When I was a kid, I remember watching the now famous Apple-IBM commercial at the Super Bowl that claimed to show why the year 1984 wasn’t going to be anything like the novel “1984.” In the ad, Apple presented itself and the Macintosh computer it was debuting to compete with IBM’s ubiquitous PCs as the revolutionary going up against “Big Brother,” the behemoth bureaucracy that crushed souls and innovation.
In the next decade, as Apple’s fortunes waned, this positioning in the mind of consumers as the innovative upstart fighting for the people continued to serve it well. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign reinforced its positioning among a new generation of digitally savvy consumers.
By the end of the 1990s, the role of Big Brother had passed from IBM to Microsoft, seen as the mega-corporation that crushed the little guys (not to mention innovation) through the dominance of its Windows operating system. The U.S. Department of Justice got into the game, using an antitrust law established during the age of the robber barons to take on the modern-day monopoly that had crushed not only Apple’s user interface but Netscape’s web browser, which was the main focus of the case.
It’s been doing exactly what it always accused IBM and Microsoft of doing: stifling innovation, killing competition and hurting consumers.
Fast-forward another decade and technological evolution has crowned a new crop of leaders: Google, Amazon and Facebook. They have since become synonymous with even more sinister aspects of Big Brother: censorship, sharing personal data, invasion of privacy and surveillance.
Meanwhile, Apple has floated above it all. Even as it climbed to become the most valuable multinational corporation in the world — and the first public U.S. company to have a valuation in the trillions — the lasting legacy of late founder Steve Jobs seemed to be the placement of an imaginary halo over his company, an accessory whose glow was cemented by the most intimate and popular of all his creations, the iPhone and the Apple App Store, which revolutionized both hardware and software.
Now, finally, the glow may be starting to wear off as the curtain is being pulled back on some of Apple’s less-than-savory business practices.
A high-profile clash between Apple and Epic, maker of the beloved multiplayer game Fortnite — perhaps the most popular video game in the world in recent years with hundreds of millions of players— resulted in Apple kicking the game out of the App Store. This led not only to a well-publicized lawsuit, but also to what I consider to be the biggest of many takedowns that have started erasing Apple’s halo, revealing that it’s been doing exactly what it always accused IBM and Microsoft of doing: stifling innovation, killing competition and hurting consumers.
Fortnite has become much more than a game: It’s a major social platform for the younger generation, who are as likely to interact there as on sites like Facebook. A recent concert held by Travis Scott inside Fornite’s virtual world became the largest concert ever attended, with 12 million concurrent attendees. Gaming is no longer just for geeks; it’s not only cool, but has also become one of the biggest industries in the world, with yearly revenue more than the total box office for all of Hollywood’s movies.
Epic is suing Apple because its App Store dictates what payment methods can be used to buy digital goods, not just in games but for all apps: only Apple’s payment method, which takes a 30 percent cut, well beyond what Paypal, Amazon or other payment providers would if Apple allowed them to conduct business in apps on iOS, the iPhone’s operating system. But below this surface battle over pricing are implications that are much, much bigger and affect every app provider from Amazon to Netflix to thousands of smaller, innovative developers who make their living through mobile apps.
Mobile smartphones have become the largest and fastest-growing computing platform in history, and app stores like Apple’s and Google’s have become the standard way to download software onto your device. At stake is whether one company can decide what apps you can or cannot consume by not allowing other app stores to be installed on its company’s devices (in Apple’s case, on iPhones or iPads), such as Epic’s own game store or the popular Steam Store.
By not allowing alternative app stores and tightly controlling the payment mechanisms, Apple not only limits competition but plays kingmaker and censor, deciding what you can or cannot do on your personal computing device and forcing apps to play by its rules or lose out on reaching Apple-product users.
In a brilliant marketing stunt, Epic released a new video inside Fortnite in mid-August that was a take on Apple’s famous 1984 commercial, which it called “Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite.” In a startling role reversal, Apple now represents Big Brother.
While Fortnite isn’t a little guy, there are many actual “little guys” that have been crushed by Apple as the App Store has grown. I saw this firsthand as part of the early wave of developers that built successful games on Apple’s App Store. At first, we welcomed Apple’s App Store as an innovative way to get software onto smartphones; it seemed to democratize the distribution of software and allow individual developers easy access to a mass audience.
Over time, though, as the number of apps grew into the tens of thousands and then into the millions, Apple started to exert more control. As game developers in the dawn of a new computing revolution, we all lived in constant fear of a call from Apple headquarters telling us that they were kicking our apps out of its store for arbitrary reasons ranging from how we priced our virtual goods to how we marketed our apps to the wording we used to describe a game.
It was a bullying tactic that allowed Apple to put almost any small guy out of business in an instant. Although Apple claims this was to control the quality of apps in its store, it also gave it huge profits. Even Microsoft and IBM never went that far; in the past, no tech company fully regulated what software you could install on the computer you’d purchased from it, nor did it limit how you could pay for that software or other content or what a company could charge you for it.
Apple, like the big monopolies of the past, now seems to think innovation means putting out a new color or different product size while optimizing efficiency and profitability.
Recently, the CEOs of Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple were summoned to Congress to discuss their potentially anti-competitive behavior, with Apple’s part of the hearing largely focusing on how it uses its App Store to limit consumer choice and competition. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that plaintiffs who were representing users hurt by Apple’s practices could go forward, and the European Union has started forming an antitrust investigation into Apple and its App Store.
Perhaps more important than lawsuits or antitrust investigations, however, is the long-term perception of Apple by consumers. After a string of successful product launches from 2001 to 2015 that included the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad and the iWatch, Apple’s innovation has dried up in recent years. Apple, like the big monopolies of the past, now seems to think innovation means putting out a new color or different product size while optimizing efficiency and profitability.
Apple’s clash with Fortnite may not just take off Apple’s halo, it may also earn Apple a new nickname in the years to come: Big Brother.