Apple vs Epic: Here’s how the trial went

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As a tech writer with years of experience, it’s not super often that I come across an article that requires lengthy research through Wikipedia, news posts, public option sources, and court documents. But that’s exactly what it took to piece together that Apple vs Epic trial results.

I covered this case in the Fall of 2020, shortly after it started up. You can read that post here to catch up on all that happened. I’ll briefly cover the origins of this case, though, for those not in the loop.

The trial spanned three weeks and covered a wide variety of topics and arguments. It was unusual in several ways, led to debates over a nude banana, and sparked public conversation on the meaning of a monopoly.

In today’s post, I’ll do my best to cover everything that happened. I want to give you an idea of what each side was arguing, why, and how they argued it. I’ll get into some predictions about the effects this trial is likely to have as well as my own opinion on the situation.

This is going to be a long one, so strap in, and let’s get started!

What is the Apple vs Epic trial?

For those that don’t know, Epic Games is the creator of the immensely popular game Fortnite. Fortnite is a game that can be played on a game console, computer, or even a mobile phone, like the iPhone.

Last August, Epic unveiled a video parodying Apple’s old 1984 commercial, insinuating that Apple has become the same type of corporation they were trying to take down in the 1980s.

At the same time that the video was released, it was revealed that Epic was launching an anti-trust case against Apple. Epic’s stance is that Apple has a monopoly on its iPhone App Store, where it can control what can and can’t be sold on the App Store with ultimate authority.

Epic argues that this makes the App Store uncompetitive and, given that Apple takes 30% of every sale made on the App Store, an unfair space for smaller developers.

The trial immediately caught the attention of the entire world. Apple has long been a company that is either loved or hated, so people were primed to have passionate feelings on the trial. Not to mention that Fortnite is immensely popular, and the trial led to Fortnite being removed from the App Store.

Over the last three weeks, Apple and Epic have been debating the case in front of a judge. Apple, to defend itself as a non-monopolistic business, and Epic, to change Apple’s policies for the little man (and itself, too).

When will a verdict be decided?

Although the Epic vs. Apple trial has come to an end, the case hasn’t. The presiding judge, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, still needs to set the verdict. The verdict will decide who is right, what points will change for each company, and give us a glimpse at how (or if) the app industry is set to change.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers commented that the verdict would be delivered on August 13th of 2021. This caused nearly every news outlet to declare August as the date that the verdict would arrive.

However, it now sounds like this was just a joke by the judge, given that that’s the same date that Epic launched the trial. So we can’t be sure if August is really when we’ll see the verdict.

That said, Judge Gonzalez Rogers did say that this trial is her top priority and that she wants to come to a verdict while it’s fresh on her mind. She does have more than 4,000 pages of testimonies to go through, so it’ll be a while, to be sure. But I do think we’ll see a verdict before the year is up, and I don’t think August is a bad estimation by any means.

What were the main arguments during the Apple vs Epic case?

To break down the Apple vs Epic trial, I think it helps to examine the specific arguments being made. While there were lots of mini-debates on semantics and history, the trial can generally be divided into three main arguments. Let’s get into what those arguments were and how they played out.

1. What qualifies as a game?

Yep, that was the first argument that the Apple vs Epic trial tried to settle. What constitutes a game? It might sound like an odd place to start, given that this situation is about monopolies and not gaming. However, settling this point gives the rest of the trial context. It’s kind of like defining the word “authoritarian” at the beginning of a political debate. It ensures that all parties are on the same page.

The problem is that Apple and Epic wanted the trial to take place on opposing pages. And that’s why this argument ended up being pretty significant.

Apple wanted the trial to revolve around questions related to gaming. It wanted this to be about games on the App Store because that would dramatically narrow the scope of the trial. And it could make the argument that Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on gaming because Fortnite and other games can launch on any console or platform they like.

Epic Games, on the other hand, wanted to frame the argument that this is about apps on the App Store, not games. That it’s about how much control Apple has and exerts over developers on its platform and how that has created a monopolistic marketplace.

Minecraft, Roblox, and the definition of a game

The tech giants argued specifically over games like Minecraft and Roblox, the only two games that share the same level of popularity as Fortnite.

Both groups agreed that Minecraft is, through and through, a video game. Even though Minecraft has a store where players can buy goods and a handful of other mini-games, it’s still fundamentally a video game.

When it came to Roblox, though, Apple and Epic Games took different stances. Apple argued that Roblox is a game just like Minecraft, and that the variety of experiences with the game are just that – experiences.

Epic, on the other hand, argued that Roblox and Fortnite are “metaverses”. A metaverse is a virtual space that spans games, brands, IPs, and platforms. You can enter the virtual space on any device, use any licensed property or character, and participate in any kind of game or experience that you like.

I’ll be honest, I’m in my early 20s and it’s even going over my head. It sounds like a pretentious way of describing a new type of video game, but I also don’t understand it, so maybe I’m out of the loop.

