Apple has built a very strong position in mobile gaming in its iOS App Store. With Apple Arcade, it is working to create a new pipeline of fun, original, attractive, exclusive games, without ads and where privacy is protected. How will this impact Android and Google Play?
Bridging Apple's platforms, leaping others
As the previous article in this series outlined, Apple's App Store changed the game in mobile software and established iOS as a commercially important platform over the last decade. Apple Arcade expects to double down on the App Store's success in gaming with an investment worth hundreds of millions of dollars, setting a new stage for the next decade.
However, it has become common to claim that Apple's iOS is losing its importance as a platform because Huawei sells smartphones for $400, or because there are Androids with four cameras, or because people in China are using WeChat as a platform, or various other stories that celebrate commodity and cheap hardware.
None of those media narratives explain Apple's leading position in the corporate enterprise, or as the maker of the vast majority of all premium phones globally— even in China where WeChat is popular— or of the iOS App Store leading mobile app development in a world where there are so many "good enough" Androids being sold each quarter.
Apple does have a platform problem to address, but it's not iOS. It's the Mac— which has an installed base of around 100M, compared to nearly one billion iOS devices— and Apple TV, which has a hardware potential that original interactive content, novel apps, and games are clearly not fully exploiting.
Apple Arcade promises to not only underscore the commercial relevance of iOS as the premier platform for mobile gaming, but also intends to become the tide that lifts the boats attached to Apple's other platforms: tvOS and macOS.
At the same time, it appears that Arcade will further parch the conspicuous drought that affects Android gaming. Despite having a vast sea of users, Google Play simply can't fish out as much economic activity as the App Store.
Arcade's exclusive games won't run on Huawei phones no matter how many cameras they have, and won't run on commodity Androids on top of WeChat because rich games require more work to develop than a middleware social network can host. Further, cheap mobile hardware isn't very good at playing involving, cinematic, or technically advanced games.
Apple's new Services are all about creating new applications for Apple's premium hardware, and it threatens to become a strong mobile platform differentiator. Within days of its announcement, Scott Adam Gordon of Android Authority was already asking "Is it bad news for Android?"
His piece noted "Oceanhorn is a popular mobile game available on Google Play, but Apple has confirmed the upcoming sequel, Oceanhorn 2: Knights of the Lost Realm will be an Arcade launch title. Android fans could be saying goodbye to future Oceanhorn titles if Apple Arcade proves far more lucrative than the Play Store ever did."
Google Play's fake games and real malware are the YouTube of apps
Gordon pointed out that "Google Play is also rife with video game clones and re-skins, which Apple Arcade would avoid completely," a reference to the knockoffs and copyright infringement titles on Android, including Google Play titles loaded with ads pretending to be games that are actually exclusive to iOS. Joe Hindy outlined the issue for Android Authority in the article "Google Play still has a clone problem in 2019 with no end in sight".
Gordon's initial article contemplating Apple Arcade's impact on Android also noted the "weird selling point" of "touting a commitment to user privacy with Arcade games," stating that "Google does a comparatively excellent job of protecting Android users given the volume of apps that appear in the Play Store, but privacy and security issues do crop up from time to time."
He specifically linked that to a story describing malicious titles in the Google Play store that appeared to be benign, laid dormant, then later pretended to be a trusted app requesting permissions to enable their latent malware to exploit the device. Google removed the titles but they popped back up again from different developers using the same code.
He could also have noted a recent incident specifically related to gaming, where more than a dozen malicious titles in Google Play appeared to crash at launch while loading a malicious payload designed to give outside parties access to the phones' network activity.
Why did Google Play accept and begin distributing broken games that didn't even work? Because just like its YouTube videos exploiting children and radicalizing extremists, Google can just wait until the complaints get loud enough and then be hailed as a hero for eventually taking them down. And right until that happens, Google can potentially turn a profit from monetizing "the engagement" of bad content.
Google Play's most recent batch of malware posing as fake games were downloaded by over half a million Play users, causing TechCrunch to describe it as "another embarrassing security lapse by Google, which has long faced criticism for its backseat approach to app and mobile security compared to Apple, which some say is far too restrictive and selective about which apps make it into its walled garden."
So there's problems on both sides, because Apple is actively blocking the exploitation of children with MDM tactics, while Google is doing "a comparatively excellent job in protecting Android users" if you just set your expectations really low and think of privacy and security as a "weird selling point."
Android's curation-free surveillance is a dangerous game
Beyond the kind of criminal malware exploitation that regularly erupts on Android and which Google is sort of half-struggling to contain in Google Play, Apple Arcade's commitment to privacy and security also involves elimination of advertising and the surveillance tracking that optimizes the monetization of ads.
There's a "both sides" argument here, too. What about people who like advertising, particularly advertising that's tailored just for them, so they don't have to see generic, irrelevant ads? Ads can make basic content available for free, and surveillance tracking dramatically increases the value of advertising.
Google's paid placement search worked fantastically well because it put ad messages right in the context of people looking for a specific thing. Advertisers were willing to pay far more for that than to simply plaster their message in ignored and mostly worthless display banners.
While Google certainly doesn't like malware, it has absolutely no interest in containing ads and the customized nature of tracking at all. The entire point of Android is to attract a platform of users Google can sell to its advertisers. But many users do not fully understand how sophisticated modern ad surveillance is, and therefore have no way to understand the risks that this unrestricted tracking exposes them to.
