Apple and Epic have to win over more than just a judge

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Yesterday saw the first of what promises to be many, many hearings in the Apple vs Epic legal battle over Apple’s App Store policies and fees. That first hearing was preliminary to the preliminaries, merely designed to see if Apple should be forced to reinstate Epic’s developer privileges immediately while the court figures out whether the company should reinstate Epic’s privileges temporarily for the duration of the trial.

A decision came in the wee hours of the night.

As Russell Brandom explains, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers ruled that “Apple can’t retaliate against Epic Games by terminating the company’s Apple developer accounts or restricting use of Epic’s Unreal Engine by developers on Apple platforms. But in the same ruling… Apple will not be required to bring Fortnite — which it had banned after Epic added an in-app payment system in violation of Apple’s rules — back to the App Store.”

For more detail, read this article from Brandom, and this live tweet thread from Sarah Jeong is a blast.

I personally find these big tech trials fascinating and fun — you get to see a completely different side of these companies and the executives that run them. And the discovery! These trials mean that both sides get to demand documents and emails that would otherwise never see the light of day. The thing hasn’t even started yet and we’ve already gotten a chance to see the emails between Epic and Apple that led to Fortnite’s App Store ban.

As per usual, there are two trials starting: the actual legal battle and the PR battle. But that second cliche actually papers over just how complex the jury pool for the court of public opinion really is. There’s a bunch of constituencies both Apple and Epic would like to win over, and all of them have varying degrees of importance to each company. I’m going to go through a few of them in order from least important to most important:

  • There’s the general, non-Fortnite playing set of iPhone users. Sorry to say, I don’t think this group is going to have much influence. Most people will reasonably only pay a tiny amount of attention to this fight, if any at all. (Though I have to say, the amount of “discussion” I’m seeing on Twitter is setting off my sock-puppet-are-they-bots spidey sense.)
  • There’s the kids who love and play Fortnite. Will they eventually vote with their dollars — or their parents’ dollars? I tweeted a half-joke poll asking the teens of America if they were forced to choose between iMessage and Fortnite, which one would they choose? It was iMessage running away. Even if Epic’s PR blitz manages to garner a bunch of sympathy, sympathy is not a more powerful force than the stigma of the Green Bubble in the group chat.
  • There are other companies. Microsoft has already come out in support of Epic — perhaps not in support of Epic’s full suite of tactics, but in support of keeping Epic’s Unreal game engine from getting cut off. (Microsoft says Forza is at risk from Apple’s Unreal Engine cutoff.) The best thing about Microsoft’s brief is how it holds the idea of “click-through, non negotiable contracts” in such disdain. Me too. Anyway, the point is that if Apple suddenly finds itself alone and faced with amicus briefs from all of its frenemy multi-billion dollar competitors, that changes the tenor of the discussion.
  • Then you have legislators and regulators. They will be watching this case — and Apple’s App Store behavior more generally — very closely. We don’t know yet how much appetite there is in the US for regulating Apple or the App Store specifically, but it poses a larger risk than the outcome of this trial. Whether or not Apple wins on the legal merits against Epic now doesn’t mean that the people who make the laws can’t change them in the future. I’d say this is the most important jury pool, but the reality is that it moves slowly and Apple will have plenty of time to deal with them later.
  • Finally and most importantly: developers. I’m not suggesting that a bunch of iPhone devs are going to pull up stakes and head over to Android country anytime soon — there’s frankly less money there. But I am saying that developers have to make business decisions and weigh risks. Apple has clearly decided to become more stringent in enforcing certain App Store policies, which has made some of the inevitably inconsistent instances of rulings that much higher profile.

The latest was the WordPress blogging app, which was rejected for not having in-app purchases in a way that was frankly incoherent. Apple ultimately apologized to WordPress and won’t force the free app to add purchases after all.

If the company is looking to get more developers on its side, this was not the way to go about it. Note also that Apple’s statement says (emphasis mine) “Since the developer removed the display of their service payment options from the app, it is now a free stand-alone app and does not have to offer in-app purchases.” This is an attempt to make you think that it wasn’t a “free stand-alone app” before. Whether or not a developer happens to admit that there are ways to pay for things outside the App Store doesn’t have any impact on whether or not their app is free.

Therein lies Apple’s most immediate risk. Talented programmers have any number of things they could spend their time and resources on. If they sour on Apple for any reason — business, concern over unpredictable policies, or just plain disliking how they’re being treated — it’s a problem. It may be one of those “you don’t know that you’re missing what you’re missing until it’s gone” problems, too: just a slow petering out of enthusiasm.

