Several sources reported this week that Microsoft is working on a browser-based edition of its cloud gaming service Project xCloud. Business Insider reported that Xbox chief Phil Spencer told Microsoft employees at a meeting Wednesday that the company will pursue a “direct browser-based solution” for bringing the Xbox Game Pass to Apple’s family of devices.
If this were to work similarly to features on other services such as Google Stadia, it would allow Game Pass subscribers to connect to xCloud’s servers on an Apple device via its web browser, rather than launching any kind of discreet individual app. It would work identically to how one logs into any other streaming service, such as Netflix or Hulu, in a browser window.
This news comes almost a month after Apple launched a new set of rules for its App Store in September. It would have allowed Microsoft to officially bring an xCloud app to iOS, but only if each game on the service was submitted to Apple as a separate playable app. As there are dozens of games on the Game Pass at any given time and they rotate in and out of the service monthly, this was essentially a case of Apple setting up a logistically-infeasible series of hoops for Microsoft to jump through. Naturally, Microsoft opted to decline.
According to Apple, this was done to make sure that Microsoft’s library of games on the Pass all individually meet Apple’s stringent guidelines for the App Store. According to everyone else, it’s another case this year of Apple using its policies as a weapon against competitors. If xCloud (and Stadia) was available in the App Store, that would provide a natural competitor for Apple’s own subscription service, Apple Arcade. If Apple were to follow its own stated policies, then Apple Arcade could not exist on the App Store in its current format.
While Microsoft has reportedly not given up hope that xCloud will be directly available on iOS at some point in its present form, and is continuing internal development on an app for the purpose, its plan for now is to use a web version of xCloud to circumvent the App Store entirely. Amazon Luna is using a similar workaround for its own debut on iOS, by appearing on the service as a progressive web app — a website that can be run independently of a web browser — rather than an app in the store.
This isn’t quite as sneaky as it looks. Apple made sure to note in specific language in its September rules revision that interested publishers can always reach an audience on iOS via the open Internet. This can be read as a bit of legal bases-covering —”we can’t hope to control the entire Internet, so whatever you download from that is your problem” — or as encouraging upset would-be App Store publishers to take their toys and go home. However it ended up there, it’s a blatant loophole, which Amazon and now Microsoft are happily exploiting. That’s suggestive that other big companies may soon follow, opting to self-publish for iOS rather than let Apple take some of their in-app purchasing revenue.
That, in turn, has interesting potential long-term implications for Apple. The company been very protective over the App Store in the last few years, as it’s one of the most lucrative digital storefronts in modern games, due to having a “captive audience” of iPad and iPhone users. That’s set the stage for a series of backfires on Apple, however, which also includes being named as a tech monopoly in a report released this week by House Democrats and a well-publicized ongoing lawsuit with Epic Games over in-app purchases in the mobile version of Fortnite.
Against that backdrop, the furor over xCloud seems more like a symptom of a larger problem within Apple, rather than, as I first thought, a weirdly passive-aggressive new front in the Apple/Microsoft rivalry.
Microsoft launched Project xCloud on Sept. 15 as a part of its Xbox Game Pass service. Subscribers can use compatible media devices, such as Xboxes and Android tablets, to dial into xCloud’s servers and play video games from Microsoft’s preselected library remotely. This is lag-sensitive and a huge bandwidth hog, but also offers players a low-cost way to experience big-ticket Xbox games. Microsoft next reportedly plans to bring xCloud to Windows 10 PCs as an app in the Windows Store at some point in 2021.