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Quit Whining about Apple and Just Stop Using Them

(posted in blog)

Note: I have changed the name of the actual email company referred to by this story, simply for the reason that I’m not familiar enough with their service to feel comfortable contributing to all the free publicity they’re drumming up through this issue. If you’re out of the loop and want to learn more just click any of the links in the article and it won’t be too hard to track down.

The Controversy

There has been a lot of hubbub in the tech sphere lately over an email service I will be calling Yo in this article, and Apple’s rejection of their iOS app due to Yo’s refusal to use Apple’s in-app purchase system to sell subscriptions. The reason Apple wants Yo to offer subscriptions via an in-app purchase is because that would give Apple a 30% cut of all subscription fees for all users who subscribe through the app in perpetuity (once a user has subscribed for over a year I think it may drop to 15%). Obviously Yo would prefer those users to sign up via their website instead, because then they get 100% of the subscription fees and Apple gets nothing.

“Because of the market power that Apple has, it is charging exorbitant rents — highway robbery, basically — bullying people to pay 30 percent or denying access to their market.” –Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) on The Vergecast

Much of the controversy lies around Apple’s selectively enforced policies around whether they allow apps in their app store that provide access to a subscription service without actually allowing users to subscribe through the app. An example of apps that skirt this policy are Netflix and Spotify–if you already have accounts you can use the iOS app to watch Netflix videos and listen to Spotify music on your iPhone, but if you don’t have an account not only do those apps not give you the option to subscribe, due to Apple’s policies they’re not even allowed to inform users that it’s possible to subscribe at all. Even a simple non-link message stating “Sign up for an account on the web” would be grounds for Apple to reject the app. Netflix made a big stink about this when they removed the functionality a couple years ago.

Yo’s plan seems to have been to follow the Netflix and Spotify model–provide an app that gives existing subscribers access to their email services, and simply eschew any in-app mechanism (or even mention of the possibility) for new users to sign up for Yo in order to avoid Apple skimming their cut from the subscription fees. The idea would presumably be that users will discover and subscribe to Yo’s services on their own and then install the companion iOS app only after they have already obtained an account.

In this case, instead of giving Yo a pass as they did Netflix and Spotify and countless other apps, Apple stepped in and essentially said “Nah, fuck that, you either implement in-app subscriptions in your app and give us our 30% or you can go suck an egg,” and rejected an update to Yo’s app from their app store and have threatened to remove the app entirely unless Yo complies.

“Apple wants to own iPhone consumers so that anyone who wants access to that demographic must pay the toll and follow their rules. It’s far too much power for one corporation…” –matheusmoreira on Hacker News

The Discrepancy

The reason for the discrepancy between Netflix and Spotify and Yo is, to me, perfectly obvious. Apple’s hand-wavy explanation has to do with nebulous definitions of “consumer” apps versus “commercial” apps or “reader” apps versus productivity apps, but in actuality the reason is money. Netflix is a huge company with somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million subscribers world-wide, many of whom would balk at discovering they can’t watch Netflix shows on their phone. Spotify has somewhere around 150 million subscribers who would undoubtedly consider the inability to listen to their music on the $700 pocket-computer they either bought or are thinking about buying to be completely ridiculous.

There are other anomalous examples as well–The Audible app has no in-app subscription mechanism, Kindle doesn’t let you buy books through the iOS app, even other subscription-based email apps like Microsoft Outlook are permitted on the app store without giving Apple a cut. But are you noticing a trend there? Netflix, Spotify, Amazon, Microsoft… these are all companies with enough size and clout that Apple could be in serious danger if any of them decided to pull their apps from iOS, and even more potential trouble if they decided to challenge Apple’s practices from a legal standpoint.

“It’s baffling to me. I can buy a USD1k+ device and still not be able to install on it the apps I want because the manufacturer doesn’t want me to, and this is legal? Such horsecrap.” –notRobot on Hacker News

If Apple remained consistent and diligent in their policy to demand a lifetime cut of all subscription services accessed via iOS apps and banned Netflix, Spotify, Audible, and Outlook from their devices, it would clearly cost Apple users and sales of those devices. Those services are big enough and an integral part of so many users’ mobile lives that people would switch to Android in droves to get them back. But for something like Yo, a brand-spanking new email service that just launched, Apple is more than happy to rake them over the coals in an attempt to get that money–nobody is going to cry over a new email service they’ve never heard of, right?

Except that in this case the new email service was founded by a company that also offers a well-established and very popular collaboration service for remote workers. While probably not in the same ballpark as Netflix or Spotify as far as subscriber count goes, this service is much-beloved among the extremely technically-literate–exactly the kind of people that Apple should probably avoid pissing off because when something catches their ire they’re pretty good at elevating it into general online consciousness.

I would like to take a brief moment here to point out an amusing hypocrisy on Apple’s part. Google has a similar model to Apple for apps released on the Android app store–they take a 30% cut of the first year of every user’s subscription and then 15% after that in perpetuity, with the difference being that they do not ban apps for implementing alternate payment methods. When you publish an Android app you can freely choose between using Google’s subscription mechanism and paying them a cut, or implementing your own solution and not paying Google anything. I’ll give you one guess which one Apple has chosen when implementing the in-app subscription mechanism in the Android version of their Apple Music app.

The Solution for Developers

If Apple is behaving so unreasonably by rejecting apps for ridiculous anti-consumer reasons, why are we–both developers, who prop up their behavior by feeding their ecosystem with new apps; and consumers, who prop up their behavior by continuing to buy their overpriced hardware–continuing to support them?

