Apple is Wrong About Xbox Game Streaming

Every single time Apple’s App Store policies have been criticized or challenged, I’ve always just said — show me a game-changing app, show me an app that can exist on Google Play but not Apple’s App Store. Show me an Instagram, Uber, Netflix, TikTok, Spotify, Candy Crush, something that just becomes table-stakes for a vast majority of users, because so far, not only have all of the those worked just fine on the App Store, they’re almost always worked first and best on the App Store.

Show me that, because, if and when it happens, then the App Store will absolutely, positively, have no choice but to change.

And, year after year, for over a decade now, nothing and no one has been able to to do that, to prove the App Store definitively and decisively wrong.

Until now.

The accusation

Microsoft has accused Apple of refusing to allow their upcoming Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service onto the iPhone and iPad App Stores.

If you’re not familiar with it, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, formerly Project xCloud, promises to let you stream over 100 Xbox games to your phone or tablet for $15 a month.

Essentially, to be the Netflix or Spotify — the TV+ or Apple Music — of games. All you can play with just one monthly price to pay.

And Microsoft isn’t the only company pushing a service like this. Far from it. Google, Nvidia, Facebook — basically everyone in games is getting into or wants to get into… this game.

And Apple’s having none-of-it, not on the iOS App Store at least.

Now, there are a lot of issues facing the App Store, the app economy, the nature of apps, and the technology, but that’s a much bigger video. So, if you want to see it, hit the like button and we’ll see how his it goes.

This issue is relatively straight forward. And it’s seriously pissed off Microsoft… and a lot of iPhone and iPad users who also want them some Xbox on iOS.


Ok, so, game Streaming services, far as I can tell, really are similar to video and music streaming services.

Apple doesn’t allow app stores on the App Store. You can’t just make a container to download and execute arbitrary code. That’s a huge security risk. A malware Pez dispenser of the highest order.

But… this also isn’t that.

This, you download a catalog app, or a reader app as they’re often called, just like you would Netflix or Disney Plus, Spotify or Tidal, and that’s the only code that’s ever installed on your device.

And the reader app is reviewed and screened just like any other app on the store.

Then, once you’ve installed it, the reader app streams video and audio from the cloud — from the company’s servers. Just like you’d stream audio and video for The Old Guard off Netflix or Folklore off Spotify.

The video and audio just happens to be for a game instead of a movie or song.

Again, to be 100% crystal clear, you’re not installing any additional apps or files, you’re literally just streaming and caching the audio and video bits. The apps and files all remain on the server, the cloud.

And sure, you need to be able to control the game, send input back and forth, but that’s really just a slightly more sophisticated version of controlling media playback.

Instead of play, pause, skip forward or back, it’s up up down down left right left right b a… Whatever.

At the end of the day, it’s still just a stream.

And while the App Store allows video and audio streaming apps on iOS, they don’t allow streaming app or game apps.

It allows Remote Desktop and VNC clients, even dedicated ones, so you can access apps and games remotely from a local box on your own network, like SteamLink ultimately had to settle for, but you cannot currently access them from the cloud, from someone else’s box.

Like Judge Dread, that is the law.

Microsoft vs. Apple

So, last week, Microsoft announced they were cutting short their TestFlight beta for Project xCloud. That’s how this all… well, not began, because this all has been an undercurrent for basically ever, but flared up again.

If you’re not familiar with it, TestFlight is a beta testing service Apple acquired a few years ago and turned into the only official way developers can let users try out their apps before they launch.

And 10,000 people were trying out the Halo: The Master Chief Collection Project xCloud beta on TestFlight when Microsoft announced they were cutting it short… and focusing on delivering the full cloud gaming experience to Android users beginning September 15.

In other words, they wouldn’t be launching on the iPhone or iPad, only Android.

And, yeah, Xbox fans and open computer platform stans alike were pissed.

Console vs. Open Computer

Now, pretty much every gadget these days is a computer. Sure, your Windows PC and Mac are computers, and your iPhone and Android phone are computers, but everything from TVs to cars to appliances to toys have chips in them and full-on or embedded operating systems running on them.

Windows PCs, Linux PCs, the Mac — these are all indeed open computer platforms. That means you can do almost anything you want on them. Install and run almost anything you want, manage them how you want to manage them, live how you want to live, dance how you want to dance, you know the bit. They’re more or less controlled by the person who owns the box. You. Me. Us.

