Apple has been causing quite a bit of a stir over the last week or so, with App Store reviewers deciding that an email app has run afoul of the digital storefront’s rules and, as a result, have blocked future updates unless some specific changes are made.
Now, in most cases when this happens, the developer(s) can fix the issue(s) and move on, getting the green light from Apple’s App Store reviewers and having their app readily available for folks to install on their supported devices. But in this particular case, it’s not that easy. What’s more, it’s all rolled up into an ongoing, and hard to ignore, antitrust case against Apple and its policies tied to the App Store’s fees.
Apple’s marketing chief, Phil Schiller, has weighed in on the subject — and decided to double down on essentially saying that Apple isn’t doing anything wrong here, and that the company doesn’t plan on making any changes to the rules associated with fees and its digital storefront anytime soon. That’s probably not the direction a lot of people expected Apple to go, but here we are.
And it’s less than a week away from the start of this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference.
This latest development comes from TechCrunch, who spoke with Schiller on the subject late yesterday. This kerfuffle revolves around an email app called “Hey”. It has a $99-per-year subscription attached to it, but the developers decided to skip Apple’s 30% fee for in-app purchases and offer customers the ability to sign up for the service outside of the app. It’s nothing new, but Apple has taken umbrage to the way the developers are handling things right now. As such, the company has made it clear that, to make sure that the app stays in the App Store –and that it supports future software updates and bug fixes– it needs to support in-app purchases.
According to Schiller, there are “many things” that the developers of Hey could do to get the app approved by the review board, and he hopes that the company does them. One of those appears to be a new splash page for when users open the app right now. As mentioned above, there isn’t a way to sign up for the subscription service within the app, and since Apple doesn’t allow for links within apps to bypass the in-app purchase options, it’s simply a page that informs the user they can’t sign up within the app.
Schiller says this is not the best app experience for iOS customers, and why, in part, the in-app purchase experience needs to be present:
You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store,” says Schiller. This, he says, is why Apple requires in-app purchases to offer the same purchasing functionality as they would have elsewhere.
This leads to another issue. Apple’s rules do require that apps that offer subscription services outside of the App Store must offer a way to reach that subscription within the app. As Schiller notes above, this is about the “experience”, but the problem is that Apple allows some categories of apps to bypass this rule altogether. As Apple notes, the exception is for “Reader” apps, and that email apps have never been given this exclusion.
We didn’t extend these exceptions to all software. Email is not and has never been an exception included in this rule.
However, there’s another way to look at it: apps from companies that are big enough to have some kind of leverage. Amazon Prime Video offers in-app purchases and rentals, for instance, and doesn’t have to fork over the normally requisite fees to Apple.
Schiller notes that one of the ways Hey can fix the situation is by offering different tiers, one paid and one free:
One way that Hay could have gone, Schiller says, is to offer a free or paid version of the app with basic email reading features on the App Store then separately offered an upgraded email service that worked with the Hey app on iOS on its own website. Schiller gives one more example: an RSS app that reads any feed, but also reads an upgraded feed that could be charged for on a separate site. In both cases, the apps would have functionality when downloaded on the store.
Things get interesting in the copy of the letter that Apple sent to Basecamp, which Schiller provided to TechCrunch. Here’s the interesting portion:
Thank you for being an iOS app developer. We understand that Basecamp has developed a number of apps and many subsequent versions for the App Store for many years, and that the App Store has distributed millions of these apps to iOS users. These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years. 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 respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow.
Apple goes out of its way to say that Basecamp’s other apps that are available in the App Store are free, and, as a result, “don’t contribute” any revenue to the App Store “over the last eight years”. The whole statement feels like Apple is trying to strong-arming Basecamp, basically waving the fact that they are nice enough to allow their other free apps to be available in the App Store. Now that Basecamp has a subscription-based app available, well, Apple wants a cut and maybe Basecamp should feel obligated to do so because Apple’s been so nice up to this point.
Basecamp does not have a plan to back down from its own position: where it doesn’t fork over 30% of its revenue to Apple just because Apple demands it. And Schiller has now made it a point to say that it isn’t backing down, either. The trouble is Apple holds all the cards, and if Basecamp wants to keep Hey available for iOS users it will have to follow Apple’s cues here.
And let’s be clear here, this is not just Basecamp raising concerns over antitrust issues with Apple and the App Store. We most recently reported that both Epic Games and Match Group (owners of dating apps like Tinder and Hinge) are raising concerns over Apple’s practices. And we can’t forget that Spotify has been one of the most vocal opponents to Apple’s fees to date.
But Apple is not a stranger to any of this, and it has stayed firm on the subject since day one. And now Schiller is basically saying that Apple won’t be changing anything related to its fees anytime soon, if ever.
So, how do you feel about all of this? Is Apple in the right? Or does the company need to change its ways?