Microsoft’s New Fairness Principles Aren’t Totally Fair

Microsoft is getting out ahead of regulations coming down on app stores, something that Apple should have done before getting itself into so much hot water. Here’s what they say preceding their new guiding principles:

But too much friction exists today between creators and gamers; app store policies and practices on mobile devices restrict what and how creators can offer games and what and how gamers can play them. Our large investment to acquire Activision Blizzard further strengthens our resolve to remove this friction on behalf of creators and gamers alike. We want to enable world-class content to reach every gamer more easily across every platform. We want to encourage more innovation and investment in content creation and fewer constraints on distribution. Put simply, the world needs open app markets, and this requires open app stores. The principles we’re announcing today reflect our commitment to this goal.

And yet, not all of those principles, ostensibly designed to promote fair competition, will be applied fairly across all Microsoft’s platforms. Notably, their lucrative Xbox Store will not have to follow all of the rules:

Second, some may ask why today’s principles do not apply immediately and wholesale to the current Xbox console store. It’s important to recognize that emerging legislation is being written to address app stores on those platforms that matter most to creators and consumers: PCs, mobile phones and other general purpose computing devices.

Here’s what Microsoft has effectively said about developing for Xbox.

We retain the right to…

  • require developers in our app store to use our payment system to process in-app payments.
  • require developers in our app store to provide more favorable terms in our app store than in other app stores.
  • disadvantage developers if they choose to use a payment processing system other than ours or if they offer different terms and conditions in other app stores.
  • prevent developers from communicating directly with their customers through their apps for legitimate business purposes, such as pricing terms and product or service offerings.

In fairness (heh), Microsoft has said they’ll work toward bringing all the principles to Xbox over time, but with little detail about what that means in practice:

Nonetheless, we recognize that we will need to adapt our business model even for the store on the Xbox console. Beginning today, we will move forward to apply Principles 1 through 7 to the store on the Xbox console. We’re committed to closing the gap on the remaining principles over time. In doing so, we will incorporate the spirit of new laws even beyond their scope, while moving forward in a way that protects the needs of game developers, gamers, and competitive and healthy game-console ecosystems.

I believe Microsoft should be commended for their developer-friendly practices; I really do. From my perspective, they’ve got a lot to be proud of when it comes to developer relations, a stark contrast to where Apple stands (just read that section of the 2021 Six Colors report card!).

But, and this is a big but, this announcement rings pretty hollow to me when it explicitly excludes their most (only?) successful app platform.

You can read up on all the principles and the rest of Microsoft’s position in their blog post.

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