Microsoft xCloud will come to iOS as, of course, a web app

The cloud gaming service will arrive on iOS and Windows PCs in spring 2021.

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Microsoft says its cloud gaming service xCloud will arrive on iOS and Windows in spring of 2021 — the catch being that on iOS, users will only be able to access the service through a mobile browser. This is due to Apple's convoluted rules for game streaming services that want to offer their wares through the App Store.

xCloud requires an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate Subscription, which includes a library of over 100 popular console and PC games that users can play over the internet or download, as well as Xbox Live Gold, which is required to play online multiplayer games. The whole package costs only $15 per month, and promises to make gaming much more accessible to those unwilling or unable to shell out $300 for a console and $60-70 for each individual game.

Cloud gaming services host a game on a remote server and deliver a feed of gameplay to a player's device, with controller inputs sent back to the server in milliseconds. That fast round-trip is made possible thanks to years of heavy investment from the likes of Microsoft and Google into their global networks of server farms. Tech companies realized that they can use those computers to break into the lucrative gaming market. Despite initial skepticism, streaming games over the internet works quite well.

Profit motives — Gamers on Android have been able to access xCloud for months because users can download apps from the open web, or alternative app stores. Apple, meanwhile, restricts users to downloading apps from its App Store, and initially blocked cloud gaming services because it would be unable to review new games as they're added. The company eventually decided that game streaming can, in fact, come to iOS, but each individual title would need to be submitted as its own listing so Apple's team can review them — even though it doesn't apply a similar rule to streaming video apps like Netflix. Apple also demands that every streaming game include an ability for users to buy a subscription using Apple's payment method, which would net the company a cut of sales.

Don't be fooled — Apple has responded to claims of antitrust violations by stating that, if developers don't want to follow App Store guidelines, they are free to offer cloud gaming through a mobile web browser like Safari. That's a bit of a cop-out, however. A browser-based solution is a lesser experience because web apps cannot access the same range of software features that native apps can. Developers would much prefer to offer their apps natively as, well, real apps. Amazon, which launched its own Luna cloud gaming service through the web, has said it hopes Apple will loosen up its restrictions eventually.

Apple is being sued across the world over this type of control it wields on iOS. Critics say that while Apple's statements that it makes rules primarily in the interest of protecting its users might be partly true, the company is also operating in self-interest as revenue from services — including App Store fees — is driving much of its continued growth. The App Store is a crown jewel for Apple because it uses the marketplace to promote its nascent subscription services, and where other companies like Spotify are beating it, Apple still wins because it takes a cut of their revenue. If Apple had to compete against third-party app stores, as some hope it will, it may be forced to lower its fees and find it harder to grow its own services like Apple Music.

But there's at least one bright way to look at the cloud gaming issue. With Comcast extending its broadband data cap to all customers, you might not be able to stream many games anyway!