Regardless, the point Epic is trying to make is that it and others are trying to create an entirely new market (the metaverse market) but that Apple is strong-arming them in a way that prevents them from doing so. In other words, Epic is saying that Apple is using its finances and size to reduce competition. And that’s a big no-no. Assuming, of course, that that’s what Apple is doing.

2. Is the App Store a monopoly, or a curated storefront?

The second argument made during the Apple vs Epic trial is a lot more accessible. It’s over whether or not the App Store on iOS is a monopoly or just a curated storefront.

Apple would like you to believe that the App Store is just a curated storefront or ecosystem. It allows iPhone users to easily purchase and install apps directly to their devices without fearing scams, malware, viruses, or inappropriate content. And without the App Store, tons of apps and companies would never have been able to succeed in the way they have – which is true.

Epic Games, on the other hand, wants you to believe that the App Store is a monopoly on the iPhone platform. There are no other built-in ways to install apps on iPhones at all. Compare this to a computer, which might have its own App Store, but also allows you to install apps from the web or even build your own.

When these positions collide, it usually tends to bring up the Grocery Store analogy.

The Grocery Store analogy

The Grocery Store analogy compares the various app stores on mobile devices to grocery stores. The iOS App Store is Whole Foods, the Android app store is Walmart, the Samsung app store is Kroger, the app stores on PlayStation and Xbox are Trader Joe’s and HEB – you get the idea.

Apple uses this analogy to say that, sure, the App Store is controlled to a heavy degree by Apple. Developers have to share their profits with Apple, follow Apple’s guidelines, and rely on Apple’s methods of promotion to exist on the App Store.

Those apps don’t get to have a say on how the App Store runs any more than Campbell’s Soup can tell Walmart how to run its business. If they want Walmart to distribute their product, then they have to play by Walmart’s rules.

This analogy has a few problems

The main problem with this analogy is that grocery stores exist in a physical space. On your local street, there can be three different grocery stores all competing for your business. This prevents these businesses from bullying producers like Campbell’s too much because then those producers will just switch to Krogers.

Epic claims, however, that Apple doesn’t just have a grocery store on your local street. It owns the whole street, and there’s only one store, the iOS App Store. If an app doesn’t like Apple, it can’t go to another iPhone app store because there aren’t any other options.

Apple claims that there are other options, like the Android and Samsung stores. But the grey area here is that those other stores exist on other devices. So you can’t own an iPhone and use those other stores. In other words, Apple is saying that it does own the street, but that there are other streets out there too.

The digital nature of app stores makes it hard to determine what qualifies as a monopoly. You may have your own opinion, but legally, a determination hasn’t been made yet. There isn’t a consensus on where app stores fall under monopoly law, and Epic and Apple are trying to fight for a definition that benefits their business.

3. Do Apple’s anti-steering policies go too far?

The third and last major argument of the Apple vs Epic trial revolved around Apple’s anti-steering policies.

For those that don’t know, steering is when a service being distributed by one platform tries to redirect customers to pay for that same service on another platform.

This is actually what led to Fortnite being removed from the App Store in the first place. On the same day that Epic Games released the 1984 ad parody, they also added a notification to the iOS version of Fortnite the told users to pay for Fortnite content on the Epic Games store rather than the iOS app.

The reason Epic Games pushed this is that Apple takes a cut from all sales made through App Store apps. Aside from general revenue, Apple uses this money to maintain, improve, secure, and promote the App Store marketplace.

Apple, of course, doesn’t want to lose that revenue anymore than Epic does. So it has implemented what’s known as anti-steering policies, which forbid App Store apps from steering users to outside marketplaces.

While anti-steering policies have been upheld by the Supreme Court in most cases, Epic is has tried to make the argument that Apple’s policies do too much damage to the market to be allowed in their current form.

How likely is Epic to win the Apple vs Epic case?

Before giving my prediction, it should be noted that I am not a lawyer in the slightest sense of the word. If you’ve read this far in the article, your prediction is probably as good or better than mine.

That said, I think it’s unlikely that Epic Games is going to win the Apple vs Epic trial.

First, this is an anti-trust case. And in anti-trust cases, the defendant almost always wins. That’s because U.S. courts aren’t supposed to run businesses. They can regulate them, but generally can’t force a business to leave one model behind and adopt another.

Judge Gonzalez Rogers even commented on this fact herself. She’s there to decide if Apple is breaking laws, not to settle an argument about app store business models.

Second, similar cases have sided with Apple’s arguments. As mentioned, anti-steering policies have been upheld by the Supreme Court, and Apple has won two out of two previous cases in the same courtroom this trial is taking place.

I should say, though, that I don’t think Apple is going to get off scot-free. The judge has challenged them on a few fronts. Like when the judge pointed out that if the App Store really faced competition, Apple’s 30% commission fee would have changed at some point in the last several years. The fact that Apple has never altered this price gives credence to the idea that Apple isn’t facing enough competition.

