With Windows Phone woefully confined to the history books, Microsoft’s mobility efforts live on in Surface tablets, mobile apps and their range of Android phones in the form of the Surface Duo 2. However, without a third option in the mobile space, iOS and Google have been able to preside over a nefarious duopoly that actively stifles competition, driving up prices for developers and consumers alike.
Longtime readers of Windows Central will no doubt remember how tirelessly Google worked to undermine and stifle the Windows Phone platform. Google has arbitrarily restricted access to its APIs, preventing Microsoft and third-party developers from building Windows Phone versions of its apps. Microsoft famously co-created a YouTube client with Google, until the company accidentally decided that Microsoft’s YouTube app was “violating” its API rules, leading to native YouTube access effectively terminating on Windows Phone. This anti-competitive behavior in bad faith is not below Google (e.g. no ARM version of Chrome browser for Windows 11), as we all know, and they resisted billion fines all over the world for this type of practice. However, they have managed to contribute to the death of Windows Phone, effectively cementing their monopoly on budget smartphones for now and for the foreseeable future.
However, Microsoft may be preparing to take its revenge. Say hello to the Xbox Store for mobile.
End of the Apple Google duopoly
Increasingly, the Google-Apple duopoly comes under scrutiny. The UK CMA just announced today that it’s investigating Apple for blocking Xbox Game Pass and other streaming services. Epic Games is fighting a nasty court battle in the US over Apple’s app store rules. Apple stipulates that a whopping 30% of all third-party app store profits go directly to Apple, despite having little or no involvement in those products. Apple also doesn’t allow users of its phones to use third-party app stores or even sideload apps without aggressively jailbreaking, which most users simply won’t do.
Epic Games has attempted to circumvent Apple’s rules with its industry-leading battle royale shooter Fortnite. Apple responded by banning the app. Similarly, Apple also blocks Xbox Game Pass on iPhone because it anticompetitively doesn’t want to see Microsoft’s high-value subscription service turn eyeballs away from its army of gambling-oriented pay-to-win mobile games. low quality that are a constant source of free money, at the expense of both users and developers.
Google allows Xbox Game Pass on its platform, but it’s not much better overall. Similarly, Google blocked Fortnite when Epic implemented its own payment system in the game and was accused by Epic of paying bribes to Activision-Blizzard to prevent them from building their mobile app store, which Activision denies.
There are potentially billions of dollars at stake in the mobile gaming wars. Titles like Diablo Immortal, Minecraft, Call of Duty Mobile, and Roblox are making money on iOS and Android thanks to the ease of access offered by mobile devices. However, a huge portion of these profits won’t go to developers and creators, but will go straight into the pockets of Apple and Google. On Windows, developers can put their titles on a huge range of platforms all of which compete over what cuts are taken. The Microsoft Store cut the cut for apps and games a little while ago, as did Steam, facing competition from the Epic Store. This is how competition is supposed to work, and Google and Apple don’t like it. But Microsoft, Epic Games and others are working to break this duopoly.
Microsoft has already developed an Android subsystem for Windows and has partnered with Amazon to bring an alternative Android supply to Windows 11. Windows 11, unlike iOS, is a completely open platform that allows competing stores to coexist with the Microsoft Store for free.
Google allows some of its Android OEMs to install their own app stores and services, which is why we believe that Android provides the best phones for Windows users. Samsung has its own Galaxy Store, for example, which is currently the only mobile app store where Epic Games’ Fortnite is available since Samsung doesn’t charge as hefty a fee to publishers who list apps and games through its platform. And soon, it may be one of the only places many of Activision-Blizzard’s mobile games are available as well.
Microsoft is exploring the possibility of creating its own Xbox Store for mobile games, according to comments made to the UK Competition Authority (CMA).
“The transaction will enhance Microsoft’s ability to build a next-generation gaming store that operates across a variety of devices, including mobile devices, through the addition of Activision Blizzard content. Building on Activision Blizzard’s existing gamer communities , Xbox will look to scale the Xbox Store to mobile devices, attracting gamers to a new Xbox Mobile platform.” —Microsoft at the UK CMA.
If Microsoft can land its Activision-Blizzard deal in 2023, it will give it command and control over major mobile titles like Candy Crush, Call of Duty Mobile, Diablo Immortal, and various other upcoming games in development. Microsoft’s Xbox Store for mobile could also become home to Xbox Game Pass, which is arbitrarily blocked on iOS as mentioned, and is restricted on Google Play due to Google’s steep 30% tax on in-app purchases. Developers switching from Xbox Game Pass to Android cannot monetize their games beyond the prepayment, due to Google’s rules. This stifles indie developers, stifles creative innovation, and anti-competitively impedes alternative store delivery on mobile.
Mobile gaming is incredibly profitable, and Microsoft may soon have an incredibly popular portfolio of blockbuster mobile titles that will finally give it the power to challenge the dominance of Google and Apple in mobile gaming. There is a future where Microsoft and others come together to give control back to users and developers in the process, forcing mobile platforms to become more open and Windows-like.
Xbox: forging a better deal for developers
Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer recently said that Xbox will become “unsustainable” if it’s not able to expand to mobile devices. We all already have a phone; We all need a phone: Not all of us need an Xbox or gaming PC. And Microsoft knows it. Increasingly around the world, users are choosing to save money by playing games on the devices they already own. As phones get more powerful and the quality of mobile gaming improves, the value proposition of consoles is potentially shrinking. There will always be a market for video game consoles and gaming laptops and PCs, but it is utter folly to ignore the rise of quality mobile gaming as a real avenue for serious gaming. Furthermore, its potential is being held back by Google and Apple’s apathy towards the art of game making, as they encourage toxic practices like gambling mechanics and pay-to-win that promote profit above all others. What. Traditional games are barely making it through the swamp on mobile, and that’s partly due to how Google and Apple have shaped their platforms.
What if there was another way? The very idea of a traditional video game publisher being able to port their app store to iOS or Android is appealing. Imagine a mobile gaming store that discounts gambling and pay-to-win and instead focuses on quality experiences. Imagine a store that offers developers a bigger cut of their revenue to put back into their games and developers, instead of providing dividends to Apple and Google shareholders. Imagine a store that promotes indie games, not just those with the money to pay for Google Ads. These are things Microsoft seems to be working on.
If you had to guess, chances are Epic Games and Samsung are in agreement to partner. Given that Fortnite is already on the Samsung Galaxy app store and Xbox Cloud Gaming platform, and given Microsoft’s deep partnership with Samsung to integrate Microsoft services on Android. It makes perfect sense to me that there is a future where these companies come together to build a new kind of mobile store that puts customers and developers first, rather than Apple and Google.
I’d be lying to suggest that there isn’t some degree of schadenfreude here for me. As someone who has been burned by Google’s monopolistic behavior during Windows Phone and as someone angered by Apple’s arbitrary blocking of Xbox Game Pass, nothing would bring me more joy than seeing regulators force Google and Apple to allow the installation of competing app stores in the out-of-the-box experience.
Microsoft and Epic Games are promoting a separate app store on Android and iOS that gives developers and consumers a better deal. Nothing would fill me with joy like seeing GeForce Now, Steam, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation, Riot Games, Nintendo and everyone else descending on mobile platforms with their own separate store arrangements, promoting a traditional gaming ethos in what is honestly a unfulfilled platform.
Google and Apple have created a very small market for the kinds of games and business models that can succeed on their platforms, despite the absolutely monstrous pervasiveness they both enjoy. It’s time for the mobile platform duopoly to end and for the ghost of Windows Phone to take its revenge. *spooky music*