Home / Opinion / Columns /  Battle horns have been sounded to adopt arms for app store wars

When Mark Zuckerberg says that Apple charges “monopoly rents" and that it has a “stranglehold" on apps allowed on its store, thereby curtailing innovation, you have to sit up and listen. You might think that it is a bit rich, considering that he, arguably, runs one of the biggest monopolies ever created—his properties Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp together have more than 90% of all digital pictures.

Lately, the two app stores that divide up the world, Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store, have been under attack from apps, alleging that these “gatekeepers" have started behaving like monopolists. Let’s sift the evidence.

Exhibit 1: Epic Games, maker of Fortnite, threw down a gauntlet to both Apple and Google, refusing to pay the “usurious" 30% fee that they charged to host its game on their app stores on the argument that it was not justified.

Exhibit 2: Spotify introduced a streaming music service at $10, and Apple followed soon with Apple Music at $10 too, but Spotify had to pay $3 of its $10 to Apple. Spotify delisted from the App Store, saying that this was unfair.

Exhibit 3: Store wars erupted closer home when Google’s Play Store suddenly pulled Paytm’s app off. Now, Paytm is India’s most valuable unicorn, a generic term for digital payments in India, and, interestingly, the biggest competitor of Google’s own Pay app on the store. Google said that this was because Paytm’s app was indulging in “gambling". “This is bullshit to a different degree," said the feisty Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm, “Google is not allowing us to acquire new customers right now. That’s all what this is." Google claimed that, besides gambling, Paytm’s Indian Premier League cricket themed campaign was promoting fantasy gaming too. Google does not allow fantasy gaming apps (while Apple does), and Dream11 is locked out of 95% of India’s smartphones. Curiously, though, Google permits fantasy sports app operators to advertise on its Search tool in India.

There are plenty of other such instances. Mike Isaac, who wrote Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, narrates how its combative then-CEO Travis Kalanick did not bow to city mayors and national governments, but went to Apple’s headquarters in genuflection when Apple threatened to take Uber off its App Store.

There is a lot of buzz about tech monopolies. The recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma brings home how they now control our lives, societies and politics. As I have written before, they’re not classic monopolies, as they don’t “price gouge" customers. Most of these products are free. They do monopolize and monetize our attention though, making billions by pushing us further into an “attention economy".

When we think of a monopoly, we tend to think of Google’s Search tool, which has more than 90% of the market in most countries, or Facebook’s social network, which is the internet in many places, or WhatsApp, or even Amazon. While they dominate their spaces, they have alternatives. You could use Bing or Duckduckgo for search, get off Facebook and survive, use SMS instead of WhatsApp, and shop elsewhere.

But there are no options to the app stores of Google and Apple. If your app isn’t listed, you might as well quit business. They are the powerful tollkeepers, picking who gets to cross the velvet ropes. They have largely been fair and had good governance norms for apps, but what happens when they launch apps that directly compete with these? Or if other considerations come in? With some apps now embroiled in geopolitics, this is no small matter. Apps have even become battlegrounds for governments. Think of TikTok in India and the US, the ‘digital strikes’ against Chinese apps by the Indian government. Both apps and governments are fighting over phone-screen real estate. Paytm’s Sharma underlines this point when he says, “It’s disgraceful that we are standing here at the cusp of an internet revolution in India and we are being sanctioned by companies that are not governed by the law of this country."

Heimdall, in Norse mythology, was the gatekeeper to Asgard, the dwelling of the gods. He was very powerful—slept less than a bird, could see a hundred leagues, and could hear grass growing in meadows and wool growing on sheep. He wielded a “ringing" horn, Gjallarhorn, which could be heard throughout heaven, earth and the lower world. It was believed that Heimdall would sound the horn to summon the gods to war. Online, the horns have started blowing.

Jaspreet Bindra is the author of ‘The Tech Whisperer’, and founder of Digital Matters

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