Apple’s new App Store guidelines carve out loopholes for xCloud, Stadia, and other apps that Apple had blocked

Apple has issued new rules for its App Store in an attempt to address many of the issues that have come up over Apple’s governance of its digital storefront for iPhone devices, with updates for game streaming services, new rules for online classes, and fewer restrictions for in-app purchases on free email apps, which was the focus of Apple’s previous controversy with Hey.

Leading the changes is an explicit ruling on game streaming services like Google Stadia or Microsoft’s xCloud, which Apple tells CNBC are newly allowed — but the new rules show that each and every game must also be downloadable “directly from the App Store,” and every game update must be submitted to Apple individually before a company could stream it to users. That means that Microsoft or Google can’t build a single, overarching xCloud or Stadia app that contains access to all the games. But they can offer individual games on the App Store as separate pieces of software using their streaming tech, with a “catalog”-style app that collects and links out to those individual apps.

Additionally, all of those game streaming apps would still be subject to Apple’s usual App Store rules, including the company’s contentious 30 percent cut, which is currently the subject of Apple’s ongoing fight with Epic Games.

Microsoft and Google would have to radically change their proposed business models and jump through many hoops to get their cloud gaming services onto the iPhone this way — enough that it almost feels like Apple designed the rules so it could seem benevolent while still keeping xCloud and Stadia out. Google declined to comment on these changes, as did Nvidia, which has so far not managed to bring its GeForce Now service to iOS, either.

Here are the full guidelines on “streaming games,” though some mentions also appear elsewhere in Apple’s revised rules:

4.9 Streaming games

Streaming games are permitted so long as they adhere to all guidelines — for example, each game update must be submitted for review, developers must provide appropriate metadata for search, games must use in-app purchase to unlock features or functionality, etc. Of course, there is always the open Internet and web browser apps to reach all users outside of the App Store.

4.9.1 Each streaming game must be submitted to the App Store as an individual app so that it has an App Store product page, appears in charts and search, has user ratings and review, can be managed with ScreenTime and other parental control apps, appears on the user’s device, etc.

4.9.2 Streaming game services may offer a catalog app on the App Store to help users sign up for the service and find the games on the App Store, provided that the app adheres to all guidelines, including offering users the option to pay for a subscription with in-app purchase and use Sign in with Apple. All the games included in the catalog app must link to an individual App Store product page.

Also clarified in the updated rules: whether digital fitness or tutoring classes have to be billed through the App Store (with Apple’s cut). Per the new guidelines, “one-to-one experiences” do not have to be billed through the App Store, but “one-to-few or one-to-many services” do require the usual in-app purchase.

Lastly, rule 3.1.3(f) also adds a formal exception for “free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web based tool,” a category that Apple says includes VOIP, cloud storage, email services, and web hosting applications, which are now exempt from having to use Apple’s in-app purchase for subscriptions. Like the other rules, there are caveats: developers cannot offer purchases inside the app itself or include a call to action to purchase elsewhere.

The new rule here comes after Apple’s messy fight with Basecamp-developed email app Hey, which initially saw its updates rejected — and then allowed back into the App Store — due to fights over whether it was required to use Apple’s in-app purchase system (and its 30 percent fee). There was another fight with WordPress where its totally free app was seemingly forced to add in-app purchases until Apple backed down and apologized for “any confusion that we have caused.” Under the new rule, the Hey email app’s original implementation would also seem to be allowed, without the modifications that the company had to add for the free version of the app to get Apple to approve it.

Here’s Apple’s full App Store guidelines changelog.

Update, 1:50PM ET: Added Google no comment.

Correction, 2:00PM ET: Basecamp is the developer of Hey, not Bandcamp. We regret this error.

Update, 2:53PM ET: Added Nvidia no comment.