Amazon, and they have my credit card information. What’s the harm in letting me buy my Comixology comics without exiting to Safari and buying via the web? The funny thing is, Apple already allows me to pay Amazon directly via the Prime Video app, and the world hasn’t ended. But Apple says that only video apps are eligible for this loophole.

Yes, Epic doesn’t want to share 30 percent of its sales with Apple—but this argument is also about how much better it is if users can buy digital goods directly within apps. And in many cases, Apple’s insistence on a 30 percent cut of all in-app transactions means that the commerce features of apps are entirely stripped out. There’s got to be a way for Apple to allow businesses with established relationships with customers to sell digital goods using their own payment systems, as Amazon does with the Prime Video app.

Cheaper stuff and better experiences

By the rule of the App Store, Apple’s in-app payment system has no competitor. What if Apple allowed other payment systems to operate within other apps, alongside Apple’s own system? Presumably it would force Apple to compete with those systems, on price or functionality or both. Lower prices and easier-to-use features are both direct benefits to the users.

I suspect that a lot of developers would continue to use Apple’s in-app purchase system, even if they had another choice, because of its relatively frictionless interactions and the fact that Apple handles pretty much everything on the back end. But right now, they don’t have a choice.

Safety from scams and crooks

Users also want to be safe. If Apple allows payments for digital goods from outside payment systems, it is potentially opening the gate for a new generation of scam apps and payment processors. The App Store is already full of shady apps of all kinds—stuff that Apple doesn’t appear to exert nearly enough effort to remove—but adding in direct credit-card payments potentially takes it to a whole new level.