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Fortnite’s Mastermind Goes to Battle With Apple


The billionaire behind one of the most successful videogames of all time came to view

Apple Inc.


AAPL 1.80%

as an existential threat to his dream of the future. So

Tim Sweeney

decided to fight. He gave his dispute with the world’s biggest company a code name: Project Liberty.

The clash was a bold gambit from a man who built an empire around “Fortnite,” the online multiplayer shooter game filled with cartoonish characters that became a phenomenon beloved by teenagers around the world. The ambition of Epic Games Inc.’s chief executive was that Fortnite’s legions of devoted young fans could turn it into a thriving social network, and help realize his vision of the “metaverse,” a shared virtual world where people might one day live, work and hang out.

Mr. Sweeney saw Apple as a central roadblock to that vision, according to people familiar with his thinking and documents unveiled in a recent court proceeding, because of the iPhone maker’s tight control over how people access “Fortnite” and any other mobile apps from Epic. Apple’s App Store takes a 30% cut of Epic’s revenue from those users.

Epic circumvented Apple’s fees and rules last August by introducing its own system for processing user purchases into mobile versions of “Fortnite.” It also prepared for a larger legal and public-relations campaign, complete with a video mocking a legendary Apple ad and the social-media hashtag #FreeFortnite.

“You’ll enjoy the upcoming fireworks show,” Mr. Sweeney said in an email to an ally at

Microsoft Corp.

on the eve of the plan’s launch. Apple made that email public in a court filing, along with other emails and witness testimony cited in this story.

Epic hoped to draw the company into a larger conflict, the court documents show. Once Apple and

Alphabet Inc.’s

Google booted “Fortnite” from their app stores, Epic responded by suing both companies.

The fate of Epic’s fight has widespread implications for the entire technology world. It could help determine everything from how much revenue app developers are able to keep to how exposed Apple could be to potential antitrust violations. Apple has rejected claims it has monopoly power, saying that Epic broke the terms of a contract and engaged in a smear campaign.

A resolution could be drawing near. Starting May 3, the dispute goes to trial before federal Judge

Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers

in Oakland, Calif. The judge must decide whether Apple is misusing its power to quash competition or if Epic is merely trying to break its contract with the iPhone maker to boost its bottom line.

Save the world

The man at the center of this clash is a 50-year-old programmer who prefers an office uniform of cargo pants and T-shirts. He eschewed the clubby confines of Silicon Valley to locate Epic’s headquarters just outside of Raleigh, N.C. Mr. Sweeney’s previous dealings with other technology companies showcase his instincts for big and prolonged fights, as well as an eye for strategy. The Maryland native is worth more than $9 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index.

The man who is taking on Apple prefers an office uniform of cargo pants and t-shirts. Here he is pictured in Epic’s offices in 2019.



Photo:

Jeremy M. Lange for The Wall Sweet Journal

He launched Epic from his parents’ basement at age 20 in 1991 and evolved his company from solely building games for PCs to include those for videogame consoles and smartphones. In 2012, he sold a 40% stake of his company to

Tencent Holdings Ltd.

, in part to tap the Chinese tech giant’s expertise in mobile gaming and wringing money from users through small purchases known as microtransactions. (Mr. Sweeney remains Epic’s largest shareholder.) Epic also owns the video-chat app Houseparty and makes the Unreal Engine, a suite of software tools for developing games and producing special effects for television shows, movies and other types of digital content.

Epic’s biggest hit started with the 2017 launch of “Fortnite: Save the World,” then a $40 game for up to four players to fight zombies and build forts. A few months later, after disappointing results, Epic offered up a new, free-to-play mode called “Battle Royale,” in which 100 players duke it out until only one combatant or squad remains. It later sold virtual currency that players could use to acquire in-game perks such as an outfit to make their avatars appear as a Marvel Comics superhero.

To build the community, since only a small percentage of players make such purchases, Epic pushed console makers to allow users of one machine to play “Fortnite” with users of another machine, in what would be an industry first for all three major videogame systems. That meant a PlayStation player could join a match with a friend on Microsoft’s Xbox or

Nintendo Co.

’s Switch.

Microsoft and Nintendo had shown a willingness for such cross-platform play.

Sony Group Corp.

balked.