Modern ad tracking goes well beyond just profiling users into various demographics to show them "relevant ads." Ad networks exist to find cross-app and cross-site web browsing correlations they can market to ad buyers.
So when their user surveillance notices, for example, that a large number of users who install a specific workout app and also use a food delivery service are also statistically likely to pay for a subscription to Grindr, they can offer strategic ad placement to the vendor of that gay hookup app within every app that particular population of users will see.
This correlation discovery can be done anonymously, and may even represent a mysterious behavioral link that's not fully understood. Advertisers trust ad networks because they see results for their money. That's why Facebook could suddenly thrust itself in front of Google's paid placement search ads as being more attractive because it could deduce more about audiences via the social graph than Google could interpolate simply by tracking queries and website visits.
The specific example above of an attempt at "relevant advertising" is potentially valuable to an advertiser seeking to target their ad budget at gay men willing to pay for a cruising tool, but it may make faulty assumptions about the user of a device. That could end up being embarrassing at best and plausibly even cause a person to lose their job in any number of states or countries where there is no legal protection from discrimination launched in the mere suspicion of a person's private life details.
That targeting could also destroy a relationship. And if you're traveling in some countries, it could potentially threaten you with detainment and even persecution at the border. All because your private behaviors were interpreted by an algorithm to imply a potential interest that others might notice. Targeted advertising can appear to reveal private things about you that may not even be accurate, yet with such confidence that it makes you look like you're hiding something.
Surveillance advertising is like a credit report conjured up by inherently biased algorithms with a wide margin of error, which you have no real control over, and it goes far beyond the dossier that Google will share with you if you request it. It's a mechanism that can even reveal things about you before you know them.
Seven years ago, a story by Charles Duhigg for the New York Times described how Target raised eyebrows by sending women ads for newborn merchandise before their families even realized that they were pregnant, all simply based on robotically observing correlations in what other things they were buying.
When sophisticated ad surveillance jumps to the conclusion that you may be pregnant, or looking for a different job, moving, leaving an abusive relationship, seeking help with a addiction, considering medical treatment, supporting a particular political cause, or any number of other personal matters, anyone else who sees the carefully targeted ads that are being custom picked for you has good reason to think that Google and its ad network partners may be revealing something about you that you're hiding.
Of course, Google and other ad networks have absolutely no malicious interest in outing a person's sexuality, or incorrectly implying a person is gay, or promiscuous, or radically nationalist, or in inadvertently exposing anyone to discrimination, or in revealing any other personal details or status for which they aren't getting paid to make public.
But Google also has a vested interest in controlling Android's malware, and yet it's repeatedly done an absolutely incompetent job of keeping even overtly dysfunctional, obviously fake garbage and malicious apps off Google Play. It waits until the damage becomes untenable to ignore. Given that Google didn't care about its own Pixel C buyers or even vulnerable children on YouTube, you can be pretty confident it doesn't care about your privacy in the slightest.
Users shouldn't have to trust that Google won't make an algorithmic mistake about them that could expose them to potentially serious life repercussions. And they honestly can't, because Google hasn't earned any trust in handling users privacy or security.
Why is Apple emphasizing a commitment to privacy?
Android enthusiasts routinely view concerns about privacy as a "weird selling point," but Apple specifically made a "commitment to privacy" a major bullet point feature of its new Arcade, alongside another shot taking direct aim Google: "no ads."
The Wall Street Journal publicly railed against Apple for failing to keep up with the massive user data collection efforts of Google and Facebook to surveil users and calculate the most effective exploitation possible with targeted advertising, because this could also be used to deliver "a smarter iPhone."
"While I applaud and appreciate your assurance of privacy," Joana Stern advised Apple's Tim Cook in a 2016 opinion, "my worry is that you simply can't afford to maintain that mentality when the competition has such a great advantage."
Is Apple also naively leaving money on the table by working to avoid exposing its users and the environment to lead or mercury poisoning, just because such issues may be of little concern to companies in China operating on a razor-thin profit margin?
Do we simply live in a post-privacy world where anything that ad surveillance can algorithmically assume about us is fair game to use against us, simply because that's the cost of "free"? Apple is betting that users will prefer to pay for a private, premium experience, rather than "get what they pay for" without directly paying anything upfront. The more users know about the real costs involved, the better Apple's deal appears.
Privacy by design
Apple Arcade provides a clear assurance of privacy in that no secret, automated system will be watching the games you play and trying to find correlations between the games you like, your behaviors while playing, the other apps you use, and how you communicate, so that it can sell possibly-accurate insights into who you are or what other things you might like to advertisers looking to target a narrowly specific audience with their messaging.
And nobody has to trust that Apple won't be making mistakes, or inadvertently leaking its algorithmic assumptions about you, because the plumbing to watch what you do and try to monetize the exploitation of your privacy simply doesn't exist in Apple Arcade. It's like a bathroom without any cameras pointed at you.
As more details leak out about the extent to which Android is effectively allowing Google, Facebook, and even purely malicious developers to rifle through your contacts, see your app installations, and track together every website you load and every search you make, the issue of privacy and data security is gaining greater attention.
Apple Arcade's privacy by design highlights what other app platforms are refusing to do: respect your assumption of privacy. And that's worse news for Android than just missing out on new exclusive game titles.
The question remains: no matter how much more appealing and secure and private Apple can make its ecosystems, is there any realistic hope of iPhone sales ever growing in the future? The next article in this series will examine the topic.