The iPhone, iPad, Xbox, PlayStation, Oculus, Switch, infotainment units, these are all what’s more commonly called consoles, at least to varying degrees.

Xbox, PlayStation, Switch — they’re all tightly controlled by Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, the company that owns the platform not the person who owns the box.

And yeah, you bought it, it’s yours, you have the atoms, but they still control the bits. They decide which ones can and can’t run on it. In others words, they decide which apps or games are available, how you can buy and download and install them, even how you can play them and whether or not you have any access or control over the data from them.

You can only play the games on Xbox that Microsoft allows, only move your data between Switches if Nintendo allows. Only install the app on your iPhone from the App Store and then only the apps Apple allows onto the App Store.

With consoles, you bought a window with a view, not a garden.

Now, I can already feel some of you rage typing into the comments — Xbox and Switch are consoles, the iPhone and iPad are NOT consoles, you gorram, frakking, Apple-headed, sassing-frassing… whatever.

And, whoa, language.

But also, yes, sure, there’s a range between open computing platform and console. With, like, Linux and Windows on one end, and Android and Mac as you get closer to the middle, then iOS, Oculus, Xbox, and Nintendo as you hit the fully controlled console side.

And it’s totally blurry because Apple lets a huge swath of traditional computer programs onto the App Store, like word processors and — shiver — spread sheets. I mean, gaming consoles often have web browsers now, but spreadsheets? Those are like VisiCalc and Lotus and Excel traditional crunchy computing.

But, since Steve Jobs announced the App Store in 2008, it’s clear Apple has viewed the iOS devices as consoles. As game and app consoles. And Apple as the console-todian. Custodian. Whatever. English is flexible. At me.

But… at me with which side of this whole general computer vs. console argument you fall on, in the comments.

Microsoft vs. Apple

So, Apple responded, saying they need to be able to review all apps individually, index all apps for search and rank on charts individually, and that Microsoft’s service simply wouldn’t allow that, so Apple simply couldn’t allow it on the iPhone and iPad.

And… yeah… immediately, everyone and their reblogger pointed out that Apple clearly doesn’t review every movie or show in Netflix or song in Spotify.

And Apple would probably respond that with very, very few Bandersnatch-ian exceptions, Netflix videos and Spotify audio isn’t interactive and so doesn’t require the same kind of review.

In point of fact, there was never an iTunes review team the way there’s been an App Store review team for over a decade now.

But, again, play and pause are interactions. And it’s not like Netflix shows or Spotify songs are in the iTunes Store search system or charts either.

Though they can present themselves for Siri search and Up Next, like Amazon Prime chooses to and Netflix just as assuredly does not.

And for those concerned about ratings, games already have parental guidance categories, so as long as they flag content appropriately, parental controls should behave appropriately.

Which is pretty much what Microsoft said in their… rather apoplectic statement.

Also: That Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass.

Which is kinda all shades of shady, in that:

  1. Apple isn’t a platform. macOS and iOS/iPadOS are a few of Apple’s different platforms.
  2. macOS is indeed a general purpose platform but iOS and iPadOS, while functionally close, are philosophically a chasm apart.
  3. Microsoft knows this because they’re exactly the same, with Windows as a general purpose platform and Xbox, remarkably similar on the inside, as very much… not.

The minute Microsoft opens Xbox up to competitive app stores and streaming services, they can yell all they want about the iPhone or iPad and how closed they are. Until then, really only Google — and maybe Facebook… I’ve lost track of how locked down Oculus is these days — but really only Google gets to point double 1960s animated Spider-Man fingers at anyone with any ounce of authenticity.

I’ll link to both statements, in full, in the description, but none of that is even really my main point here.

The money

Of course, immediately, many accuse Apple of doing all this for the money. Of not wanting a competing game service on the App Store, or anything that would eat into their contentious 30% cut of the App Store profits.

And, certainly, Apple made a big deal about services revenue over the last few years, promising to double it from 2016 to 2020 and then just last quarter proudly announcing they’d done it and with half a year to spare. And services revenue is heavily driven by App Store revenue which is heavily driven by in-app purchases which is heavily driven by fremium games.

You know, the ones we all won’t pay $5 for to buy upfront but will gladly pay $5 every week for just to get a better skin than our friends or to get back on the track faster — good old ego and instant gratification.

Which is a far cry from Steve Jobs saying if the App Store ever broke even, Apple would be happy.

