Apple reportedly strong-armed ProtonMail to add in-app purchases

ProtonMail is a popular email app, and it’s been free for years. However, the developer behind the app says Apple forced it to add in-app purchases.

A new report from The Verge details how ProtonMail was forced by Apple to monetize its primarily free app, with details that are very similar to other stories we’ve heard in the past. The developer told Congress that Apple had initially approved its free app years ago, but, recently, Apple demanded they add in-app purchases. The developer added that, when they tried to inform customers of the change, “Apple threatened to remove the app and blocked all updates”.

ProtonMail CEO Andy Yen says that there is a lot of fear in the development community, especially as it relates to feedback against Apple. Despite the fact many companies, including Epic Games and Microsoft, are going public with their unhappiness with Apple, many developers can’t do the same. They can’t because they fear retaliation from Apple, which could include getting their app pulled from the App Store.

Yen says:

There’s a lot of fear in the space right now; people are completely petrified to say anything.

The details

According to Yen, Apple’s demand came in 2018. The chief executive says that Apple “stumbled upon something in the app that mentioned there were paid plans”, and, as a result, told the developer that it needed to add in-app purchases to its iOS app.

There’s nothing you can say to that. They are judge, jury, and executioner on their platform, and you can take it or leave it. You can’t get any sort of fair hearing to determine whether it’s justifiable or not justifiable, anything they say goes.

To save its business, ProtonMail didn’t see any other way around it: so it added in-app purchases.

We simply complied in order to save our business.

Yen says that there was a period of a month that they could not update ProtonMail at all due to a hold up on Apple’s part. That include security updates. Yen adds that Apple was threatening to pull the app entirely along the way if the company delayed adding IAP. ProtonMail raised the cost of its service by 26 percent to “satisfy Apple’s needs”.

When Apple charges 30 percent extra … we don’t have a 30 percent margin! It’s very odd to find a business with 30 percent profit margins,” he explains. “We had to raise the prices, and we weren’t even able to communicate to our customers that they could get it cheaper from our website.

Interestingly, Yen says that Apple’s claims to be a privacy-focused company are actually undermined by its own rules in the App Store. Especially when it comes to encrypted email apps like ProtonMail, and he makes a valid point:

Google exists by selling your data to third-party advertisers to subsidize the services you get for free, but that’s very bad for user privacy because companies are incentivized to abuse your privacy as much as possible. The alternative to that is the subscription model … we have a certain percentage of customers who pay and that’s what sustains us. That makes us hit the 30 percent fee, but the ad-based models don’t have to pay, and that discourages business models that are pro-privacy.

Of course, Yen notes that competing with Apple directly while also getting taxed by that company is pretty rough.

But, the rules?

As noted in the original report, Apple has made changes to the rules for the App Store when it comes to some of these elements. As noted above, Yen feels like communication with customers is severely limited, especially as it relates to costs. But, Apple’s rule changes cover this and avoiding IAP requirements, specifically for email apps:

The elephant in the room is that Apple changed its rules in September, allowing free companion apps, including email clients, to evade the IAP requirement. Shouldn’t some of these points matter less today, at least for apps like his? But Yen says ProtonMail hasn’t yet bothered to try removing IAP, partly because the rules as written would still keep him from telling his customers that there’s even an upgrade to be had.

However, Yen says that up to now, ProtonMail hasn’t considered removing the IAP.

That surprised me because on September 11th, Apple clarified to us that it wasn’t prohibiting app developers from communicating with their customers outside the App Store, and that it would look at tweaking the language of its rules to say that more clearly. But sure enough, nearly a month later, App Store guideline 3.1.3(f) still prohibits “calls to action for purchase outside of the app.”

Today, Apple confirmed to us that interpretation is still correct: “free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web based tool” don’t need to use IAP as long as the apps themselves don’t offer purchases, and as long as the apps themselves don’t ask users to make purchases outside the app. Developers can advertise different pricing on the web, TV, billboards, or anywhere else outside the App Store, the company tells The Verge.

Yen says he doesn’t trust the rules Apple has set, saying they aren’t clear, and suggests they are obscure on purpose. He says that Apple’s justification for blocking ProtonMail at one point was over a rule that said apps shouldn’t “include irrelevant information”. As for app review? Yen says some of them might be predetermined:

They made a decision, and then it’s just about pointing to the relevant passages of the rules to justify the decision they’ve already made.

ProtonMail is also part of the Coalition for App Fairness, which launched earlier this year with other companies like Spotify, Epic Games, the Match Group, Deezer, and others trying to collectively make change happen within Apple’s and Google’s digital stores. Microsoft also just released 10 new principles for the Microsoft Store on Windows 10 that’s built using guidelines set by the CAF.

The other stories

Of course, there are other stories. For instance, the original report includes one from developer Belle Cooper, the co-developer of behavioral health tracking app

Even if it got approved, there’d be no guarantee that another reviewer in the future wouldn’t interpret the rules differently and reject the app, and force us to implement IAP all over again,” says Belle Cooper, co-developer of behavior-tracking app “We don’t really fear retaliation. It’s more that we don’t want to constantly live in fear (more than we already do) that they’ll suddenly reject us and force us into doing a whole bunch of work on their terms. It was a really stressful experience last time and threw a spanner in our plans for the app, and we’re nervous it might happen again.

Cooper said that she tried to argue with Apple back in 2017 when the company forced the app to have IAP, too:

I argued we were a “reader” app and they said no. I argued other apps were doing the same as us and pointed out some examples and they said we can’t discuss other apps. They allowed one or two important bug fix updates that they’d blocked after I spoke to them on the phone and promised to do what they asked for.

Since June, for instance, Apple has caught some heavy blowback for some seemingly crazy decisions regarding to the App Store and in-app purchases. After initially approving the HEY email app, Apple subsequently pulled it from the App Store because the app didn’t offer a way to pay for the service within the app, as was reported earlier this year:

Waugh and Basecamp didn’t think that rule applied. Hey does cost $99 a year, but users can’t sign up or pay within the iOS app. It’s an app for using an existing outside service, just like Basecamp’s eponymous platform — and Netflix and Slack and countless other apps. ‘So we were like, OK, maybe we just got the Monday morning reviewer,’ Basecamp co-founder and CTO David Heinemeier Hansson said. Lots of developers over the years have found that their app-review luck sometimes depended on who happened to be looking, and whether they’d had coffee yet. So Basecamp fixed more bugs, submitted a new version — 1.0.2 — and hoped for the best.

HEY was eventually approved after Basecamp added a free account option. And let’s not forget about WordPress, a free iOS app that Apple forced to add IAP earlier this year, too, and blocked updates along the way.

Consistency is key

The trouble for Apple here is that these stories are consistent, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room to claim these instances are “misunderstandings” or something else. So will we see Apple make some changes? What do you think?