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Monopoly Online

The Steam problem, but everywhere else too.

With some buzz about the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA) ( S. 2992: AICOA), it’s important to examine what systems like app stores, marketplaces, and search engines really do and look like.

My general position is favoring competition, but I think it’s as important to ask what competition looks like in a digital space as to ask why we don’t have it. We don’t have it, and the economy and people are hurt from not having it. Anti-competitive practices don’t help, but there are frictions that are also in play.

Online distribution

What a search engine like Google, a marketplace like Amazon, and an app store like Apple’s or Google’s all have in common is that they are middlemen. The customer wants to get something or get somewhere, and they can’t just get it or go there directly. They need assistance due to the enormity of the world. So Google lets them try to find information or a resource that fits their needs. Amazon lets them seek products matching their need. Apple app store and Google app store both let them find the software for their mobiles.

The bill’s attempt is modest. It makes it illegal to engage in stacking the deck. But it doesn’t, won’t promote real competition, which is a harder problem.

If you had competition, what would it look like? You want to search for banana peels, for your banana peel collection, so you go to different engines and search each one? I do that today. I go on duckduckgo and search, and if it doesn’t turn up what I need, and I think Google might, I’ll search on Google.

For a marketplace, same thing. You want to buy banana peels, so you go on Walmart and Amazon and see who has the best prices. Or if you find the prices on Amazon too high you try Walmart as a fallback.

With the app stores, it’s worse, of course. Because there’s limited options and each phone is doing the same things differently so that there’s not compatibility across Android and iOS.

But even if you stick to marketplaces (and assume you have accounts with each, no onboarding friction), it’s still a mess to find things across multiple stores, to make multiple purchases means multiple shipments. And if there are more than two big players, how many can people reasonably go through to buy banana peels?

Isn’t the problem that these middlemen exist as middlemen? That there isn’t a broader interface that cuts through all that friction, lets you see products?

If all competition means is that a bunch of new silly names enter the market that look mostly the same as the existing firms, that seems a waste. True competition will require different firms with different and limited objectives to each. Replacing the singular middlemen with mixtures of smaller businesses that cooperate.

To make that work, though, other changes would be needed. Amazon and Walmart have efficiencies of scale, they have warehouses that can combine ordered merchandise into single shipments, they have fluid logistics that move products around the country all day and night.

And there are environmental benefits to that. There are cost benefits to that. How can you replicate it without forcing oligopoly? How can a free system do the same thing?

Of course, there are frictions. A new store means a new login, entering your data, learning a new interface. Sellers have the same problem. Each new middleman means they have to replicate their process to another, slightly different platform. If they have dozens of products and dozens of middlemen, that’s a lot of work to keep things updated. If they have to fit in with shipping logistics, that’s a whole other set of processes that get replicated.

And it’s not like the existing options work that well, anyway. Amazon product listings are an ugly mess most of the time. Google can find some things, but it fails wildly on others. And the state of mobile operating systems, much less apps, leaves them looking like toys. Major newspaper apps don’t have a find-on-page function! Something every browser has had for decades!

This bill should pass, but it will only marginally improve the broken stupidity of the status quo.

A better system would require several changes, few to law, some to business structures, and most to software. An identity system would remove onboarding. Outside of a few members-only stores, you don’t have to fill out paperwork to buy something in stores. A vendor-agnostic logistics system would allow for product listings to be added and curated separately and without a particular middleman.

Products could be provisioned to warehouses and shipped based on similar functions that middlemen perform, but without the need for middlemen to act as gatekeepers. Returns would be handled in a similar way. This would create a class of independent warehousing and logistics firms who would follow industry standards to fulfill their functions.

The state of mobiles is probably the most difficult. Proper separation of OS from userspace, with all the security concerns inherent in software, is very difficult. Mobiles are kind of crappy anyway. I’m not really sure what it will take to fix this mess. There are all kinds of simple things one imagines using the mobile for, that is either impossible or requires a lot of separate services today. The gap between the science fiction ideal of a pocket computer and the thing you can buy today is as big as the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. And that’s not something an antitrust bill does anything to address.

The Steam Trade-off as a Linux User

Thoughts about Steam and Linux as the former faces new competition.

With the excitement around Epic launching their own store and the advent of fresh competition for Valve’s Steam, here are some thoughts from a Linux gamer perspective.

First, what is the meaning of Steam or any storefront? They are a middleman, providing a marketplace for games to be bought and sold. But they are also a steward of that market, providing a common tissue for the delivery of the games, for the discussion and discovery, and all these other features. Some have more popular off-platform competitors. Others are too ingrained in the platform to be competed on without an alternative platform.

But one of the thing that Valve is doing with Steam, which it seems unlikely that Epic or any of the newcomers will do, is to spend resources in the interest of Linux-based gaming. They have supported Linux for several years now, including for their own games. They are doubling-down on this support with the SteamPlay/Proton integration that allows for Windows games to be run on Linux through an implementation of the Windows APIs.

Part of what you pay for when you pay the “Steam tax” (or the “Epic tax” or any other share of a sale that goes to an intermediary) is for the other activities a platform or marketplace delivers. Whether that’s Linux support or community forums or ARGs, the business decides what to deliver and thereby justify their fee.

The option of going to Epic’s store, or to other stores, is weaker for Linux due to lack of support. Steam deciding to make Proton such a first-class offering only makes that proposition weaker. For Linux gaming at the moment, Steam is the most attractive option, and there are no signs of that changing soon.

Steam currently supports gaming for Linux, but if they didn’t, Linux gamers would keep using WINE directly, as we did before 2013. As long as Valve is investing in Linux, though, their tax seems like a fair deal for Linux users, when the alternative is Epic’s lower tax but nothing for Linux.