App Store Regulations Debate – Apple’s Worst Case Scenario

on August 25, 2021

It has been several months since the Epic v. Apple court case and just over one year since Epic’s battle with Apple began. Since a ruling is expected any day now, I thought making a few additional points would be good timing.

There is a range of implications to consider regarding certain outcomes, but the angle I will take is to assume the worst-case outcome in a few of the trial’s most critical points. I’ll then look at some of the implications assuming the harshest verdict/opinion. The bullets below will be the basis of ruling a worst-case scenario for Apple.

  • Apple must allow third party app stores
  • Apple must allow third party payments in its app store
  • Apple must allow developers to steer customer from the app store to an outside source for transactions

Economics. I’ll start with the economic impact. Assuming the following ruling and Apple losing any appeal, a big question will be what is the financial impact to Apple. The answer to this is tricky, but I think the key metric to understand is that currently, Apple pays around $15 billion a year to developers who make up about 6% of their revenue. Yes, $15 billion is a lot of money, but it is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things for Apple and how they make their money.

The key to that $15 billion number is to know it mostly comes from games and probably less than 100 games driving the vast majority of revenue. The only way I see Apple taking a financial hit here is if all the games driving most of the revenue rally around a third-party store and ONLY distribute their games there instead of Apple’s App Store. On this point, it is not outside the scope of reality that if Judge Rogers rules Apple needs to allow for third-party app stores, she could also rule that all apps must ALSO be submitted to Apple’s app store. I make this point because Judge Rodgers went out of her way to mention that she recognizes the platform provider should get an incentive to keep the platform vibrant. So I find it hard to believe she would provide an opportunity for third parties to completely bypass the store or any avenue that allows for no compensation to Apple.

With all the variables that can factor into how Judge Rodgers may arrive at the listed bullets above and the ways that Apple will still be able to receive compensation, it is unlikely their $15b and growing cut of App store revenues takes too large of a hit. Plus, as I mentioned, even if it does, it is not that big of a deal. So in my mind, the economic impact is less of a concern.

Consumer Behavior. Tangled into the economic point is a broader point about consumer behavior should all the above changes be forced on Apple. To this point, I want to reference an excellent article by Benedict Evans where he makes the below point I wholeheartedly agree with.

There are lots of privacy and security arguments about side-loading, and to some extent also third-party app stores, but I would argue pretty strongly that this is mostly a waste of effort – that these are not a mainstream consumer behavior and the dominant route-to-market for most developers will be the default, preloaded app store.

This is essentially my conviction as well. Even in a worst-case scenario ruling, where all my above bullets exist as options for consumers, the vast majority of them will still use Apple’s default store and Apple’s default payment system. My confidence in this viewpoint stems from my many years researching consumer behavior and consistently quantifying how hard changing consumer behavior is once established habits have set it. I outlined this in my theory of behavioral debt piece many years ago.

Benedict also points out that only a few brands have the power to execute either a third-party app store or an alternate payment option to Apple. A good example of this is Netflix and Amazon for e-books who successfully, yet highly inconveniently, get customers to transact on their website and then consume on their Apple device. If I had to stake a bet, I’d say this and not a third-party app store would have more success but still be limited to only a handful of brands.

The important factor here is to recognize that the only reason a Netflix, or Amazon, can do this is that they are a large brand, trusted, and already managing customer relationships at scale. This applies to the argument for Spotify because I can guarantee that when Spotify started, if they asked customers to leave Apple’s store and go directly to their website to transact, they would never have grown to the size they did. It was primarily because of the lack of friction Apple provided an upstart company like Spotify that allowed them to acquire customers as easily as they did.

This provides the challenge to ultimately deal with the charge Epic has brought against Apple. The argument is that these rules are limiting innovation. And limiting innovation is something Apple itself would agree is not what they want. So, assuming it is true innovation is being limited, what is the solution? That is a harder question to answer, and I think it comes in two parts which I could probably write an entire analysis on individually. But, as much as I am sure Apple would disagree, I think dropping the App Store commission to 15% for developers that don’t fit into their small business program (those that make less than $1 million a year) would be a huge start. And then dropping the commission for small business program participants from 15% to 10% as well. But, again, neither of these changes would impact Apple financially in any significant way. On the other hand, in some cases, if Apple made it attractive enough that Netflix, Amazon, etc., would embrace IAP because of the dramatic decrease in friction, there is a chance Apple can win back transactions they have lost, which would be a net positive financially.

And lastly, as I outlined in the analysis of our developer research study, I do think some app store rules need to be changed/modified as well as the App Store review process, and those things would do wonders for Apple’s developer community and perhaps help eliminate some of the barriers the small developers face when trying to innovate on their app and service. Apple should be doing everything in its power to continue to incentivize the kinds of innovations that help developers make money because ultimately, by doing so, Apple will make more money as well.

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