Microsoft has announced that Windows 10 developers will have the freedom to distribute their app anywhere they want, and not just its own store. The company said it will not block any app only on the basis of a developer’s business model or how it delivers content and services, as part of ten principles the company published on Wednesday, outlining its idea of an app store for Windows.

There is a caveat though: Microsoft won’t apply the same principles to its Xbox app store given that the economies for game consoles work differently compared to phones or computers. But more importantly, by publishing these set of principles, Microsoft is aiming to indicate that its treatment of its app store and app developers, at least on Windows devices, is the exact opposite of Apple’s, and to an extent, Google’s.

While Microsoft didn’t specifically name Apple, it was clear that the company’s response was squarely aimed at the Palo Alto-based company: “Windows 10 is an open platform. Unlike some other popular digital platforms, developers are free to choose how they distribute their apps,” wrote Rima Alaily, VP and deputy general counsel at Microsoft. The latter part of her statement is an unmistakable reference to Apple, which has repeatedly been criticised for fostering an increasingly walled and closed ecosystem, and not giving developers enough ways to distribute their apps on Apple devices.

Not just that, Microsoft also lent its support to a group of app developers — Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) — who aim to break Apple’s control over its App Store. In fact, some of Microsoft’s principles closely resemble the coalition’s vision. The CAF includes companies like Epic, the developer of Fortnite, which is currently in the middle of a legal battle with Apple and Google, Match Group, creator of dating app Tinder, and Basecamp, creator of subscription email service Hey among others.

Microsoft has previously criticised Apple’s App Store policies, saying that it imposes strict rules on developers, and takes a big cut out of their revenues. A recent antitrust report by the US Congress called Apple a monopoly due to the enormous control it weird over its ecosystem, and its App Store in particular. The European Commission is already probing Apple in two different cases of antitrust. It is worth noting that Microsoft itself was sued for violating competition laws in the US, over two decades ago.

Microsoft’s commitment to developers and how its a direct dig at Apple (and Google)

There were some commitments that almost every company operating an app store will claim — that apps will have to meet certain objective standards, and shouldn’t be a privacy or security threat. Microsoft also said that its Windows app store will be transparent about its rules and policies and opportunities for promotion and marketing. It will also apply these rules consistently and objectively, provide notice of changes and make available a fair process to resolve disputes. It will also give developers timely access to information about the interoperability interfaces  it used on Windows, the company said. But Microsoft’s commitments that seem to be directly aimed at Apple, and to an extent Google, were:

1. Developers will have the option to choose whether they want to distribute their Windows apps through Microsoft’s app store, and the company claimed it will not block competing app stores on Windows. 

iPhones and iPads don’t have a third-party app store, and the only way to install apps on these devices is via Apple’s App Store. Unlike Android, iPhone and iPad users can’t even install apps from the web. While Apple has consistently claimed that this measure is to ensure that App Store apps are vetted and are more secure, several developers have called out Apple’s dominance over its ecosystem, which also limits user choice.

2. Microsoft claimed it won’t block any app based on a developer’s business model or choice of payment system for in-app purchases.

Apple has had a history of blocking updates to apps, and sometimes apps altogether if it feels that they have violated any of its App Store policies. For a very long time, it didn’t allow subscription email service Hey to roll out an update for its users, simply because Hey was onboarding subscribers outside of the iOS app itself, thus saving itself from paying Apple a 30% commission on each transaction. More recently, Apple removed Fortnite from its App Store after the game rolled out an in-app payment system which allowed users to directly pay to Epic for in-game virtual currency, again, bypassing Apple’s mandate in-app purchase system.

3. Microsoft will charge ‘reasonable fees’ on transactions, and will not force developers to sell if they don’t want to

This seems to have come directly from the incident that happened between Apple and WordPress. Apparently, Apple had blocked WordPress from rolling out updates for its iOS apps, as it did not support Apple’s mandated in-app purchases mechanism.  This was ironic, because WordPress was not selling anything on its iOS app. Apple did backtrack on its decision, but only after significant outcry on social media.

Also, when Microsoft says it will charge “reasonable fees”, it appears to be alluding to the 30% commission that Apple charges on in-app purchases. Infamously called the ‘Apple Tax’, this commission has become the bone of contention between Apple, which refuses to reduce it, and developers, who think it’s a bit too much. Google, too, recently said that it will start enforcing its billing policy on apps downloaded via its Play Store, essentially meaning that Google, like Apple, will start collecting a 30% commission from several in-app transactions.

4. Developers will be allowed to communicate directly with users through their app for ‘legitimate business purposes’

If an app, for instance, Spotify wants to earn a subscriber, it has two options: to either allow a user to subscribe from within the app, or take them to an external site to purchase the subscription. However, Apple prohibits developers from indicating, anywhere within their app, that users can go to a certain website to buy a service.

5. Microsoft claims it will hold its own apps and competing apps to the same standards

Apple has often been accused of tying users down to its default apps. For a very long time, iPhone users couldn’t making Chrome and Gmail as their default email app, and that changed only just now, with the launch of iOS 14.

6. Microsoft will not use any non-public information from its app store about a developer’s app to compete with it.

At a recent antitrust hearing in the US, Apple was accused of copying others’ apps.h e Apple Developer Agreement (Section 11), that every developer must agree to, gives Apple the right to copy other apps since it allows the company to use any information that an app developer providers to it for any purpose. At the same hearing, Google was asked whether it had ever used its “surveillance over web traffic to identify competitive threats”.

Microsoft has different plans for the Xbox store though

Microsoft made it clear that it won’t apply these same principles to Xbox, claiming that the market and business models for game consoles and PCs is very different. It said that game consoles are specialised devices, made for a specific use case, the business model for game consoles is very different to the ecosystem around PCs or phones.

Explaining consoles’ business model, Microsoft said: “Console makers such as Microsoft invest significantly in developing dedicated console hardware but sell them below cost or at very low margins to create a market that game developers and publishers can benefit from. Given these fundamental differences in the significance of the platform and the business model, we have more work to do to establish the right set of principles for game consoles”.

Google vs Indian developers

Apple’s App Store isn’t the only one facing flack from app developers. A disgruntled group of app developers, led by Paytm, are vying to take on Google’s dominance in India. The company recently said that it will start enforcing its billing policy on all app developers, which didn’t go down too well with many a Indian founders. The developers quickly organised, held virtual meetings, and even approached the government to complain about Google’s control of the Android ecosystem. After all this pressure, Google deferred its billing policy to March 2022 only for the Indian market.

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