Apple won a class-action App Store lawsuit on a silly detail

The plaintiffs just couldn't figure out how to define the market Apple is monopolizing.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 30: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple laughs while Lana Del Rey (with iPad) takes a phot...
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Despite its longstanding commitment to charging developers as much as possible, Apple has won a case alleging it holds monopoly power via the App Store. A federal judge dismissed the case this week, citing a lack of evidence that Apple had monopolized any single market with the App Store.

Judge Edward Chen found that the plaintiffs — a group of developers behind an app called “Coronavirus Reporter” — did not present enough evidence to suggest Apple has too much of a hold on any particular market. The developers had sought $200 billion from Apple for exercising what they described as “tyrannical greed.”

“Missing from plaintiffs’ market definitions is the identification of any well-pleaded allegations that support the boundaries they seek to define,” Judge Chen wrote in his ruling.

The crux of the case is reminiscent of a number of other cases against Apple in recent years, most notably the case brought up by Epic Games. And once again Apple has weaseled its way out.

Error 404: No market found — The reason for Chen’s dismissal is a frustrating one. The plaintiffs essentially failed to bolster their case in a way that could actually prove Apple is breaking any antitrust laws. In order to prove Apple is monopolizing a given market, it falls upon the plaintiffs to first define which market, exactly, is being monopolized. They tried a few avenues here, such as the general “smartphone market” and the more specific “iOS market.”

The latter, Chen argues, is a market in which Apple is “inherently and necessarily” the only competitor. It is a single-brand market and thus cannot be considered for antitrust violations. On the other end of the spectrum, the “smartphone market” argument was just too broad, Chen argues. The plaintiffs aren’t even smartphone manufacturers, as he points out.

Dead on arrival — This is one of those frustrating cases where the legal process got in the way of the larger problem at hand. The plaintiffs just couldn’t find the right angle in time to convince the judge. Perhaps aiming for $200 billion in damages also set the case back. That’s, um, a lot of money, even for Apple. It also probably didn’t help that the plaintiffs’ first filing claimed Tim Cook was seeking profits to “compensate for the tragic loss of Steve Jobs.”

Other courts have already found that some of Apple’s App Store policies — most notably the forced use of its commission-ridden in-app payment system — do break antitrust law. Apple has in recent months been forced to change its policies to allow external payment methods.

Coronavirus Reporter et al. have plans to appeal the judge’s decision, but they’ll need to come up with some more convincing arguments if they hope to win next time around.