Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Hey, Wait, I’ve Got a New Complaint

I cannot stop thinking about this Hey app situation.

It blows my mind that, with just a week to go until the year’s most important Apple developer conference, Apple decided on Monday to pick a fight with a high-profile developer. Discussions about Apple this week have not centred around the excitement of what might come in the next versions of iOS or MacOS, but about how developers have been treated by App Store policies and reviewers. The PR catastrophe is, of course, nothing on the actual impact these policies have on developers’ livelihoods, but it is still hard to believe that Apple is fighting this one out. Why not simply approve Hey’s bug fix update and deal with this in a couple of weeks?

But, hey, here we are.

First, it should be pointed out that there are several apps which seem to violate this policy. Fastmail is an email app that does not offer in-app purchases. At first launch, it displays only a login form and a link to the company’s documentation on its website. Registration and payment links are just a couple of taps away. Some apps get raked over the coals for this; there’s no reason for that, and I hope Fastmail doesn’t suffer the wrath of the App Review team.

(Update: Fastmail on Twitter: “Apple asked us recently to add IAP. We agreed to add it, and it was already on our longer term roadmap. We have always believed in meeting our users where they want to be, and more and more people are going mobile-only. It’s expected in our next major release.”)

You can find dozens of similar examples if you start poking around. It sure seems like a lot of apps have been approved by mistake. If App Review can’t understand the rules about when it is okay to only show a login screen upon launch, how are developers supposed to know? Inconsistencies reflect human nature but so, too, should Apple’s responses to such inconsistencies.

Second, I want to briefly touch on this “Reader” app exemption in the App Store guidelines:

3.1.3(a) “Reader” Apps: Apps may allow a user to access previously purchased content or content subscriptions (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as classroom management apps), provided that you agree not to directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase, and your general communications about other purchasing methods are not designed to discourage use of in-app purchase.

Those specific categories of apps sure seem to overlap with Apple’s own services — News Plus, Apple Books, Apple Music, Apple TV Plus, and iCloud Drive. If it was a requirement for competitors to use Apple’s in-app purchases API, I imagine the antitrust case would write itself.

Suppose this clause was not inserted as a preemptive response to antitrust complaints; suppose that it’s there because the user experience is better if apps are allowed to present a simple login form. Why should that apply only to Netflix and Dropbox but not Hey?

Finally, I cannot stop thinking about the final paragraph of the email Apple sent to Basecamp. Nick Statt, the Verge:

The final paragraph of Apple’s letter acknowledges that Basecamp has offered enterprise apps in the App Store, another obvious exemption to the current App Store rules barring Hey’s iOS app, that do not offer in-app purchases or sign-up options. Apple says it’s done so without taking any money in a way that sounds ominously like it’s demanding gratitude for a free ride. But critically, it seems Apple is distinguishing Hey as a consumer email app that does not seem to fit the criteria for an in-app purchase exemption, despite evidence of other apps — including similar email providers like Newton — that have done the same in the past.

It’s not just about this one app. I don’t even like the sound of Hey, and I find the Basecamp guys to be rather unlikeable on Twitter. None of that matters, though. Apple’s email is an extraordinarily condescending series of statements that seems to emphasize that third-party developers are allowed to develop for Apple’s products through the grace and generosity of the company. But how many people would buy an iPhone if there were no ecosystem of third-party apps, or if free apps were not allowed? The App Store’s policies have incentivized business models that do not require customers to pay money for downloading apps. How many Macs has Apple sold because that’s the only platform supported by the company’s developer tools?

This is the kind of thing a company writes because it can — because anyone who wishes to have an audience for their product or service on about half of Americans’ smartphones has no choice but to tolerate whatever inconsistent hell they are put through.

It is now three days until WWDC 2020 will begin. As Becky Hansmeyer wrote, “I bet the execs are glad they won’t have to look into 6,000 developers’ eyes” after writing that email. There was simply no reason to include such a bitter and arrogant passage, and it’s still hard to believe that Apple provided a copy of that email to several news organizations as their public defence.