Enlarge /. Microsoft sign at the entrance to their Silicon Valley campus in Mountain View, California.
Microsoft this week adopted a number of "fairness principles" for its Windows App Store. The list of principles looks like decent guidelines to both consumers and developers – but it also looks like Microsoft is taking the metaphorical ball, tossing it in the face of Apple, and getting its iCompetitor to take the next step.
The principles Microsoft listed in a company blog post essentially promise that Windows will continue to do what it already does in terms of app distribution, interoperability, payment systems, and everything else.
For example, the first point promises that developers can choose whether to distribute Windows programs through the Microsoft Store or through their own competing app store fronts. This has always been the case, and that's why there is Steam, the Epic Games Store, and every other Windows software distribution method. Windows also promises not to block an app on Windows "based on the developer's choice of which payment system to use" to process in-app purchases. Again, this is why and why both web-based and app-based digital software storefronts for Windows exist.
"Windows 10 is an open platform. Unlike some other popular digital platforms, developers are free to choose how they distribute their apps," said Microsoft. "The Microsoft Store is one option … but there are other popular and competitive alternatives on Windows 10."
The company gave game retailers a special greeting, adding, "Third-party app stores like Steam and Epic are available for Windows and offer developers various pricing (or revenue-sharing options), standards, requirements and features." Microsoft's principles are intended to "preserve this freedom of choice and the robust competition and innovation that it enables in Windows 10".
The trillion ton apple in the room
The blog post never mentions Apple, but it is impossible to read Microsoft's statement as anything other than a shot over Apple's bow. Microsoft specifically said its principles are based on the work of the Coalition for App Fairness, a trade group that came together in September to urge changes to the App Store policies. Founding members of this coalition include companies like Basecamp, Spotify and Epic, which have had extremely public disputes with Apple over their policies in recent months.
The developers who challenged Apple argue that the company is doing exactly the opposite of what Microsoft has just promised. Apple requires developers to distribute iOS apps through the App Store without exception. All developers must use their own in-app payment system. All of these transactions need to be cut by 30 percent – unless there are a few exceptions for companies like Amazon and Netflix who have enough leverage to require it.
Competitors aren't the only ones frustrated with Apple's behavior. A congressional committee released a blockbuster report this week arguing that the way Apple is linking its app store and in-app payment mechanisms is antitrust and anti-competitive.
Microsoft now seems to have an immediate interest in moving to iOS devices. The company indicated this week that it plans to use a browser-based workaround to push Project xCloud, its in-game streaming service, to iPhones.
The silent "X"
The Windows-native App Store isn't particularly important to the PC experience for most users, regardless of how hard Microsoft tries to promote it. Microsoft only introduced the platform in its current version with the launch of Windows 8 in 2012. At that point, both individual consumers and business buyers had nearly 30 years of experience getting their Windows programs elsewhere. (And some of Microsoft's earlier attempts, like the ill-fated games for Windows Live, have actively led users to rivals like Steam by being awful.)
However, Microsoft recognizes in its blog post that there are two major app stores, and the company admits that the new "fairness" rules do not apply to both equally. The Xbox Online Store works a lot more like the iOS App Store than software distribution for Windows. Companies like Epic have to make more than 30 percent of their purchases for in-game purchases from Microsoft for Xbox players, just as they do at Apple, Google or Sony for iOS, Android or PlayStation players.
"It is reasonable to ask why we are not applying these principles to the Xbox Store today," said Microsoft. Instead of answering this question directly, however, Microsoft was aiming for an indefinite future.
"Game consoles are specialized devices that have been optimized for a specific use. While they are highly valued by their fans, they are far inferior in the PC and phone market," Microsoft said, as if that meant that developers were particularly interested in them Care about the difference when it comes to that 30 percent cut. Given the "fundamental differences" between the PC and set-top console markets, Microsoft said, "We need to do more to establish the right principles for game consoles."