Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for June 9th, 2021

WWDC is a Developers’ Conference After All

Apple’s relationship with the developer community has often been fractured, but I am not sure there has been such outright animosity and grief with the company as that expressed in the past year. The arguments expressed on the blogs of many developers — from Marco Arment to Becky Hansmeyer to Michael Tsai — are the norm, not the exception.

The developer community is deeply unhappy. While the opening keynote of WWDC has undoubtably become more of a consumer marketing affair, the rest of the conference is just for developers — and they have long needed to feel heard.

Dan Moren, Six Colors:

Usually, the hours before Apple’s keynote event are filled with speculation and excitement, but this year there is far more frustration and antipathy than I can remember seeing in my decade and a half covering Apple. There’s always been some degree of dissatisfaction, especially amongst developers, but it’s hard to escape that the current story about Apple is less about its products and more about its attitude.

[…]

WWDC marks Apple’s opportunity to take control of the story. Whatever its executives announce when they take the stage later today has the potential to dominate the tech news cycle for days and weeks to come.

But the real question is whether, by sheer compelling nature or simply by volume, it can drown out the existing narrative.

So, how did Apple do?

Well, that depends on which issues you would like to focus on. Fraud is a hot-button problem, with a lengthy story about App Store scams appearing in the Washington Post on Sunday.

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Related to this, Apple clarified the language around App Store discovery fraud (5.6.3) to more specifically call out any type of manipulations of App Store charts, search, reviews and referrals. The former would mean to crack down on the clearly booming industry of fake App Store ratings and reviews, which can send a scam app higher in charts and search.

[…]

But a new update to these guidelines seems to be an admission that Apple may need a little help on this front. It says developers can now directly report possible violations they find in other developers’ apps. Through a new form that standardizes this sort of complaint, developers can point to guideline violations and any other trust and safety issues they discover. Often, developers notice the scammers whose apps are impacting their own business and revenue, so they’ll likely turn to this form now as a first step in getting the scammer dealt with.

This could be beneficial to developers who may stumble across fraud, but it does not users, and particularly not those who have found themselves close to becoming victims but did not fall for a scam. While I get that a reporting mechanism could introduce a new vector for misuse by less-knowledgeable users, I still cannot believe there is nowhere for an average person to say that they found a scam.

The long-requested TestFlight for Mac is finally real, as part of the new Xcode Cloud service. It will also be possible to A/B test App Store pages, something else many developers have wanted for a long time. So that’s the good news.

What about the thorny problem of some high-profile developers getting access to platform features and APIs that most do not? For example, it was possible to get a refund for Hulu and Netflix subscriptions bought through in-app purchases from within their apps — something developers are generally unable to offer. While there is a promising new beginRefundRequest method, it just displays the App Store refund request sheet within the app with the same two-day turnaround, still controlled by Apple.

I do not know that there was a single developer who expected Apple to relent on its in-app purchase policy. It remains unchanged, and likely will until lawmakers demand a different policy.

A story today by Jacob Kastrenakes, of the Verge, noted — almost as an aside — that Patreon is allowed to offer third-party payment services in its app. For example, I tried upgrading one of my subscriptions to a level that had entirely digital perks, and Patreon threw up its own payment form. I tried subscribing to a creator account and once again saw Patreon’s own form, not an in-app purchase dialog. You can try it by subscribing to my perk-less Patreon account. I am insufferable and I am sorry.

I do not know that this is enough to cool Apple’s tense relationship with developers. Judging by the number of people I saw taking issue with Apple’s annual payout slide, I doubt it. I imagine all of the presenters this year are thrilled they did not have to talk about how great the App Store is in a room full of people who resent it, but the reasons for their disdain continue.

Open Rates and Mail’s Market Share

Apple’s announcement earlier this week that it was turfing analytics for email opens has made quite a few people mad. I think their concerns are misplaced. They should be less worried that changes to Mail across Apple’s platforms are going to mess up their statistics, and more concerned that their analytics were wrong all along.

Let’s start with Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab:

These images are the only way newsletter senders know if their emails are actually being opened. And that open rate is an important part of how newsletter publishers sell ads — as well as how they judge the relative success or failure of the email.