In the fall of 2017, Epic updated its software that briefly allowed a Sony PlayStation “Fortnite” player to compete against someone on Microsoft’s Xbox. It pulled that function back, saying it was a mistake, after online chat boards lighted up with excitement. Seeing what was possible, gamers demanded more. Players cast Sony as the villain on social media with hashtags such as #blamesony and #notfortheplayers, a harbinger for the Apple dispute.

As Sony internally debated its position, executives were worried about exposure of its consumer-behavior data and competitors taking an unfair share of their business, according to people familiar with the talks. They felt Epic had backed them into a corner and worried that finicky gamers would turn on them, the people said.

Following months of negotiations, Sony relented. Asked about it afterward, Mr. Sweeney described it simply as “an effort in international diplomacy.” Since then, the Tokyo-based company has twice invested in Epic, having most recently contributed around $200 million in a funding round that valued Epic at $28.7 billion. A spokesman for Sony declined to comment.

Mr. Sweeney’s hardball tactics with Sony helped him usher in cross-play across videogame consoles, personal computers and Apple and Android devices.

All hands on deck

The relationship with Apple was cordial for its first decade. In March 2018, “Fortnite” was launched on Apple’s App Store. A year later, Mr. Sweeney was at the annual Game Developers Conference celebrating how cross-play had helped the game grow to almost 250 million players world-wide – a smashing success. Apple’s managers were happy to help promote the new hit, offering technical and marketing assistance to Epic.

Mike Schmid, head of Apple’s games business development for the App Store, helped oversee the “Fortnite” rollout and several updates. In a court statement, he described an “all-hands-on-deck treatment to address Epic’s non-stop asks, which frequently involved middle-of-the-night calls and texts demanding short-turnaround.”

To manage the work, he assigned someone in Australia so Apple could provide 24-hour coverage.

Mr. Sweeney located Epic’s headquarters far from Silicon Valley, to a spot outside Raleigh, N.C. The offices are pictured here in 2019.



Photo:

Jeremy M. Lange for The Wall Sweet Journal

The relationship described by Apple in court papers differs greatly from the experiences detailed by other developers on Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Smaller software makers have complained about what they perceive as Apple’s seemingly arbitrary rules and mercurial ways.

With Epic, Apple appeared to go out of its way to help the gamemaker establish itself on the platform. Mr. Schmid said Epic employees had told him Apple represented just 7% of its revenue. He couldn’t be reached for comment through Apple.

“On a variety of occasions, Epic personnel have told me that if Apple did not comply with its demands, Epic would simply terminate its relationship with Apple and remove its games off the iOS platform,” Mr. Schmid said in court records. A core part of Apple’s antitrust defense is that Epic’s games are available on a variety of tech companies’ platforms, not just Apple’s.

By early 2020, “Fortnite” was showing signs of aging, although popularity for online games can sometimes ebb and flow due to new seasons or features. The privately held company doesn’t disclose financial records but app-analytics firm Sensor Tower Inc. estimates global consumer spending within “Fortnite” on Apple devices had fallen in the first quarter of last year to $70 million from a peak of almost $180 million in the third quarter of 2018. Epic Chief Financial Officer Joe Babcock, who departed the company in early 2020, said it expected the trend to continue, according to a deposition he gave cited by Apple. Mr. Babock couldn’t be reached for comment.

Epic disputes the notion that “Fortnite” was waning in popularity, as the company in May 2020 said it had reached 350 million registered accounts.

Epic said in May 2020 it had reached 350 million registered ‘Fortnite’ accounts, up from 250 million a year earlier.



Photo:

cristobal herrera-ulashkevich/EPA/Shutterstock

Epic hatched a plan, according to court records citing a board presentation, to revive interest in “Fortnite” beyond its seasonal updates and occasional music performances and movie screenings that people experience together in a virtual setting. Epic would turn to third-party developers to create new content for “Fortnite,” essentially turning it into an open platform unto itself.

But for this new plan to work, the company needed to find a way it could afford to compensate its would-be partners. Apple’s 30% share, the presentation concluded, was an “existential issue” for its plan and needed to be cut so Epic could share a majority of the profit with creators.

The battle begins

Last spring Epic began sharpening its plan to wrest itself from Apple’s fees and control. Its team investigated ways to surreptitiously add an alternative payment system to the versions of “Fortnite” on Apple and Google’s app stores, according to court records. By May Epic decided it would deploy the new system through a so-called hotfix, an important software update usually reserved for security bugs, records show, and do so just before the debut of the game’s new season.

