Key Debate: App Store Commission Rate Drops and Competition

on September 9, 2021

Things are already changing around Apple’s App store, and more will change with app stores broadly in the next few years. For Apple, their changes as of late are what many have referred to as “self-regulation.” Nevertheless, even if minor, Apple has made some concessions to start addressing some of the antitrust concerns surrounding the app store.

I firmly believe Apple has several more changes ahead for App Store that they will initiate whether legal regulation forces them to or not. But as I have mentioned before, none of these changes, even in a worst-case scenario, will impact Apple in any significant way. This is why I have consistently argued that making these changes for the better of the ecosystem, both now and in the future, is worth more than the small amounts of money they get or will lose from making changes to the App Store.

To summarize the economics again, Apple makes roughly ~$15-17b from their commission on App Store a year. That is roughly two weeks of iPhone sales in an average quarter. Apple makes two times as much total App Store revenue as Google, which likely means Apple’s commission is 2x that of Google.

Apple makes most, the vast majority, of their App Store commission from games. Several detailed financial analyst models approximate the percentage of commission Apple gets from games is ~60%. This suggests the only major threat to Apple’s commission revenue is if most game developers successfully bypass Apple’s IAP. At best, this is a long shot, given that IAP is a key reason for the lack of friction inside games that makes most microtransactions happen. And, even if an alternate in-app payment option was allowed to be offered, most normal consumers are unlikely to trust random game developers more than Apple. There are certainly a few game developers who could pull it off but certainly not most of them.

The foremost challenge I see is that as developers begin to exercise some freedoms to attempt to get users outside of Apple’s ecosystem to make a purchase, or try and onboard them in the app with a user account, enter credit card data, etc., all it will do is dramatically hurt the user experience for Apple customers. This is certainly true with purchasing a Kindle book via the Kindle app on iOS or signing up with Spotify, Netflix, etc., where you have to leave the app, sign up and transact, then go back to the app. All of these experiences are loaded with friction, and can you imagine a scenario where every app is free, but then the developer makes you jump through all these hoops to use it after you download it? The app experience would be miserable, but that is a likely road we could head down.

So what is the solution? Honestly, Apple needs to lower their commission to 10% for small developer businesses and 15% for everyone else. Apple needs to make it a no-brainer to use its IAP to collect transactions. The ONLY negative to lowering the rate is they would half their revenue on commissions. But, via regulation or self-regulation, they will lose money anyway at the potential cost of vastly injuring the customer experience with apps.

The positives dramatically outweigh the negatives here to just lower the commission to a rate that makes it a no-brainer for nearly everyone, including even someone like Netflix or Spotify, to embrace if they feel they can make more money by lowering friction to conversions.

But there is another angle I’m interested in. If Apple does, that is a huge positive if it plays out. If Apple dropped their rate down from 30% to 15%, it is reasonable that Google would have to as well. And what if not just Google felt pressured, but all the video game app stores got pressured? That may be a harder point to argue. Still, if Apple’s devices became more attractive as a platform for AAA game developers to embrace then, it would pressure console and PC distribution platforms to lower their rates as well. And if console makers really do operate at a loss, then a drop from 30% to 15% in-game commission could be quite devastating to their businesses. I am well aware this point on the AAA games is more broadly a less likely scenario, but I make it because Apple’s 30% commission was reasonable. After all, it was the standard for all game stores. If Apple lowers its rate, you could argue competitive and/or regulatory pressure could force all app/game marketplaces to do the same. At large, this would have some dramatic impacts competitively.

Lastly, while I advocate dropping the rate, which has both pro-ecosystem and pro-competition benefits, I still maintain Apple has App review processes that need to be refined. However, it does seem there are positive moves in this direction. Still, Apple’s success in some future platforms like AR/VR is dependent on the third-party developer goodwill they have had that is certainly being impacted at this moment. In my opinion, Apple can easily get this back and continue to modify and refine the App Review process in a way that gives developers confidence. Apple views them as partners may be the most important thing related to App Store Apple can do for its future.

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