With WWDC just two days away, Apple probably could have done without a full-blown developer PR crisis plastered all over the news. Yet Apple's decision to add, freeze, and then threaten to remove Hey.com's email app from the App Store has sparked a very significant outcry from App Store developers, industry analysts, onlookers, and customers bereft of ideas as to how Apple can continue to justify some of its App Store policies, and its treatment of developers.
Catching you up
In case you missed it (unlikely, but humor us), earlier this week a new email app, Hey Email, was approved, then rejected (sort of) from the App Store. The app was made by the creators of Basecamp, co-founded by David Heinemeier Hansson. To put a face to a name, you might recognize him from another Apple controversy last year, the Apple Card gender discrimination fiasco, which Hansson was one of the first to blow the whistle on.
The response of DHH was, understandably, that this was a shakedown
So why was Hey Email singled out? In short, to use Hey Email you have to pay a $99-a-year subscription fee. That fee is not available for purchase through the App Store's in-app-purchases function but must be bought from the Hey.com website. According Apple's rejection letter, App Store guidelines state that if an app that operates services across multiple platforms lets users access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired elsewhere, those items "must also be available as in-app purchases."
The response of DHH was, understandably, that this was a shakedown, and that the only reason Apple was saying this was that the app in its current form deprived Apple of the 30% cut it gets from all app sales, including in-app-purchases.
Hey Email CEO Jason Fried wrote a letter to Apple in response, in which he spoke of Apple driving a wedge between customers and businesses. He argued that if someone signs up for a product through the App Store, not the business itself, they are technically Apple customers, not customers of the business:
"When someone signs up for your product in the App Store, they aren't technically your customer anymore - they are essentially Apple's customer. They pay Apple, and Apple then pays you. So that customer you've spent years of time, treasure, and reputation earning, is handed over to Apple. And you have to pay Apple 30% for the privilege of doing so!"
This system, Fried says, it not conducive to good customer service, as developers can't help customers with requests about refunds, credit card changes, discounts, trials, exceptions, payments, non-profit discounts, educational discounts, and more. The response to queries about all of these has to be "speak to Apple."
As noted, the Hey Email team and Hansson were outraged by Apple's response. DHH said that Apple's rejection letter was "preposterously false and inconsistent", noting Basecamp's own app which has offered access to subscription content bought elsewhere for years, as well as notable other services like Netflix, Slack and Microsoft Outlook which do the same. Rep. David Cicilline, chair of the house antitrust committee which is currently seeking testimony from Tim Cook regarding antitrust matters called Apple's 30% cut "Highway robbery".
In response to growing clamor, Phil Schiller doubled down on Apple's decision, noting the app should never have been approved in the first place according to Apple's policies.
Apple's full rejection letter sent to Jason Fried also came under plenty of scrutiny. John Siracusa noted that Apple's stance was "extremely flimsy" and mocked:
Who is Apple protecting with this stance? The poor iOS user who might download the free Hey app and be shocked to learn that it doesn't function without an account? …or maybe it's about that 30% cut of in-app purchases? Yep, a real stumper.
As Rene Ritchie notes, surely it would be preferable that a customer gets to decide for themselves if an app provides a good experience or not:https://twitter.com/reneritchie/status/1273752637909995527?s=21
The letter was even seen by some as overtly threatening, thanks notably to a phrase which stated: "We are happy to continue to support you in your app business and offer you the solutions to provide your services for free - so long as you follow and the respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow."
The final kicker was that Apple was kind enough to send the email to the press, reportedly before it even reached the Hey team.
I have some questions
Developers we spoke to about this issue, and developers tweeting publicly were of a single mind, not only does Apple's treatment of Hey Email seem to be unfair, but Apple's policy and the application of the rules and exceptions seem to be somewhat arbitrary. Mocking Phil Schiller's claim that "You download the app and it doesn't work", someone even created a website of other apps on the App Store which do exactly this, yet remain on the App Store untouched.
Notable culprits include Netflix, which you can't use without a subscription, Nintendo Switch, GitHub, Google Docs, and more. You can peruse the whole list for yourself, and you'll note that not all of these apps need paid subscriptions to use, but that's not the point. The point is that there are plenty of apps from major developers on the store that behave exactly like Hey Email, yet with which Apple seemingly has no problem. The argument being that Phil Schiller's reasoning doesn't stand up to scrutiny. If Apple thinks that an app you can't use without signing in to or acquiring a subscription is a bad experience, why do these other apps get a free pass?