Epic executives initially considered targeting Google alone, according to court records citing internal emails. But later they decided to include Apple, which in time would become the focus of the effort.

From an early stage, the plan depended on Epic’s payment system being rejected, read an email between Epic executives disclosed in court records. At that point: “The battle begins. It’s going to be fun!”

Epic co-founder

Mark Rein

predicted there was a greater than 50% chance Apple would immediately remove “Fortnite” from its platforms, according to an Epic employee deposition cited in court records. “They may also sue us to make an example.” Mr. Rein declined to comment.

While it worked on the technical attack, Epic also planned to cut prices on certain items in the console and PC versions of “Fortnite” by 20%— essentially creating a reason for players to eschew the mobile alternative offered by Apple.

But first, Epic would go to the front door and ask a favor of Apple and Google: The company wanted permission to run its own competing store and payment system.

In a late June email to Apple CEO

Tim Cook,

according to court records, Mr. Sweeney sought an exemption from App Store rules. Most important, he wanted to stop paying Apple’s 30% fee.

Apple rejected the request in a July 10 letter, laying out many of the same arguments it would make in defending itself against the eventual Epic lawsuit. Epic had other ways to sell its game, Apple’s lawyer added, as well as noting Epic collects royalties from games built on its software.

“Yet somehow, you believe Apple has no right to do the same, and want all the benefits Apple and the App Store provide without having to pay a penny,” the letter concluded. “Apple cannot bow to that unreasonable demand.”

‘Fortnite’ became a phenomenon beloved by teenagers around the world. Here fans cheer during the 2019 ‘Fortnite’ World Cup inside Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City.



Photo:

johannes eisele/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Mr. Sweeney on July 17 responded with another email to Mr. Cook and others calling the response a “self-righteous and self-serving screed.” He promised to “continue to pursue this, as we have done in the past to address other injustices in our industry.”

Behind the scenes, Epic’s Project Liberty team met regularly and devised a way to present their plan to a judge and the public. The team included as many as 200 Epic staffers, outside lawyers and public-relations advisers. It developed an argument that Apple violated antitrust laws with its requirements that all apps offered on its iPhones and iPads go through its App Store and that all purchases of digital content go through the tech giant’s in-app purchase system.

It wasn’t a unique gripe. Other app makers, including

Netflix Inc.

and Spotify Technology SA, have also butted heads with Apple on its slice of fees and control. Apple says the walled mobile-software garden it built in 2008 is now responsible for more than a half-trillion dollars in commerce.

Epic’s team worried it wouldn’t be a sympathetic character in a public fight and that gamers would blame the company if Apple and Google ultimately decided to yank “Fortnite.” So it strategized on how to bring in additional companies, including smaller, sympathetic developers, to advocate for its cause, records say. It also studied past Apple responses to major public fights, focusing on its battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigation over demands to create a backdoor into the iPhone of a shooter in a 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif. The controversy subsided when the government found an alternative way into the device.

The Epic team concluded that Apple could be thin skinned when it came to its public image. “Nothing moves Apple to change other than notable consumer pressure,” an Epic memo noted.

Share your Thoughts

Do you think Apple is misusing its power to quash competition? Why or why not? Join the conversation below.

As August approached, Epic’s board of directors was briefed on the project’s final pieces in a presentation dubbed “battle plan.” By this point, the board was told, Epic had spent time helping form the Coalition for App Fairness, an advocacy group, to support its crusade and it tested the payment system that would eventually be uploaded to Apple’s and Google’s app stores.

Mr. Sweeney sent emails to Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo alerting them to the upcoming price changes in “Fortnite,” a prelude to the “fireworks show.”

On Aug. 13, he lighted the fuse. “Epic will no longer adhere to Apple’s payment processing restrictions,” Mr. Sweeney wrote at about 2 a.m. in an email to Apple. Hours later, Epic flipped the switch on the new payment system and a public-relations campaign to rally gamers to its fight.

Project Liberty was in play.

Apple and Google both booted the game by day’s end, springing the second part of Epic’s plan: a legal battle.

A trial date hasn’t been set in Epic’s lawsuit against Google, though the situation is distinct. Devices that run Google’s Android operating system can download software from other app marketplaces in addition to the Google Play store. Google has said that Epic violated its app store’s policies as well, which are designed to keep it safe for users.

