Apple has a uniquely loyal customer base, cultivated by spending the past twenty-odd years, in particular and continuously, carefully balancing its corporate priorities and users’ satisfaction. It has long prided itself on being an accessibly premium brand: not necessarily expensive, but definitely not cheap. It does not “ship junk”. It has expanded its range of pricing over time — iPhone models are available, in the U.S., for anywhere from $430 through $1,600. Some phones are available for less than $430, but they are often sad plastic affairs that are nowhere near as nice as an iPhone SE. You can quibble with individual parts of Apple’s product line, but nothing it makes would be shameful to be sitting on your desk.
Apple is increasingly leveraging its customer base to maximize individual spending on services, accessories, and accessories for those accessories, but it is its cautious yet determined rollout of ads that makes me most nervous. Apple is risking its dedicated customer relationships because competitors’ operating systems suck worse, and we got the latest taste of what we can expect beginning yesterday:
Apple today rolled out new ad placements in the App Store on the iPhone, allowing developers to advertise their apps in more places, including the main Today tab and in the “You Might Also Like” section at the bottom of individual app listings.
Just hours later, several prominent developers have complained about distasteful ads for gambling apps appearing in their own App Store listings outside of their control, including Marco Arment, Simon Støvring, and others. The issue was also highlighted in a tweet shared by MacStories editor-in-chief Federico Viticci.
Some users reported seeing shady ads in apps for kids and, in more than one case, sobriety apps. That last one is particularly inexcusable. I was unable to replicate it, though I was seeing ads for gambling apps in basically every other “You Might Also Like” section last night.
Whatever issue caused online casinos to dominate the App Store advertising marketplace appears to have been corrected. Today, I have mostly seen ads for games. Not good games — not the kind of games that top the charts and get amazing reviews — but more like the ones that are a thinly-veiled vehicle for heavy spending through in-app purchases. Sometimes I see ads for more legitimate apps, like Booking.com’s, but I am more often subjected to the kind of questionable products I used to see in Flash banner ads in the early 2000s.
I cannot speak to how this feels for developers, other users, or Apple shareholders and employees. From my perspective, this experiment is not a promising development for the road ahead. It feels like a bait and switch: my loyalty in buying products that are better for me as a user is being tested because shareholders need to see more services revenue. Apple knows most people will not switch because it relentlessly promotes its own services across its systems or because there are ads for third-party apps all over the App Store — or, if as rumoured, it rolls out ads in Maps. But it will feel a little bit scummier every time I go to download an app or get directions.
I am not a business person. I am sure there are fine arguments to be made by armchair CEOs on Twitter about how this is a reasonable decision for bolstering the price of Apple stock or a minor aesthetic grievance for a device that mostly functions the same as it did last week. But I am equally certain a company does not improve customer satisfaction by ensuring no money is left on the table. There is barely competition among airlines, so they all charge you for the privilege of taking clothing to your destination in a suitcase. The lack of choice in operating systems means vendors can increasingly extract money from customers, happiness be damned. What are you going to do — switch to Android and Windows? Good luck.
It is not too late for Apple to simply stop.