One possible explanation offered by Apple was the distinction between apps for businesses and apps for consumers. According to Protocol:
Apple told me that its actual mistake was approving the app in the first place when it didn't conform to its guidelines. Apple allows these kinds of client apps — where you can't sign up, only sign in — for business services but not consumer products. That's why Basecamp, which companies typically pay for, is allowed on the App Store when Hey, which users pay for, isn't.
John Gruber, has done an excellent job deconstructing this argument, and further notes that the other possible exception of 'Reader apps' is a little more clear but again seems inconsistent:
At some level there's a clear distinction here — Netflix and Kindle are clearly consumption services. But Dropbox? Dropbox is a lot closer to an email or messaging service like Hey than it is to Netflix or Kindle. The stuff in my Dropbox account is every bit as personal as the stuff in my email account. When you put Dropbox in the same bucket with Netflix and Amazon Kindle, it seems to me like the distinction is not so much between what is and isn't a "reader" app or what is or isn't a "business" app, but between companies which are too big for Apple to push around and those they can.
Earlier this week, we caught up with Wil Shipley to talk about some of his ideas for making the App Store a better place for developers. Since then, the Hey Email fiasco has highlighted that Apple's policies need a serious overhaul, and Wil's ideas, echoed by the wider developer community, show that it's very hard to take Apple's treatment of Hey Email seriously when you think about the incident in the wider context of the App Store as a whole.
Hey Email is not the first app to fall foul of App Store review, and its team is not the first to feel downtrodden by Apple's App Store policies. Now more than ever, WWDC seems like it could have been the time for Apple to really make an effort to try and repair relations with some of its developers. But what could that look like?
Wil is a programmer of 36 years and an eight-time Apple Design Awards winner. A 32 year veteran of Cocoa, he co-created the first shipping graphical web browser for Cocoa, OmniWeb, and the first PDF viewer for Cocoa, OmniPDF. He even helped on the Concurrence project, which would later become Apple's 'Keynote' software. In 2004 he co-founded Delicious Monster and built Delicious Library, a cataloging app for physical items. For the past six years, he's been working on Delicious Dwelling, an app that lets people enter floorplans for their spaces and place furniture in them.
We spoke to Wil about some of his ideas for improving the App Store and developer relations. Before the Hey Email saga, these represented a real stepping stone for moving forward and improving the lives of developers. Now, it seems critical that Apple does something to address the situation, and not only do Wil's ideas show how Apple could at least begin to remedy the situation, the core ideas highlight just how inconsistent Apple's treatment of Hey Email really is.
Wil has been developing for the Mac App Store since its inception and iOS since 2009. A joy at first, Wil says that whilst lots of things about Apple's App Stores have improved over time, there have been some downsides too. Two major problems Wil highlighted were App Store ads and the lack of a platform for paid upgrades.
App Store ads
Wil says that "no customers want" ads in searches, and we heartily agree. "Ads don't really benefit developers, either," says Wil. "Sure, companies with deep pockets can jump above companies with higher ratings or more relevance to what the user was searching for, but the end result of this is other developers end up having to buy ads just to get back to the ranking they deserved in the first place." And these ads don't even benefit Apple, says Wil, because in the long run they confuse customers and can often stop them getting to the best solutions and software.
This isn't just harming smaller developers either; go search for Netflix on the App Store, the first result you get is Disney+.
It's also a total money-making racket, think about it. Apple makes money from a developer who pays for search ads, and then they take money from the developer counter-buying ads so that their app can appear at the top of searches for their own app. Furthermore, whichever one the customer picks, Apple takes 30% of sales and in-app-purchases. And don't forget developers pay $100 a year just for the privilege of being developers. In his WWDC survey Wil notes:
Right now if a customer searches for my iOS app by exact name, the first result to come up is a competitor (roughly in the same space) who paid for an ad. Which is bonkers because my iOS app is a free add-on to my macOS app, so the competitor's product wouldn't help the customer. You're doing a huge disservice to your customers, and you're pitting developers against each other.
This isn't just harming smaller developers either; go search for Netflix on the App Store, the first result you get is Disney+. In what world is that a better experience than downloading an app that requires a subscription before you can use it?