In the months after its lawsuit, Epic pursued complaints with regulators around the world and supported lobbying efforts among statehouses and Congress for changes that would crimp Apple’s power. It also released an online video that echoed Apple’s famous 1984 ad, a nod to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, that framed the computer maker as the underdog against the then-mighty

IBM.

This time around, the image of a televised Big Brother was replaced by one of a talking Apple wearing glasses similar to those of Mr. Cook. The call to action at the end read: “Join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming ‘1984.’ ”

Write to Tim Higgins at [email protected] and Sarah E. Needleman at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



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Stocks Turn Higher After Fed Holds Steady


U.S. stocks rose Wednesday after the Federal Reserve vowed to keep its easy-money policies in place until the U.S. economy further recovers from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The S&P 500 added 0.3%, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 0.6%. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite advanced 0.4%, reversing losses earlier in the session.

All three indexes turned higher at the release of the central bank’s 2 p.m. ET statement. Investors are focused on any sign the monetary stimulus that has supported markets during the pandemic could begin to subside.

With unemployment still elevated, Fed officials are taking a cautious approach that supports the economy, said

George Catrambone,

head of Americas trading at asset manager DWS Group,

“Investors are taking some solace in that,” he said. “We’re going to make sure it’s there, that the recovery is sustainable and inflation is sustainable, before we really think about raising rates.”

The Fed also highlighted the brightening outlook for growth. Investors in recent weeks have trimmed bets on the technology stocks that soared earlier in the pandemic while adding shares of economically sensitive companies that should do well as the vaccine rollout progresses and more fiscal stimulus enters the financial system.

Shares of

Apple

and

Amazon.com

are down 5.6% and 3.1% this year, respectively, while the energy and financial sectors are leading the S&P 500.

“Tech is the funding source for reallocation,” said

Jamie Cox,

managing partner for Harris Financial Group. “You’re restoring the allocations that you had pre-pandemic.”

Money managers have started pricing in a rise in inflation, leading to a selloff in government bonds, and are betting that interest rates will start climbing by the end of next year. They have started exiting stocks that look to be too richly valued after last year’s rally.

“Markets across the board are expensive today, and that is pinned on central-bank support,” said

Hugh Gimber,

a strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management. “So this whole market is very, very sensitive to changes in central-bank policy.”

After the Fed’s reassurance that interest rates will stay low, shares of rapidly growing companies rebounded from earlier losses. The Russell 1000 Growth Index was recently up 0.3%, trailing a 0.4% gain by the Russell 1000 Value Index. Value stocks—which trade at low multiples of their book value, or net worth—have outperformed growth stocks in recent weeks.

“The resurgence of value investing has been the big story of the year,” said

Mace McCain,

chief investment officer at Frost Investment Advisors, noting that the rollout of coronavirus vaccines should help the economic recovery. “We expect tremendous growth this next year.”

In bond markets, the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note rose to 1.641%, from 1.622% Tuesday. Yields rise as the price falls. The yield has climbed sharply from this year’s low of 0.915% on Jan. 4.

Traders worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday.



Photo:

Colin Ziemer/Associated Press

Among individual stocks,

NRG Energy

fell 17%. The company said it is withdrawing its 2021 financial guidance after the recent winter storm hit its results. Shares of

Plug Power

dropped 8% after the hydrogen and fuel-cell technology company said it would restate financial statements.

Brent crude, the international benchmark for oil, fell 0.6% to $68.00 a barrel.

In overseas markets, the Stoxx Europe 600 edged 0.4% lower. Most major indexes in Asia were little changed. South Korea’s Kospi index fell 0.6%, while the Shanghai Composite, Hang Seng and Nikkei 225 indexes all ended the day nearly flat.

Write to Karen Langley at [email protected] and Will Horner at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



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Dow Slips Amid New Travel Curbs


The index of blue-chip stocks fell 200.94 points, or 0.7%, to 30015.51, marking its largest one-day point and percentage decline in December. The S&P 500 slid 7.66 points, or 0.2%, to 3687.26 to extend its losing streak to a third session.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite, in contrast, rose 65.40 points, or 0.5%, to 12807.92, a new all-time high.

Much of the stock market has lost steam this week as some nations began taking steps to curtail travel in an effort to contain the emergence of a fast-spreading variant of coronavirus from England. The U.K. imposed stringent restrictions on social and business activity, prompting concern that more countries may be required to adopt measures that would hamper the global economic recovery.