Email open rates are notoriously unreliable. Some sources will say that open rates are underreported; others will say that they are way too high. That is because open rates are determined by the number of times that a tracking pixel in an email is downloaded. If users have images turned off, it will not be triggered; if a user’s email client automatically goes to the next message when an email is deleted, it may register as the email being opened again and again.

That explains statistics like the ones quoted by Benton:

There have long been ways to block tracking pixels, but they were mostly only used by nerds like me; this is Apple Mail, the dominant platform for email in the U.S. and elsewhere. According to the most recent market-share numbers from Litmus, for May 2021, 93.5% of all email opens on mobile come in Apple Mail on iPhones or iPads. On desktop, Apple Mail on Mac in responsible for 58.4% of all email opens.

Those numbers are crazy high — much higher than Apple’s device market share because Apple users spend a lot more time receiving and reading email than users on Android, Windows, or Linux. Overall, 61.7% of all emails are opened in Apple Mail, on one device or another.2 So even a small change in how it handles email has a huge impact on the newsletter industry writ large.

I find these numbers derived from hundreds of millions of email opens literally impossible to believe. These are from a worldwide report, but iOS market share does not exceed the mid-60% range in any country, and only accounts for about one out of every four smartphones sold. Yet, according to Litmus, the default Mail app accounts for well over nine out of every ten email opens in a mobile email app. Do Android users — of which there are many more of around the world — simply never check their email on their phones? I doubt it. Litmus also reports that Microsoft Outlook, the ubiquitous email client of offices worldwide, has only 40% of the desktop email client market, far below Mail’s 58%. But Windows still has a 76% share of the desktop PC market compared to MacOS’ 17%, a ratio of about 4:1 that is mirrored in Wikimedia’s analytics — and Apple’s Mail app is not available on Windows.

Litmus acknowledges a mesasuring error in its recent stats, stating that Gmail may be underrepresented. It is unclear whether that is all Gmail sources, just Gmail on the web, or just Gmail mobile apps. But mobile email was apparently dominated by iPhones and iPads to a similar degree for all of 2020. These sky-high iPhone figures are not an anomaly in Litmus’ data, and they remain completely disproportionate to actual iPhone market share.

The footnote in the second paragraph is a disclaimer from Benton that email client market share statistics are unreliable. No kidding. But these numbers are so clearly off the mark that I do not think they should be used until Litmus can provide a clear explanation of why iPhones are so overrepresented. Benton’s explanation makes no sense; since when is there a dearth of email-using Windows and Android users? Alex Williams’ theory gets closer to the truth, I think: all of Google’s Gmail clients may simply report “Gmail”. The fact is that these numbers may never make sense because automated email analytics simply are not very good.

In the grand scheme of things, this may be a small point, but it bothers me to see these numbers being cited by Benton and approvingly quoted by Casey Newton. The signal they should send is not that something like 90% of mobile audiences will be unmeasurable, but that these analytics never should have been used by marketers and email administrators.

At WWDC 2021, Apple Again Showed That Accessibility Truly Is for Everyone

Steven Aquino, Forbes:

Many of the new functionalities Apple announced this week at the company’s annual WWDC keynote have serious ramifications for accessibility. Study Apple carefully long enough and it’s not hard to understand why; not only is this a reflection of their institutional commitment to the disability community, it also underscores the idea that accessibility, conceptually and pragmatically, is not a domain solely for disabled people. Although accessibility software should (and always will) prioritize people with disabilities first and foremost, you needn’t have a disability to reap benefits from larger text on your iPhone. Accessibility is inclusive of everyone, regardless of ability.

Following last month’s unveiling of new discrete accessibility features, Apple on Monday showed off a slew of mainstream, marquee features spanning Apple’s five operating systems—iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS—that are eminently useful as de-facto accessibility features, whether you’re disabled or not.

Great roundup of features that are unfortunately often seen as marginal ease-of-use improvements for many, but are critically important for those with accessibility needs. Live Text is one of those features that I know I am going to use often to convert written notes into digital documents.