That’s fixable, but few companies have been able to turn that kind of slide around. And for Apple, it would come at one of the worst possible times. The company is about to embark on a massive project to make iOS apps work on the Mac and bring many of the design philosophies from the iPad over as well. It will want developers engaged and interested in tweaking their apps to take advantage of that opportunity.

Epic, meanwhile, needs to convince many of those same constituencies and has risks that are perhaps more existential. If you’re a game developer, do you want to use the Unreal game engine that’s inextricably tied to what might be a quixotic campaign from the CEO of Epic? Or do you just use Unity instead, especially as that company is gaining in popularity and may get even more resources from an upcoming IPO?

Unless somebody blinks, the court battle between Epic and Apple is going to take a very, very long time. Due process is a slow process. The various juries outside the courtroom, however, could start making up their minds a whole lot faster.

Tech news

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 doesn’t have a release date, but you can already watch this review.

This could be the first real picture of the Pixel 5. These specs are better than the first ones that were floating around. There’s reason to be hopeful here, especially when it comes to the battery and camera choices. Google already does a nearly comparable job with digital zoom via its algorithms compared to many phone telephoto lenses, so swapping in an ultrawide is the right call. Still, though, it is pretty wild that Google is reportedly still using the exact same Sony sensor it has for years. Kim Lyons:

If the new Reddit image is legit, it would also seem to confirm those specs to be accurate, and agrees with rumors the Pixel 5 would have a Snapdragon 765G processor. The new information also indicates it will have a 4,000 mAh battery, 8GB of RAM, and a 90Hz display. The back will be plastic, and there’s no 3.5mm headphone jack, if this information is correct. Like the Pixel 4, the Pixel 5 should have a 0.5x wide-angle lens, as well as a 12.2MP main camera.

A new 5G BlackBerry phone with Android and a physical keyboard will arrive in 2021.

Zoom is coming to Google Nest, Amazon Echo, and Facebook Portal smart displays. Oh Google, you:

Google, on the other hand, will be relying on the strength of its Calendar and Assistant services, which will be able to automatically pull in existing Zoom meetings directly from your calendar and allow users to start meetings with voice commands like “Hey Google, join my next meeting.” (Unfortunately, the fact that Google limits Nest Hubs to a single account means that it’ll be less useful for juggling work and personal Zoom meetings.)

How to get Microsoft’s xCloud and stream Xbox games on your phone right now. If you have a game controller, I can’t recommend enough at least trying this for a month. It’s really good.

Sony is making it easier to use its digital cameras as webcams on Windows. I use a Sony camera as my webcam via an HDMI capture card and pretty much every video call with a new person starts with a compliment. If you have a nice camera around that could work with software like this (similar software is available for other brands), it’s absolutely worth the time to set it up.

Reviews and news

Google’s Pixel Buds sound noticeably better with new bass boost, but connectivity issues remain. I agree with Chris Welch’s assessment after just a day of use. The fact that I’m getting drop outs in totally non-challenging situations (like in my kitchen) is a huge bummer. Google made a good start with this new Pixel Buds design, but they’re clearly a V1 product — hopefully there will be a version 2. Version 2s are far, far, far from guaranteed in Google Hardware World, though.

After some time listening to the Pixel Buds today, I’d say Google succeeded at the first bit; bass boost makes for a very real improvement to sound quality if you were disappointed by low-end performance before. But the Pixel Buds’ wireless signal is still weaker than it should be, and the frustrating music disruptions remain.

Brydge’s latest keyboards turn a Surface Pro or Go into a standard laptop. These seem nice, but I don’t really get it myself. Defeats the whole purpose of getting a Surface tablet.

Acer’s Swift 3 is a solid laptop for students. Monica Chin reviews:

Overall, the Swift 3’s sturdy build, decent battery, and compact form render it a solid choice for its target demographic: students and anyone else looking for a portable device that won’t break the bank. It’s not the best laptop on the market in any of those categories — but it’s one of the best at its price point in all of them.

What’s the best student laptop? We asked students. Monica Chin has a really solid list here, focusing on how different students have different needs. Related: I bought an Asus Rog Zephyrus G14 gaming laptop on the strength of Chin’s recommendation and I am very, very excited to dip my toes back into PC gaming again.

The best accessories to improve your school from home experience.

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Sorry to inform you an asteroid will not be taking out Earth right before Election Day. Bad news: that asteroid won’t destroy the Earth the day before the election. Good news: asteroid detection, while incredibly comprehensive and accurate, is not perfect. So we could all still be immolated in a fiery conflagration at any moment.

Houses are influencers now, and this one burned to the ground. Incredible story about a community of influencers from Ashley Carman.

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Disclosure: My wife works on the Oculus Store, including setting policies for that store. I recuse myself from reporting on Oculus, VR, and Facebook and so am not familiar with what Oculus’ policies are. Here’s my ethics statement.

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