“It would be a brave man to suggest this will just remain a U.K.-specific issue,” said

Derek Halpenny,

head of research for global markets in the European region at MUFG Bank. “Are we going back into another phase of more pronounced global lockdowns again?”

Oil prices slipped for a second day amid growing worries over the new restrictions imposed on travelers from the U.K. to other countries. Brent crude futures, the benchmark in international energy markets, dropped 1.6% to $50.08 a barrel.

Meanwhile, the yield on the 10-year note ticked down to 0.917%, from 0.941% Monday, as some investors looked to the relative safety of U.S. government bonds. Yields fall when prices rise.

Investors are trying to gauge whether the new strain of Covid-19 will impact the efficacy of vaccines that are being rolled out this month.

BioNTech

Chief Executive

Ugur Sahin

said the vaccine developed by his company, in partnership with

Pfizer,

would likely work against the new variant and is being tested. If a new mutation would make the current vaccine ineffective, BioNTech can develop another tailored to the new variant in six weeks, he said.

Technology stocks traded higher on Nasdaq, in contrast to declines for the S&P and Dow.



Photo:

Michael Nagle/Bloomberg News

“The big unknown is to what degree could the new strain make the efficacy of the vaccine lower,” said

Peter Garnry,

head of equity strategy at Saxo Bank. “If it just turns out to be more infections, and it doesn’t have an effect on the vaccine, then the market will be less concerned.”

Late Monday, a fresh $900 billion fiscal stimulus package was passed by Congress, ending weeks of anticipation from investors about whether lawmakers could end their stalemate. The bill, which includes direct checks to households and relief for small businesses, is expected to be signed by

President Trump.

Even so, the bill’s passage wasn’t enough to propel the broader stock market higher.

“We’ve had the positive news on the vaccines and the fiscal deal, so there’s probably not a catalyst to drive stocks meaningfully higher in the next few weeks,” said

Brian Levitt,

global market strategist at Invesco.

When Is the Market on Holiday?

Select stock-market closures through year’s end

  • Thurs. Dec. 24: U.S. stock market closes at 1 p.m. ET
  • Fri. Dec. 25: Markets closed
  • Mon. Dec. 28: London stock market closed
  • Fri. Jan. 1: Markets closed

Still, Mr. Levitt noted that he maintains a positive outlook on equities.

“In my opinion, betting against stocks over the next year and beyond is betting against medicine, science and policy makers,” he said. “And I’m not willing to make those bets.”

In corporate news,

Apple

rose $3.65, or 2.9%, to $131.88 after Reuters reported that the iPhone maker intends to move forward with its own self-driving car technology.

Exercise-equipment maker

Peloton Interactive

gained $16.82, or 12%, to $161.21, hitting a new all-time-high, after it agreed to buy commercial fitness-equipment provider Precor for $420 million in cash.

Travel stocks and shares of energy companies tumbled.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings

slid $1.70, or 6.9%, to $23.08.

Chevron

fell for an eighth consecutive day, losing $1.73, or 2%, to $84.36. That marks the longest losing streak for the oil giant since October 2013.

Meanwhile,

Tesla

tumbled $9.52, or 1.5%, to $640.34, extending its losses for the week to nearly 8%. The electric-car maker made its S&P 500 debut Monday.

Moves in stocks could be big and markets may be especially choppy in coming days because fewer people are trading as the holiday period starts, said

Salman Ahmed,

global head of macro at Fidelity International.

The final stretch of trading in December is historically positive for the stock market. But this week’s losses may be a sign that investors are starting to take profits after a blockbuster year, especially as they consider the possibility of tax changes after President-elect

Joe Biden

takes office, said

JJ Kinahan,

chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade. The S&P 500 is up 14% in 2020, and the Nasdaq Composite has catapulted 43% higher.

Footage shows empty supermarket shelves while trucks bearing cargo get stuck at the border after France imposed a travel ban on Britain following the spread of a new coronavirus strain. Other countries have also barred passengers from the U.K. Photo: Neil Hall/EPA/Shutterstock

Additionally, Mr. Kinahan noted, Tuesday’s worse-than-expected consumer confidence report may also be weighing on markets.

The Conference Board, a private research group, said its index of consumer confidence dropped to 88.6 in the first two weeks of December, from a revised 92.9 in November. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had expected a level of 97.5.

Still, there were small signs of optimism. Data from the Commerce Department showed Tuesday that U.S. gross domestic product—the value of all goods and services produced across the economy—increased at an annualized rate of 33.4% in the third quarter, slightly stronger than the previous estimate issued last month.

