Apple's expert witness grilled by Epic over 'frictionless' spending outside the app

How easy would it be for customers to depart the walled garden, legal eagles ask economist


Epic Games' lawyers had a chance to put Apple's expert witness through the wringer in the latest from its California bench trial.

Counsel for Apple called to the stand Lorin Hitt, an academic from the prestigious Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania.

Hitt – who had been selected as expert witness for Apple – questioned whether iOS was as effective at locking in users as previously claimed, citing a 26 per cent switch rate. He also debated whether users remained loyal to a platform because of switching costs, or because they simply like it.

He testified that Apple's tight controls on monetisation and distribution weren't as onerous as Epic claimed as users can, in many cases, obtain the equivalent experience through a web browser or another platform, with dating app Tinder cited as an example. They have a choice.

But when cross-examined by counsel for Epic, it transpired many of these services didn't quite meet the frictionless experience promised.

One example, the freemium time-waster Candy Crush, was only available on the browser when using a desktop or laptop computer, and required the user to log into Facebook or King.com.

Hitt's evidence claimed you could buy credit for free-to-play game Clash Royale through its website. This turned out to be incorrect. Its developer, Supercell, processes all payments via the App Store and Google Play Store.

Hitt's testimony pointed to eight games that allowed off-iOS payments, but only three actually existed: Roblox, PUBG Mobile, and Fortnite. This, ironically, contradicted previous testimony from Apple marketing manager Trystan Kosmynka, who claimed Roblox was not a game, but rather an app. Roblox is, we note, categorised as an action game on the App Store.

Things swiftly got worse for Hitt, who had submitted a spreadsheet of iOS games that he claimed could only be played on other devices.

One game, Words Story, was said to have a PC alternative. On closer inspection, the alternative cited proved to be from an entirely different developer.

"Sir, this is not the same developer and not the same game, is it? It's what is called a 'fake game'," pressed Yonatan Even, counsel for Epic Games. Hitt blamed the error on his research team, and admitted he had not seen the PC equivalent first-hand.

Difficult questions

The legal battle between Epic Games and Apple raises an important question. Namely, does the way iOS works violate US and California antitrust law? No matter what side Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers falls on, the outcome will have dramatic consequences for both firms.

If Epic wins, Apple may be forced to rethink how iOS software is bought and distributed, as well as its business model for the App Store. If it loses, the Fortnite maker (as well as countless other app developers) will remain subject to the rules of whatever platform it opts to use.

The question at the heart of the matter has a binary answer – yes or no – yet there's a tremendous amount of nuance to consider.

Are web-based alternatives equivalent to native ones? Are native iOS apps interchangeable with those for other platforms? When it comes to gaming, is iOS more like a PC or a games console?

These are, to an extent, subjective. But they nonetheless will play a significant role in determining whether Apple has too much control over its mobile ecosystem and its developer community.

The trial continues. ®

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