How Apple's iPhone Almost Became An Exclusive Xbox Handheld And Why It Didn't Happen

Xbox Cloud Gaming iPhone
Somewhere in a parallel universe, iPhone owners are accessing and playing Xbox exclusive games on their iOS handsets (and iPad tablets), because Microsoft and Apple hammered out an agreement to allow Xbox Cloud Gaming titles on the App Store. But in this universe, discussions broke down before it could happen, unfortunately, with different stories as to the sticking point.

What ended up happening is Microsoft ultimately brought iOS players into the fray by supporting the cloud gaming service on the Safari browser. The service is supported on iPhone XR/XS and newer iPhone devices, as well as iPad Air (3rd and 4th gen), iPad Pro 11 (2nd gen), iPad mini (5th gen), and iPad (8th gen).

Xbox Cloud Gaming on iOS could have been a much bigger deal, though, had Microsoft and Apple came to terms on an agreement. And there were talks between the two—Sean Hollister at The Verge posted some email exchanges between the two companies, which outline discussions on how exactly the cloud gaming apps should be offered.

In short, Apple wanted Microsoft to include code for its streaming technology into every individual game app, whereas Microsoft argued that would create a "bad experience" for iOS users. Instead, Microsoft wanted to inject its streaming technology into its main Gaming Pass app and not each app, similar to how watchOS apps work.

Why is that? Microsoft envisioned an updating nightmare if each game app included its streaming tech. Any time its streaming service would get an update, hundreds of individual apps would have to be updated as well. This would be costly and time consuming, and potentially lead to bloat on iPhone devices.

"If we have a single streaming tech app, it will be around 150MB, but the other apps will only be roughly 30MB and will not need to be updated when the streaming tech is updated. This will be a better experience for users," Lori Wright, head of business development at Xbox, wrote in an email.

Wright also said that the issues outlined in her email would "create frustration and confusion for customers, resulting in a sub-part experience on Apple devices relative to the equivalent experiences on all other platforms." Determined to make it happen, though, Wright said Microsoft was willing to port exclusive AAA Xbox games to iOS, creating an "incredibly exciting opportunity for iOS users."

It would have been, too, but it never happened. According to Microsoft, it was Apple that rejected the proposal because it wasn't willing to budge on having Microsoft's streaming tech in every single game app, which Microsoft viewed as "unrealistic from a support and engineering perspective."

That might not be the only reason, though. A month ago, Apple App Store games manager Mark Grimm suggested to The Verge that the dispute came down to in-app purchases. Microsoft didn't want to include an IAP system into each game, and preferred to process payments on its own, then give Apple its cut.

"Unfortunately, Microsoft proposed a version of xCloud that was not compliant with our App Store Review Guidelines, specifically the requirement to use in-app purchase to unlock additional features or functionality within an app," Apple spokesperson Adam Dema said in a statement.

Xbox Cloud Gaming CVP Kareem Choudhry says that's inaccurate, telling the site the issues were always the user experience, and that Microsoft shifted its focus to a browser-based solution after Apple repeatedly rejected its proposals.

As is usually the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.