Overseas, European shares rebounded after Monday’s losses. The pan-continental Stoxx Europe 600 gained 1.2%.

Major stock indexes in Asia closed lower. China’s Shanghai Composite fell 1.9%, and South Korea’s Kospi declined 1.6%.

Write to Caitlin Ostroff at [email protected] and Caitlin McCabe at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8



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As Apple releases its new line of Macs, the biggest beneficiary may be Microsoft


Apple is set to launch its next generation of MacBooks this week. For the first time since the surprise 2005 announcement by Steve Jobs that Apple was moving from PowerPC to Intel (x86), the company is set to take on chip-making responsibility for the Mac.

With Apple
AAPL,
-0.37%

coming off strong earnings that included better-than-expected growth for its Mac line, which grew 7.3%, more than double the PC market’s 3.6%, it would seem like the perfect moment for its new launch of improved MacBooks.

However, I believe the launch could test Apple, as it is essentially deriving the silicon for its new Macs from the iPhone. In time this may pan out well, but there is a good chance this show could get off to a rocky start.

Apple has made many claims about its new MacBooks, and while we will have to wait until Tuesday’s event to get the full picture, there have been plenty of leaks on what to expect from the company.

It’s the same old-new normal for Apple, which CEO Tim Cook alluded to at this year’s WWDC event, including promises of a whole new level of performance, with the lowest power consumption, maximizing battery life to be better than ever before. Also, a new level of graphic performance and even more market innovation.

In the WWDC transcript, Cook’s exact words were: “The Mac will take another huge leap forward.”

All of this will remain TBD until broad benchmarking and compatibility testing for software and peripherals is available.

Challenging transition

My biggest concern, though, isn’t the promises, but rather the potential vulnerabilities for Apple. The transition from Intel
INTC,
+1.87%

to its new Arm-based silicon is almost certain to be a challenging transition that will impact both consumers and developers.

The company’s entire software ecosystem will have to be rewritten to work on this new architecture, and this takes time. Microsoft
MSFT,
-1.02%
,
for instance, has been working for a decade on building its software ecosystem to run smoothly on Arm-based variants, both of its Surface Pro X but also other Arm-based notebooks from the likes of Samsung and Lenovo. The improvement has been material, but it has been markedly difficult to meet all the developer and consumer needs.

More specifically, the transition from Intel to Apple’s new silicon will likely break applications, and create compatibility issues with peripherals. While I expect Apple to have a set of “hero apps” that will work flawlessly, this certainly won’t be the case across all the apps, tools and games used by Mac consumers.

Reaction of consumers, developers

This will leave consumers frustrated with their new Macs, perhaps more so than Mac’s constant quality issues with its keyboards in recent generations. Furthermore, this creates more work for developers, who will now be required to support disparate apps for the Intel version and the Arm version — this is anything but straightforward.

Perhaps Apple’s biggest mistake is its claims that this transition will be seamless. Sure, that is good marketing, but the more realistic approach should be: “Bear with us while we make the Mac experience even better.”

Another big question mark for Apple will be around support of its current generation of Intel-based Macs. The company was heavily scrutinized for its short period of support for PowerPC after shifting to Mac. The support period lasted only three years, and that left some Apple customers dissatisfied. Many Mac users stay with a device for five to eight years, and certainly won’t want to be forced to buy another $2,000-plus device prematurely if Apple decides to stop supporting its Intel-based Macs after three years. This will be something to watch closely.  

If Apple does stumble for a period while it seeks to perfect its new silicon, the next question is where do consumers seeking an alternative to Mac turn?

Microsoft stands to gain

I believe Microsoft could be the big winner during this transition for the Mac. The Microsoft Surface has seen its growth rates up 37% in its most recent quarter, tracking over $6 billion in its trailing four quarters. This number is still much smaller than Mac, which saw its Mac revenue at $9 billion in its most recent quarter, reflecting its best quarter ever, growing 28% year over year. Still, I believe there may have been some padding with buyers seeking to upgrade before Apple moves away from the Intel-based silicon.

Maybe more than just Microsoft and Surface’s growth momentum is the brand strength and ultra-premium branding that comes with Surface. I have long believed Microsoft’s endeavor into Surface had much less to do with competing with its large software OEM’s like Dell
DELL,
+0.55%
,
HP
HPQ,
+3.40%

and Lenovo, and much more to do with building a true competitor to the Mac.

