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Apple’s WWDC reveals rivalries beyond Epic

June 8, 2021, 7:00 PM UTC

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) came at an awkward time this year.

WWDC aims to celebrate Apple’s software and encourage developers to build apps for its products. But the event came shortly after the conclusion of courtroom hearings for Epic Games v. Apple, a lawsuit that put the ways Apple treats developers on trial. (Epic says Apple is abusive; Apple disagrees. A decision is expected later this year.)

Apple’s goal is always to convince people that its products are superior to its competitors. That is what enables the $2 trillion company to command such high prices for its devices. (A maxed out iPhone 12 pro Max, its latest model, costs $1,400.) It’s also this justification that enables it to demand a steep 30% (and sometimes 15%) cut of in-app transactions from app-makers—a central complaint of Epic.

While the battle with Epic is taking place wide out in the open, promo days like WWDC can help draw other rivalries into sharp contrast. Indeed, this year’s virtual event exposed the lunging and parrying of the world’s gladiatorial corporates. Here is some of the subtext to Apple’s latest announcements, many of which will roll out in the fall with the debut of iOS 15.

Zoom-copying

To keep FaceTime relevant, the company copied features from rivals, especially Zoom. People can now blur out their backgrounds, view speakers in a grid format, and join calls from Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge web browsers. Apple fans often cite the iPhone-maker’s messaging products, like iMessage and FaceTime, as a key reason they stay within the Apple family. But Apple has been forced to copy others and loosen its Safari-centric grip as it plays catch-up to competitors who got a boost during the pandemic.

Netflix-shafting

In another bid to fortify FaceTime, Apple said it has created a feature that lets people share content—for viewing or listening—while simultaneously video-chatting. The announcement also feeds into Apple’s desire to grow its services revenue by luring people to Apple TV+ And Apple Music. The feature, called SharePlay, is compatible with Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, TikTok, and Twitch, but not Netflix, the world’s most dominant video streaming service. Apparently, Netflix would rather keep to itself and enjoy its present lead alone, at least for now.

Facebook-thwarting

Privacy was another big theme at WWDC, as expected. Apple previously rolled out an “app tracking transparency” feature, much to the chagrin of Facebook, which relies on data-collection to fuel its advertising business. Now Apple is expanding its feature set by blocking tracking pixels in marketer emails and offering a VPN-like service that masks people’s IP addresses. iCloud subscribers can also pay for “burner” email addresses that are temporary, anonymous accounts—another defense against data collectors.

Facebook isn’t taking Apple’s perceived aggressions lightly. A couple hours before WWDC, the media giant previewed a new feature it is debuting that breaks down the “estimated earnings” of creators and highlights the fees Apple and others charge in contrast to Facebook’s for-now free alternative. “And when we do introduce a revenue share, it will be less than the 30% that Apple and others take,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sniped in a post.

Amazon-countering

Amazon sells “smart” speakers that feed its fast-growing “cloud” business. The devices are in constant communication with the computers back at its mothership, supplying data to improve their intelligence and abilities. Apple, on the other hand, continues to make its pocket-computers smarter, processing more requests on the devices themselves, rather than beaming them to distant data centers. Compare Apple’s more privacy-respective approach—which is now able to translate speech into other languages and perform other tasks without an Internet connection—to Amazon’s newly expanded Sidewalk “mesh” network, which lets neighbors’ data run on other people’s Echo devices.

WWDC is not just a showcase for new features; every update plays into a larger strategy in the Techolosseum.

Robert Hackett
Twitter: @rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Gone fishin'. An hour-long Internet outage took down the websites of Bloomberg, the New York Times, Reddit, Stripe, Amazon, PayPal, Spotify, and the U.K. government this morning. The interruption was caused by a "service configuration" issue at Fastly, a content delivery network that's supposed to help sites load quicker. The company's stock is up 7.4% to more than $53 per share since market open, perhaps because people just realized how many big names rely on its tech

Gone phishin'. The U.S. said it recovered the majority of the $4.4 million that ransomware-stricken Colonial Pipeline paid its extortionist hackers. In total, the Feds seized $2.3 million of the payment made to the criminal group DarkSide. The price of Bitcoin slid more than 7% below $32,000 after the news broke. Joseph Blount, Colonial's chief executive, testified about the ransomware incident before the Senate Homeland Security Committee this morning.

Gone missin'. The FBI and Australian Federal Police revealed a three-year-long sting operation that allowed them to snoop on conversations inside an encrypted chat app favored by criminals called An0m. Nicknamed Operation Ironside (also, Trojan Shield), the operation allowed law enforcement to infiltrate the criminal underground, leading to thousands of searches and arrests. 

Keep truckin'. Tesla's sales in China have bounced back after a brief slump. The electric automaker sold nearly 22,000 vehicles in May, about double what it sold the month prior—though still lower than the high of 36,000 it sold in March. Meanwhile, Jerome Guillen, a former Daimler executive who oversaw Tesla's truck efforts, is departing the company

Keep buyin' the dip. Despite Bitcoin's price slippage, the bulls are undiminished. Politicians across Latin America are adopting "laser eyes" on their Twitter profile photos, a meme aligned with Bitcoin promotion. And software firm Microstrategy is looking to finance $400 million worth of new Bitcoin purchases using debt—even though it faces a $285 million write-down due to the cryptocurrency's price fluctuations on its next earnings report.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Are the wealthiest Americans paying their fair share of taxes? Negatory, says ProPublica, which got its hands on the tax records of today's centibillionaires—many of whom are tech company founders. The non-profit newsroom's investigation exposes the ways America's richest routinely and legally avoid taxes. Their main trick: earning more on investments and property than on wages, offering a way to sidestep income tax.

The data provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America’s titans, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg. It shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.

Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

From WhiteHouse.gov to Reddit: Fastly CDN outage knocks out sites and services around the world by David Meyer

China’s crackdown raises the profile of the crypto mining hub next door by Yvonne Lau

Investors seem convinced Beijing’s tech crackdown has spread beyond Jack Ma by Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett

Why Intel’s free-marketeer CEO Pat Gelsinger wants a government handout by Alan Murray and David Meyer

COVID temporarily shuts down Taiwanese chip tester in latest disruption to supply chains by Samson Ellis and Cindy Wang

El Salvador’s Bitcoin plans: Disruptive or dangerous? by Jessica Matthews

4 ways the online shopping experience is radically shifting because of the pandemic by Elizabeth Spaulding

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BEFORE YOU GO

The surprise popularity of the cryptocurrency Dogecoin is fueling demand for the dog breed that inspired the meme-coin: Shiba Inus. Fortune's Danielle Abril finds that requests for the dog type are way up at rescue shelters, and puppy mills are churning them out to make a quick buck. Mary Bondoux, a volunteer who helps run the Colorado Shiba Inu Rescue, tells Abril that "90% of those people 'have no business getting a Shiba' and that 'all they know is that’s the cryptocurrency dog.'"

Despite Shiba Inus' meme-promulgated reputation for cuddly wonderment, they're quite testy creatures.

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