A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that Apple could not delay making changes to its App Store, a move that could soon allow app developers to directly communicate with customers about ways to pay for services outside Apple’s ecosystem.
Calling Apple’s request for a delay “fundamentally flawed,” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California warned in her ruling that the company’s strict App Store rules were building toward “antitrust conduct.”
The judge wrote that she would not let Apple punt on making changes to the App Store, where many developers are barred from directing customers elsewhere. She wrote that Apple was enforcing that rule “to harm competition” while it collected fees on developers’ sales.
Apple has been trying to blunt Judge Gonzalez Rogers’s September verdict in a yearlong lawsuit brought by Epic Games, the creator of the video game Fortnite. Now Apple may have to rewrite its policies to allow app developers to point users to alternative payment methods as soon as December.
In its original lawsuit, Epic wanted Apple to be labeled a monopolist. Epic argued that the strict App Store rules and the fees that Apple charges developers that distribute apps in the store were harming customers and developers and tamping down competition.
After a trial that concluded in May, Judge Gonzalez Rogers ruled in favor of Apple on most counts in September. But she said the company was violating California’s anticompetition law by stifling app developers from communicating directly with customers about ways to pay for services outside the App Store. That would allow the developers to avoid paying Apple’s standard fee of up to 30 percent of their sales.
The judge banned these so-called anti-steering rules starting in December. In October, Apple appealed the verdict and requested a stay of her injunction until the appeals process was completed.
Judge Gonzalez Rogers denied Apple’s request after a hearing Tuesday. From the start of the hearing, which was held by videoconference, she appeared skeptical of Apple’s request.
When Mark Perry, a lawyer for Apple, argued that allowing developers to include links to outside websites within their apps would take months to figure out, the judge interrupted him to point out that the company had not asked for simply a short delay to work out the logistics.
“You did not ask for a few months,” she said. “You did not ask for six months. You didn’t ask for a limited amount of time. You asked for an across-the-board stay, which could take three, four, five years.”
Her written decision poked holes in Apple’s arguments that it would be difficult, time-consuming and potentially perilous to allow app developers to link to their own websites.
“Other than, perhaps, needing time to establish guidelines, Apple has provided no credible reason for the court to believe that the injunction would cause the professed devastation,” Judge Gonzalez Rogers wrote. “Users can open browsers and retype links to the same effect; it is merely inconvenient, which then only works to the advantage of Apple.”
Tuesday’s ruling is not the final word. Apple said it would seek a reversal of the judge’s decision with a federal appeals court.
“Apple believes no additional business changes should be required to take effect until all appeals in this case are resolved,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement.
The specifics of what Apple would have to alter if an injunction was upheld are unclear. Some have speculated that developers could offer their own competing payment methods within the App Store, but Apple has disagreed with those interpretations of the judge’s ruling.