This has been visible in the entire approach to Surface, including acute attention to details such as the packaging, the branding on the notebooks, the construction materials and the premium pricing. Microsoft has also been wise in its development of the Surface to include Intel, AMD
AMD,
-1.64%
,
and Arm-based variants, giving customers a choice while taking advantage of its ability to support all three chipsets’ software compatibility nuances.

Tuesday’s launch has a lot at stake for Apple. Apple’s move away from Intel has long been touted as a big problem for Intel, but it could be equally, if not more problematic, for Apple. With Microsoft Surface continuing to gain momentum for its ultra-high-quality notebooks, Mac faces more competition and will be under pressure to get this right— sooner than later.

Daniel Newman is the principal analyst at Futurum Research, which
provides or has provided research, analysis, advising and/or consulting to
Qualcomm, Nvidia, Intel, Microsoft, Samsung, ARM, and dozens of companies in
the tech and digital industries. Neither he nor his firm holds any equity
positions in any companies cited. Follow him on Twitter 
@danielnewmanUV.





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Quibi Is Shutting Down Barely Six Months After Going Live


Quibi Holdings LLC is shutting down, according to people familiar with the matter, a crash landing for a once-highflying entertainment startup that attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood and had looked to revolutionize how people consume entertainment.

The streaming service, which served up shows in 5- to 10-minute “chapters” formatted to fit a smartphone screen, has been plagued with problems since its April launch, facing lower-than-expected viewership and a lawsuit from a well-capitalized foe.

On Wednesday, founder Jeffrey Katzenberg called Quibi investors to tell them he is shutting the service down, some of the people said.

Mr. Katzenberg and Chief Executive Meg Whitman decided to shut down the company in an effort to return as much capital to investors as possible instead of trying to prolong the life of the company and risk losing more money, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Employees will be laid off and will be paid a severance, the people said, and the company will explore selling the rights to some of its content to other media and technology firms.

The decision marks a disappointing turn of events for Mr. Katzenberg, a former

Walt Disney Co.

executive and DreamWorks co-founder who pitched the streaming service as a revolutionary new entrant to the video-streaming wars.

Quibi was designed for people who consume entertainment in short increments on their smartphones, but the coronavirus pandemic forced would-be subscribers away from the kinds of on-the-go situations Quibi executives envisioned for its users. Quibi eventually allowed subscribers to watch its shows on their TVs.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, Quibi had its share of skeptics in the media world, since consumers already had free options for short-form video, such as

Alphabet Inc.’s

YouTube. Quibi’s bet was that it could charge subscriptions by creating higher-end content, and it paid handsomely to develop that programming. Some Quibi executives believed the venture could have been a success, if not for the pandemic, with better execution, pointing to the rise of TikTok, people close to the company said. Some of them believed, for example, that Quibi could pivot to a “freemium” model, offering some content for free while making customers pay for the top programming.

Quibi, which cost $4.99 a month, also had to compete with a growing number of rivals, with Walt Disney’s Disney+,

Apple Inc.’s

Apple TV+,

AT&T Inc.’s

HBO Max and

Comcast Corp.’s

Peacock all launching in the past year.

Mr. Katzenberg and Ms. Whitman had raised about $1.75 billion from high-profile investors including Disney, Comcast’s NBCUniversal and AT&T’s WarnerMedia.

The company spent aggressively to develop its content. Its lineup of star-studded programming included a court show featuring Chrissy Teigen, a romantic comedy with Anna Kendrick and an action thriller starring Christoph Waltz and Liam Hemsworth.

Quibi has drawn on the deep Hollywood connections of Mr. Katzenberg, who ran Disney’s movie business, co-founded DreamWorks SKG and led its animation spinoff DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., the studio behind “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.”

The streaming service attracted blue-chip advertisers including

PepsiCo Inc.,

Walmart Inc.

and

Anheuser-Busch InBev SA,

securing about $150 million in ad revenue in the runup to its launch. Those deals came under strain earlier this year amid lower-than-expected viewership for Quibi’s shows, prompting advertisers to defer their payments.

In recent weeks, Quibi hired a restructuring firm, AlixPartners LLP, to evaluate its options, the people said. It recommended the options to the board of directors this week, laying out a list that included shutting the company down.