I think the outcome will end up being a compromise, where Epic Games loses the case, but Apple still has to make some changes to the App Store model.

What will happen if Apple loses the Apple vs Epic case?

In the unlikely event that Apple does lose the Apple vs Epic case, I don’t think that much will change.

That’s because the loser of this case is probably going to try for an appeal. And experts in this area believe the judge will probably grant an appeal, given that the issues being brought up in this case are both new and important.

So that means that if Apple loses this case in a few months, that it’ll take it to an appeals court for another few years. And if that happens, then the results of the case will most likely end up being moot.

Apple will make changes to its platform to avoid any consequences that the trial might try to impose on it, and the tech industry will evolve past the point that this trial is relevant.

So in a way, the trial will probably change some App Store practices as well as app store practices in the industry as a whole. But will the court directly interfere and change the way Apple does business? For the Apple vs Epic case, the answer looks like no.

Other mishaps and oddities from the Apple vs Epic trial

Alright, so that’s most of the important stuff from the Apple vs Epic trial. Most of you can probably move on to some other AppleToolBox post now.

But if you’re like me, you’re probably interested in some of the weirder stuff that went down at the trial. Apple, Epic, and the judge had a debate about a nude banana, we learned that Walmart has considered launching its own gaming service, and Apple admitted that to a certain extent, it is just trying to get as much money from its practices as possible.

So for the next few sections, I’m going to briefly touch on the mishaps and oddities of the Apple vs Epic trial.

The Great Banana Debate

First up is what I’m dubbing the Great Banana Debate. I am fluffing it up a bit since it was really just a few short exchanges, but hey, it’s my article.

Apple attorneys showed an image of “Peely”, a banana-themed skin in Fortnite that players can dress their characters in. The attorneys made sure to clarify, however, that the image of Peely that they were showing was of him in a suit, not his default outfit, which is no outfit at all – just a banana with arms and legs.

The attorneys made this point after making claims that Epic Games’s more relaxed style of running an app marketplace leads to unmoderated, inappropriate content, such as pornography.

Of course, Peely doesn’t have any inappropriate features, which made it a strange point to bring up. I’m not sure what Apple’s attorneys were aiming for. Maybe it was just meant to lighten the room a bit. Epic’s attorneys made sure the judge saw an unclothed image of Peely, though, to show that there is nothing inappropriate about the character’s default skin.

In other words, two mega-corporations had a back and forth exchange about a nude cartoon banana in a U.S. court of law.

Documents showed Walmart is working on a game-streaming service

Another interesting detail that came out of this case happened by mistake. As is typical, both parties were required to submit certain documents and pieces of evidence to the court for examination. Following instructions, both groups in the Apple vs Epic trial complied.

Since these companies deal with a lot of copyrighted, private affairs, certain documents were supposed to be “sealed”. This means that no one outside of the courtroom should have been able to see them.

Due to an error, however, the first group of submitted documents was not sealed. Instead, they were made publicly available. The internet being what it is, these documents were immediately scoured. And in them, people found conversations between Epic Games and Walmart discussing the possibility of Walmart launching its own game-streaming service.

Who knows if this service will ever see the light of the day. It certainly doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that Walmart doesn’t have any real foothold in the gaming industry right now. But it’s interesting nonetheless!

Apple has already started to ease up its practices

Shortly after the Apple vs Epic case started, Apple relaxed some App Store policies. In December of 2020, Apple launched a form for developers making less than $1 million from the App Store. If they fill out the form, these developers can reduce their App Store commission from 30% to 15%.

It’s a pretty measly change, given that developers have to fill out a form to get access to it. But it shows that Apple is at least nervous about what the case represents.

Tim Cook even admitted in court that the policy change was in part due to the events of the trial. This isn’t good for Apple, as it gives Epic’s stance more credibility. Which is that Apple’s practices don’t look good under scrutiny.

My thoughts on the Apple vs Epic case

And that’s it! That’s everything you need to know about the Apple vs Epic case.

My thoughts on the case are pretty moderate. I do think that Apple should have a lot of say over the App Store. It’s easy to call Apple evil and dismiss the amount of work required to launch the App Store. It’s the culmination of decades of work and successful products, and with the App Store, there are a ton of companies and marketplaces that wouldn’t exist.

But I also think that Apple shouldn’t be able to lord over App Store developers and maintain complete control over their success or failure. Some of Apple’s policies should be less harsh and more flexible. And maybe there’s some future where it’s possible to install non-App Store apps without breaking Apple’s ecosystem.

Either way, I hope you enjoyed reading about this story as much as I’ve enjoyed following it! For more news, advice, and insights into all things Apple, be sure to check out the rest of AppleToolBox. We’re going to be covering the WWDC21 event in all its glory over the next two weeks, so stay tuned!

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