The answer to that for developers seems just as obvious as Apple’s reasons for allowing Netflix and Spotify to remain on iPhones despite being in violation of app store policies. It’s all about money. Developers want access to that pre-existing user base of consumers who clearly have money to spend because they bought one of the most expensive phones on the market, but they want that access for free (or at least for cheaper than Apple has deemed it’s worth).

“30% does seem a little bit high. What justification does Apple use for charging that much?” –joegibbs on Hacker News

While I am in complete agreement that Apple’s policies and practices are egregious (if I had no knowledge of Apple in the real world and was reading a fictional story in which an antagonistic company behaved the way Apple does, I think I would probably discard it as absurdly unrealistic), I am also of the opinion that Apple has clearly earned the right to be evil assholes. They built products that people love, cultivated their brand through careful control of the media, and vaulted their company into the stratosphere. The idea that they have a “monopoly” seems patently ridiculous to me. A monopoly over what? Their own brand of computing devices that they are the sole manufacturers of? Operating systems for which they are the sole developers and maintainers? It’s not like there aren’t other devices and platforms to choose from if you don’t like Apple.

Let’s say we tear down Apple through legal means–we send them the message that because they’re so successful they no longer have a right to dictate their own terms around what apps they allow on their devices and how much money they can charge developers to have access to their platform. Just think of all the ways that precedent could be abused against other companies.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that the Yo email service, through brilliant marketing and an amazing product, manages to grow their user base and capture the email market to unheard of levels. Those dudes make Gmail look like a Ma and Pa shop. Now let’s say they decide to offer a new service that allows content providers to reach Yo’s subscribers–like a newsletter or something. Should they be allowed to dictate how much a content provider must pay to have content in one of those newsletters? Or are they so big that they now have a “monopoly” over their own Yo newsletter and have to be taken down like Apple? Should we really be punishing companies for their own success? Who decides when that happens? How big is too big?

“Bitch please.” –Me, this blog.

I don’t know, it seems silly to me to cry about monopolies. The solution is obvious. Stop making apps for iOS. Sure, you’re going to take a huge hit without access to those consumers, but if your company or product is structured in such a way that it can’t survive without the ability to suckle at Apple’s teat then you’ve made bad decisions and in my opinion deserve whatever shit Apple decides to shovel at you because of it. By this point we already know that Apple is a fickle money-hungry beast who can and does destroy entire businesses that have made the mistake of hinging their success on Apple’s platform, and that’s a risk you either have to knowingly take or, ideally, just avoid entirely by giving Apple the middle finger.

That doesn’t necessarily mean making your product or service completely unavailable on the iPhone–you can always write a mobile-friendly web app. Until, that is, Apple decides to block or break your app in Safari, which is technically the only web browser allowed on the iPhone (other browsers are available but due to more draconian app store policies they must use the same rendering engine that Safari uses, which gives Apple the same full control over how those browsers actually function under the hood).

The Solution for Consumers

Stop buying iPhones. Seriously. They’re overpriced and locked-down and controlled by Apple in infuriating ways that hurt you, even if Apple has succeeded in keeping you ignorant of that fact. Don’t buy Macs while you’re at it–while they’re not quite as restrictive as iPhones, it’s very clear that Apple wants them to be and they are quickly headed down the same consumer-harmful road.

I know that the devices are pretty and feel nice and maybe your friends all have one and you want to signal that you’re one of the crowd, but it’s not worth it. Apple should be punished for their horrendous behavior and the best way for us to do that is with our wallets. Get an Android, there are some nice ones out there just as pretty as iPhones and they tend to cost quite a bit less too. Or go full hipster and get a flip phone, I don’t know, just stop giving your money to Apple.

Sigh…

In reality, I know none of these solutions are actually going to come to fruition. It’s how capitalism is supposed to work–companies that hurt consumers should not succeed while the competition that caters to consumers should succeed. But developers are going to keep chasing that Apple app store gold mine and consumers will keep buying the latest iPhone model at twice the price of their old one because that’s how capitalism really works. Companies that already hold all the power and money have the means to remain in that position and stifle any competition that could potentially topple them before it even gets off the ground.

Maybe the ultimate solution is an anti-trust legal one. Maybe companies shouldn’t be allowed to be as successful as Apple because of how it collectively hurts us all. In an ideal world people would recognize that they’re being hurt and punish the perpetrators, but we don’t live in an ideal world. In the case of Apple, consumers are largely unaware and frankly don’t care as long as they have their shiny new toys. Developers are more aware and like to bitch and moan but also don’t really care because the potential payoff waiting for them if they can slip through Apple’s review process and gain access to that existing customer base is much simpler than trying to build a customer base from scratch.

My hopes for such legal action ever succeeding are not particularly high. Especially in the USA where bribing politicians is essentially legalized through lobbying and Apple has such obscene amounts of money to toss their way.

My first computer in grade school was a Macintosh Classic and I grew up with and owned Macs all the way through the PowerMac G4 line, so it pains me a bit to write all of this. Today I don’t support Apple at all. My phone is an Android (although I am considering alternatives to that as well) and my computers are all non-Macs running Linux and I haven’t developed software for any Apple platform in over a decade. The straw that broke my camel’s back came a long time ago. I urge everyone to ask yourselves where your limit is. How bad does Apple have to be before you’ll stop buying iPhones or developing iOS apps? How much control are you willing to give them over how you can use and access the devices that you pay so much money for?

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