AlixPartners didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The firm previously handled the bankruptcy of Enron Corp.,

General Motors Co.

and Kmart.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Katzenberg and Ms. Whitman held a conference call with investors to explain the decision to shut the company down. During the call, Mr. Katzenberg told investors that the company decided to return $350 million in capital rather than pursue a new strategy that could have attracted additional subscribers but would have required a hefty investment, according to a person familiar with the call.

The Information earlier reported that Mr. Katzenberg told people in the media industry he may have to shut down the company.

The decision to hire AlixPartners came after starting a process to sell the company, The Wall Street Journal reported. Quibi pitched suitors including NBCUniversal on a sale, according to people familiar with the matter, but would-be buyers were put off by the fact that Quibi doesn’t own many of the shows it puts on its platform.

NBCUniversal declined to comment.

Quibi is also fighting a legal battle with interactive-video company Eko, which claims Quibi is violating its patents and has stolen trade secrets. Hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. is financing the high-stakes patent lawsuit.

The fight centers on a key feature of Quibi’s app that plays different videos for users depending on whether they are holding their phone horizontally or vertically. Quibi has denied infringing on Eko’s patents or stealing trade secrets.

Write to Benjamin Mullin at [email protected], Joe Flint at [email protected] and Maureen Farrell at [email protected]

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Apple’s 5G iPhone Will Need to Be More Than 5G


Apple Inc.


AAPL 1.74%

is master of the upsell, but 5G might present the company with its biggest challenge yet.

The tech giant has scheduled an event for Oct. 13, when it is widely expected to unveil this year’s iPhone lineup. As is typical, the company has said nothing about its plans for what would be the 20th iteration of its iconic smartphone, not counting large-screen variants of the same models. But leaks and supplier reports all have confirmed that the next-generation 5G wireless standard will be included in at least some of this year’s designs, and Apple itself dubbed the event “Hi, Speed” on its announcement.

Nearly all of the company’s competitors—including the largest,

Samsung

—already have 5G phones on the market. But most of the world’s 5G action has been taking place in China, which accounted for more than three-quarters of 5G device shipments in the second quarter, according to Counterpoint Research. In the U.S., 5G coverage is still limited, even in major cities. That has hampered the uptake so far. IDC estimates that 4.2 million 5G smartphones were sold in the U.S. in the first half of this year—about 7.5% of total domestic smartphone shipments in that time.

Apple is widely expected to boost that. Counterpoint analyst Jeff Fieldhack predicts this year’s new iPhones will sharply increase the market share of 5G devices, resulting in such phones accounting for 20% of domestic smartphone sales by the end of the year. And several equity analysts have started redeploying the “supercycle” term used to predict strong iPhone cycles in the past—though not always accurately. Analysts project total iPhone unit sales will rise 10% in Apple’s current fiscal year ending next September, following two straight years of declines, according to consensus estimates from Visible Alpha.

That in turn has fueled Apple’s stock, which has jumped 59% so far this year even after retreating from its Sept. 1 peak. At more than 31 times forward earnings, the stock remains in its most expensive valuation range in more than a decade.

Is a 5G iPhone worth that? Probably not—if that is the only selling point. Past comparisons are problematic. The last major network transition to the current standard known as LTE took place in the 2010-12 time frame, when smartphones were still a fast-growing business globally. Apple’s first LTE device was the iPhone 5, which launched in late 2012. That device also sparked “supercycle” projections, though sales and the phone’s lower profit margins didn’t quite live up to the hype. Apple’s share price had surged 65% that year ahead of the iPhone 5 launch—and then slid 24% in the remainder of the year.

Smartphone buyers tend to be more motivated by improved features such as screen size, better cameras and longer battery life. The iPhone 6 cycle that kicked off in late 2014 turned out to be Apple’s best ever, thanks to the significant display-size boost that device delivered. And last year’s iPhone 11 Pro models with their triple-lens cameras turned out to be more popular than expected. Analysts believe those models accounted for 28% of Apple’s total iPhone sales volume for the fiscal year that ended in September, compared with the 23% for the previous year’s top-of-the-line iPhone models, according to Visible Alpha.

The success of last year’s iPhones is actually another challenge for this year’s, as smartphone buyers now tend to hold on to their devices for three to four years. Apple still has a strong base of fans willing to line up for whatever the company comes up with each year. Getting enough of them to justify a market value of $2 trillion will be a tall order.

Write to Dan Gallagher at [email protected]

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