What if the App Store were actually good? What if it were… Epic?

I wrote about this before. The App Store rules as practiced are giving Apple a groundswell of unpopularity right now. I’m going to try and untangle some of this. Hold on, it’ll be Epic.

To recount broadly:

  1. Apple fought with Hey, insisting they add a free burner email account function while Hey collect payment outside the App Store, because they didn’t want to pay the 30% in-app purchase.
  2. Apple is fighting in court with Epic, who secretly enabled an in-app purchase processed through their own store, which got them kicked out of the App Store entirely as a result.
  3. Apple had a very strange dust-up with WordPress, which required WordPress for a while to include premium paid-for options inside their app, where previously they had only charged for them outside the app.

Here’s the short explanation of the rules in practice:

It was always possible to offer options that avoided the 30% vig as long as you offered them outside of the app, on your website.

That’s an oversimplification, but it’s about the way it worked.

Something has changed at Apple and how they govern the App Store.

  1. Apple required Hey to add functionality that Hey had not originally wanted to develop, the ability to create and use burner email accounts.
  2. Apple required WordPress to add in-app purchases that they had not intended to in order to remain available on the App Store

This “requiring app developers to include features and functionality they did not want to include” is dangerously close to the repeated cries by government organizations that Apple should be required to implement backdoors (functionality) that Apple does not want to include.

Apple backpedaled on WordPress and allowed them to release their app without in-app purchases, as it should always have been.

Here’s the thing: developers aren’t very happy with App Store current policies. They’re becoming more vocal about it. When a significant number of developers become unhappy, it could become the leading indicator for developers leaving iOS.

That seems unlikely now. But it always seems unlikely… until it happens. What Apple should want to avoid is fostering an environment that is hostile to developers. But avoidance isn’t enough: What about fostering an environment that delights developers?

Here are the core things Apple wants to protect:

  1. User privacy. Historically, this has meant shielding users from giving payment info to providers.

But does it have to? If you can Sign in with Google as an option alongside Sign in with Apple, should you be able to choose to pay directly alongside Apple? Exactly what Epic was doing with their sneaky, secret update?

Apple would say that they’re giving users an experience that is trusted and secure, putting the user first.

People treat the iPhone as if it’s a pocket computer – and it is. But it has always been treated a little differently from general purpose computers that run any software.

Steve Jobs said in 2007 to the NYT, “We define everything that is on the phone. You don’t want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your pone and then you go to make a call and it doesn’t work anymore.”

What’s changed is that the phone has become a primary computer for so many people.

The iPhone shipped with Safari. But would the App Store have allowed the development of a browser had it not been invented prior? Probably not. This is why the XBox game streaming hasn’t been allowed – Apple doesn’t want to let code streaming remotely execute on the phone – it represents a danger.

At the same time, it represents innovation: what if the computer moves from the local hardware to the cloud entirely? What if you never needed to download an app, but had it ready on the network? This isn’t so far from reality, and it’s not that far from the micro-Apps that Apple talked about at WWDC 2020.

And this is the kind of thing the current App Store seems confused on – “this much innovation, but no more” – as if invention only happens at Apple.

The App Store needs new rules.

How do we fix this?

By starting with the major complaints developers have:

  1. no ownership of the customer
  2. the 30% is too high
  3. unable to mention that they sell things outside the App Store in order to avoid the 30% on in-app purchases
  4. forced to add features they don’t want

Addressing these one by one will be a topical cream on the festering infection that is this problem.

  1. Developers want to own the customer relationship so they can issue upgrades, upgrade pricing, partial refunds, or other offers. The App Store isn’t that flexible. So make it that flexible. Create the options of Apple owning the customer, but allow visibility into things like purchase date, and partial refunds through Promo Codes. It’s not impossible for Apple to keep the privacy of the user and allow developers some greater customer management here. People give out their AppleID or email to join Testflight betas. This should be possible.
  2. 30% is fine for things that have no cost, but are bits in a database. 30% isn’t fine for something that has a cost – music licensing at Spotify, web hosting via WordPress.com, or email hosting via Hey.com. Create a lower rate for things that have costs. The argument isn’t that these services don’t want to pay for hosting and payment processing, it’s that they don’t want to pay so much. So fix it.
  3. One of the arguments used to make Hey add burner emails was that an app must have some basic functionality. So let Hey and WordPress tell you that they sell things outside the store – Or keep this requirement that things have to be sold through the store, but see point 3, lower the cost so that it isn’t objectionable.
  4. Stop forcing developers to add features they don’t wish to add.

And that would be a start. But it doesn’t address the block to innovation. What if there was an appeal / review path that encouraged things completely outside the rules?

What about the future?

There’s value in being a confident enough company to say, ‘here’s a use we weren’t prepared for, and it blew us away, so we worked to bring it to you’ instead of blocking it.

Today, that’s game streaming. Tomorrow, it’s the idea that the whole phone disappears. What if you don’t need a phone, because staring at a rectangle of glass is dumb, and the apps you need, the services to support your use come to your wrist, to your eyes, directly?

We don’t need an iPhone. We don’t need an App Store. What we need are the foundational principles of privacy protection, device security, user security. Everything else should be on the table, otherwise it all becomes so stagnant.

Instead of telling MS they can’t do XBox streaming, hold them to answering how they work with Apple’s framework for user and device security. If the point was to prevent Facebook from using Farmville to harvest user data, prevent only that.

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