On Monday, Apple faces one of its most serious legal threats in recent years: A trial that threatens to upend its iron control over its app store, which brings in billions of dollars each year while feeding more than 1.6 billion iPhones, iPads, and other devices.
The federal court case is being brought by Epic Games, maker of the popular video game Fortnite. Epic wants to topple the so-called “walled garden” of the app store, which Apple started building 13 years ago as part of a strategy masterminded by co-founder Steve Jobs.
Epic charges that Apple has transformed a once-tiny digital storefront into an illegal monopoly that squeezes mobile apps for a significant slice of their earnings. Apple takes a commission of 15% to 30% on purchases made within apps, including everything from digital items in games to subscriptions. Apple denies Epic’s charge.
Apple’s highly successful formula has helped turn the iPhone maker into one of the world’s most profitable companies, one with a market value that now tops $2.2 trillion.
Privately held Epic is puny by comparison, with an estimated market value of $30 billion. Its aspirations to get bigger hinge in part on its plan to offer an alternative app store on the iPhone. The North Carolina company also wants to break free of Apple’s commissions. Epic says it forked over hundreds of millions of dollars to Apple before Fortnite was expelled from its app store last August, after Epic added a payment system that bypassed Apple.
Epic then sued Apple, prompting a courtroom drama that could shed new light on Apple’s management of its app store. Both Apple CEO Tim Cook and Epic CEO Tim Sweeney will testify in a Oakland, California federal courtroom that will be set up to allow for social distancing and will require masks at all times.
Neither side wanted a jury trial, leaving the decision to U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, who already seems to know her ruling will probably be appealed, given the stakes in the case.
Much of the evidence will revolve around arcane but crucial arguments about market definitions.
Epic contends the iPhone has become so ingrained in society that the device and its ecosystem have turned into a monopoly Apple can exploit to unfairly enrich itself and thwart competition.
Apple claims it faces significant competition from various alternatives to video games on iPhones. For instance, it points out that about 2 billion other smartphones don’t run iPhone software or work with its app store — primarily those relying on Google’s Android system. Epic has filed a separate case against Google, accusing it of illegally gouging apps through its own app store for Android devices.