The other issue is a lack of paid software updates on the App Store. To those of us who are very used to free software updates, this might raise some eyebrows, but Wil explains it well:
One huge advantage of letting us charge means we can keep supporting our stuff and not go bankrupt. No other business in existence gets a customer who pays them once and then is on the hook for free stuff forever. It's not how you sell groceries or DVDs or gas or clothes or hardware or books or literally anything.
Currently, developers have two choices, make all-new apps, or give their updates away for free. "Apple's solution so far has been to just say, 'Use a subscription'" notes Wil, "but users generally hate renting software, and really hate when they can't open the files they've created with a piece of software because their subscription has lapsed. For apps that create documents, I consider subscriptions a form of ransomware, really."
From speaking to Wil, it seems that the lack of a paid update option really hurts developers. Not the huge companies who don't rely on their apps for revenue, or the ones who create free apps loaded with ads and no support, but all the ones caught in the middle. "Literally every independent Apple developer I know is struggling right now," Wil says. "Sure, there are some notable big players who are making bank, but those players also tend to be cross-platform, so they're not really bringing any real value to the Apple ecosystem."
Literally every independent Apple developer I know is struggling right now
Wil notes how Apple's current setup is cultivating a lot of 'shovelware' on the App Store, thousands of limited utility apps thrown together with little thought for design, ugly ads and no support that still make developers money:
If you do a search on the App Store for almost any category of app you'll see the results — tons of knock-off apps full of ads or scammy subscriptions as if anyone wants that.
Wil believes Apple is risking "wiping out" all of its Apple-only independent developers and the innovative, groundbreaking software that they can create. He's already seen developer friends jumping the App Store ship for companies like Airbnb or Lyft, and talented developers, in particular, will be the first to go. Other developers we spoke to about this felt the same way.
So why has this gone on for so long? Probably because Apple is cashing in from the App Store hand over fist. Services revenue represents one of Apple's fastest-growing and most important revenue streams. According to a recent Bloomberg report, third-party developers generated more than $46 billion in revenue for Apple in the last fiscal year. As another developer noted, a lot of these complaints tend to come from the developers who make the highest quality software, but perhaps not the software on 99% of phones. It seems reasonable to assume that the vast majority of iOS users would probably be quite shocked or confused to learn that there is some kind of large and growing rift between and Apple and its developers. Furthermore, Apple doesn't earn any revenue from 84% of apps in the App Store, which means the apps and developers affected by some of these issues is actually quite a small portion of the ecosystem.
Not only do the problems that Wil has mentioned (shovelware, search ads, lack of paid software updates) highlight some of the intense pressures that developers in the community face. They also fly in the face of Apple's argument against Hey Email, the argument that says Apple is somehow doing us all a favor and creating a better App Store by clamping down on this issue. Why is an app that requires a subscription before you can use it a worse experience than say, searching for 'Netflix' on the App Store and getting 'Disney+' as your first result? Is it worse than an App Store filled with 'shovelware' that has been created with the sole purpose of making money, with no thought or regard to design, utility, or longevity?
We have all been asking for years now for these changes.
Wil fills out the developer survey from Apple every year and says that every year, nothing changes. His ideas about how Apple could make the App Store and developing better for everyone are clear, and developers we spoke to all agreed, as did many in response to Wil's original post last week. The changes developers seem to want the most for all the reasons previously stated are an end to paid search ads in the App Store, and a nominal fee for major updates and upgrades to apps to make supporting apps long term financially viable for developers. As Wil notes in his survey:
We have all been asking for years now for these changes. I've filled out three or four of these surveys before. I know Phil specifically says he doesn't want to hear about upgrade pricing anymore, but Phil also is working for the world's richest company, which sells hardware and gives software away. Those of us who only sell software can't afford to give it away.
Wil also highlights how Apple's 30% software cut (the crux of the Hey Email debate) seems a bit heavy-handed and suggests lowering it to 20%, just as some other online stores are doing. By making these changes, Apple could, over time, encourage more developers to create more, higher-quality apps, which surely everyone can agree would be best in the long run.
There is likely no quick fix to a problem that seems to have been boiling under the surface for years. Yet the Hey Email controversy this week has made one thing clear. Apple developers who have previously remained silent and complicit in Apple's App Store policies have for the first time stepped out in force to say 'enough is enough.'
Having likely pre-recorded WWDC's keynotes, and with no live audience to contend with, don't expect any kind of change in the programming from Apple next week. But make no mistake, developer relations are likely very high on Apple's priority list just now, and ignoring these clamors for much longer could end up costing Apple dearly.
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