But, interestingly, when Tim Cook was asked just last week if he’d make the same commitment again for the next 4 years, if he’d promise to re-double services revenue by 2024, he demurred.

Now, that simply might just be because he’s not ready to promise it yet, or because now that that original promise has been delivered, Apple is ready to rethink how it drives services growth going forward.

Because, let’s not forget, Apple does let Disney+ and Spotify on the App Store, which compete with TV+ and Apple Music.

And a subscription service isn’t a store. Though maybe there’s some concern in-app purchases will move into subscription services and out of the App Store.

But, I mean, who knows when you’ll be able to buy Billy Butcher’s jacket from the Boys with one-click and Amazon will Prime it to you door next day. Or a song from a movie, a game from a video. It’s all coming.

Even then, even if it was all about the money, Apple and Microsoft would play let’s make a deal, like they did over 365.

Apple would get somewhere between 30 and 15% over the first year and thereafter, and they have money.

Or, to delve dangerously close to fanfic, some have also suggested Apple is holding out on Game Pass to force Microsoft to license the currently OEM-only Windows on ARM for the upcoming Apple Silicon Macs.

Either way, 90% of the time when people say Apple is just doing something for the money, it’s usually way more lazy than it is accurate.

90% of the time Apple is doing it for control. And if you disagree, let me know why in the comments.

The future

Now, right at the beginning of this I said no one had ever been able to point to a single game-changing app that would work on the Google Play Store and not on the App Store and, because of that, it basically rendered all arguments about Apple’s controlling App Store nature… moot.

Not Instagram, not Uber, not Netflix, TikTok, Spotify, not Candy Crush, because those have all been available often first, often best on the App Store.

Not a single game-changing app.

Until now.

Because one of the next game-changing apps… is games. Not Xbox, not Stadia, not Nvidia, not Facebook, not any of them by themselves, but all of them. Together.

It’s inevitable.

The digital age has seen everything, all media, go from hard to get to ridiculously easy, from scarcity to abundance, from unit pricing to subscription or ad-supported. It’s happened to news, music, television, movies, comics — you can get almost all of it, all for just $10 to $15 bucks a month per service, across a host of different services.

And games — and apps in general — are just next on the list.

Apple already has Arcade, which is a noble service and a huge gift to indie, eclectic, and artisanal game developers. For my money it’s one of the best things Apple’s done with their money. But it’s really a carefully curated and funded collection of native apps made available across Apple’s platform.

It’s like… The BBC and Canadian Film Board sections on OG iTunes.

Streaming game services are going to be triple AAA franchises on demand. Like Netflix or Disney+ on iOS.

In simpler times I could see Apple just making a commercial. Picture it. Two kids in the back of a car, driving across the country, going through a cellular dead zone, the streaming kid hitting his Android phone based AF as his stream dies, while the Apple Arcade kid just flexes his downloaded game on his iPhone. And keeps right on playing.

And another ad highlighting zero latency, full native power on the iPhone vs. high latency, buffering, and stammering on the Android stream.

In simpler times I’d say, Apple should do Apple and let the best solution win.

But unless I’m reading this very, very wrong, technology and time have already shown us how this ends. We’ve seen it with news, with music, with video…

And we’re going to see it with streaming and subscriptions gaming services. Plural. On iOS.

And not just because it’s the right thing to do or what I think Apple should do, though it is an I do, but because I think Apple already knows both those things.

They have blind spots and focus can become tunnel vision. And apps and games have complexities and deep cultural value and meaning in this industry, but Apple’s a profoundly canny company and, again, unless I’m very, very wrong, this is very, very inevitable.

Apple will evolve from Arcade into their own streaming service, much like they evolved from iTunes to Apple Music and TV+.

They’ll compete with exclusives and quality content, just like they compete against Netflix and Spotify today.

And have Xbox streaming — sorry, Microsoft Xbox Game Pass Ultimate — and every other game streaming service to compete with, just like they have every other video and music streaming service to compete with now, today.

Maybe even with the ability to integrate into Siri Search and up-next like those types of streams do today.

I don’t know if that means we’ll see some movement in two weeks or two months or even two years, or what other deals are in the works behind the scenes, but in the end, I think it’ll be obvious that’s where the puck is going to be… for pretty much all content types, pretty much everywhere.

And Apple’s going to not just want to be there but have to be there.