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Fortnite: A Tale of Two Operating Systems

· August 24, 2018

Fortnite is the number one game on the planet. If you think that means that Fortnite’s developer Epic Games has some serious muscle, then you’d be correct. Unfortunately, that might not mean much in the world of closed platforms. For example, while Epic has adopted a crossplay development strategy, meaning that players on one gaming platform can play with players on other platforms, most players can play with everyone except for those on Sony’s PS4 console. This is despite pressure on Sony from Epic and fans. The fact is that with closed platforms, the platform owner can retain complete control over what goes on on their platform. Open platforms are different, and Fortnite’s latest release on Android is a great example of just how different open platforms can be. (Side note: I am a happy Android user who has access to Fortnite through my Samsung phone.)

Android has had its own share of staggering success as the biggest, by far, consumer-targeted open platform to ever be developed. Despite this, Android’s success has seen its share of critics. Most famously, Android has also been the subject of a Statement of Objections from the EU for, among other things, allegedly unfairly leveraging its powerful apps — like the Play Store — and unfair anti-fragmentation agreements. But the Fortnite story puts a different perspective on some of these complaints.

The most interesting thing about Fortnite’s release on Android is that it entirely bypasses Google’s Play Store. Indeed, Epic launched Fortnite exclusively through Samsung’s app store as a limited time exclusive. Epic wanted to avoid Google’s 30% fee on in-app transactions, which is the same percentage charged by Apple, and Epic did so. Epic wanted a better offer and it got it by shopping around to rival Android app stores. This option was only available on Android because of its openness, where rival app stores can coexist with Google’s own app store. Epic couldn’t do this on iOS, nor could it do it through Microsoft’s Xbox, Nintendo’s Switch, or Sony’s PS4 — all of which only allow online installs through their own app stores.

What makes this so fascinating is that Google is not profiting from Epic Games using its Android platform to reach consumers. If anyone is, it’s Samsung (although we don’t know how much Samsung gave up to Epic for the exclusive). This side-stepping of Google is also entirely permissible. Google developed Android as an open platform, making Epic’s side-step a viable alternative path.

The second most interesting thing about Fortnite’s Android release is that Epic doesn’t even need an app store to reach its customers. Players with an invite can “sideload” Fortnite on their devices. This of course has some risks. App stores provide a service by checking compatibility, ensuring a baseline of quality, screening some inappropriate content, and guarding against malware. Users that sideload are taking this all into their own hands, which is similar to other Linux-based PC platforms that largely rely on users to protect themselves and solve their own problems.

The last thing that I find interesting about Fortnite’s Android release is what it says about fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when users are separated from others due to different capabilities. For example, some apps might not work for users on atypical hardware or on older versions of the operating system. Fragmentation is currently affecting Fortnite fans because only some Android devices are currently compatible with the game. Furthermore, it also runs better on some devices than others. Platform developers strive to provide consistent user experiences and availability across all users on their platform, and Android is no different. But fragmentation is a more challenging problem for an open platform because by its nature it is universally available and with few restrictions. If you are one of the fans who currently can’t run Fortnite, then it might make you feel better that it’s due to the tremendous choice in phone hardware that has Epic scrambling to account for. If this is what happens with a little fragmentation, then Google is right to combat much more severe forms of fragmentation.

The open nature of the Android platform has given developers options that they can’t really find anywhere else. The Fortnite release on Android should give people a better picture of the pros and cons of openness. Fewer restrictions means more choice, but it also could mean more responsibilities and headaches. Google attempted to balance these potential outcomes in its agreements with device makers from the beginnings of Android, but now this balance has been attacked by the European Commission. In this case, developers can reach their audiences through Google’s offerings that provide more safety and consistency, or they can instead chose to avoid using Google altogether. This was Google’s approach since the beginning, and asking the company to retrofit its business model could upset this careful balance.

Competition

Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.