Scrutiny of Apple’s App Store policies heats up as the company heads into its annual software conference.
David Heinmeier Hansson remembers the moment he decided he was fed up with email. It was two years ago, and Hansson, the cofounder and CTO of Basecamp, was working with fellow cofounder Jason Fried on the company’s tool for managing customer relationships. Basecamp makes project management and communication software, and Hansson realized what he wanted wasn’t necessarily a better version of those apps but, more simply, a better email app. “I send and receive at least a hundred emails a day and do all these silly hacks of marking things as unread, making sure I get back to it later, hunting and pecking for it near the end of the day,” Hansson says. “That process just needed to be better.”
So the Basecamp execs tasked a small R&D team with building a new email app. They called it Hey. Nine months ago, Hansson started using Hey full-time, running it alongside Gmail and Apple Mail to compare the experiences. On Monday, Hey launched to a limited number of users. It’s centered around something called the Imbox rather than the inbox—the idea being it’s a place for important or immediate emails. Each email from a first-time sender has to be accepted into your Imbox first or be forever cast away as clutter. The app’s layout is clean (then again, it’s a brand-new inbox) and has the slickness of a modern web dashboard rather than the bloat of an antiquated email app. It also costs $99 per year, which immediately eliminates a certain portion of the population who have accepted their ad-filled but free email fates.
Hey’s launch day on Monday would also be its rejection day. While version 1.0 of the Hey mobile app appears in Apple’s App Store, version 1.0.1 was swiftly rejected. Hansson, who is active on Twitter, promptly tweeted about the denial, including a screenshot of Apple’s somewhat generic rejection note. (Hansson appears to have both a cozy and uncomfortable relationship with Big Tech; he openly criticizes the more monopolistic practices of companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon, but he’s also a self-described fan of Apple products, one who has given a remote work seminar for Apple employees at the behest of the company.)
What stands out about the rejection Apple sent Basecamp is both what it did and didn’t say. Hansson says Basecamp submitted the app update because bug fixes were needed—one in particular that wouldn’t let Hey users upload multiple photo files to an email draft—and that there were no other major changes. And yet, the first version of the app was deemed OK while the second version was not.
“Like any good mafioso, they paid us a visit by phone.”
David Heinmeier Hanssen, Basecamp cofounder
Hansson says this is emblematic of Apple’s “capricious and inconsistent review process” for third-party apps, and he’s hardly the first app maker to allege this. Last fall, developer Steve Troughton-Smith’s number-picking app Lotto Machine got a “blanket rejection” from Apple when he tried to launch it for MacOS, despite the fact that “the same app on iOS is highly rated and has 10,000 users,” Troughton-Smith pointed out. “App Store Rejection: A Memoir,” iOS developer Ish Shabazz quipped on Twitter in late 2018.
These developers tell WIRED that in some ways, the App Store approval process has actually improved in recent years, particularly when it comes to turnaround time. “The review times are now about 24 hours instead of two weeks,” Shabazz says. “That changed when Phil Schiller took over,” referring to Schiller’s overhaul of App Store policies in 2016, when Apple also introduced search ads in apps and struck a more favorable deal with app makers who could maintain long-term subscriptions. Leah Culver, cofounder and CTO of the Breaker podcast app, agrees that app updates are reviewed much more quickly now, usually within a couple of days.
Still, Apple’s review processes are somewhat opaque, and the company typically doesn’t comment on App Store approvals beyond what it shares with developers in its online Resolution Center. In some cases, developers say they receive rejection phone calls from Apple rather than something that would create a text trail. All of this leads to “some weird results,” Shabazz says.
In Basecamp’s case, the rejection note from Apple seemed to suggest that the issue is the way the developer is handling IAP, and the timing couldn’t be more apt. As the software community is well aware, IAP stands for in-app purchases, the way we buy or subscribe to digital services within apps. Basecamp is urging its customers to pay that $99 annual fee for access to Hey email; Apple wants that transaction to happen within the walls of its Store, not outside of it, because Apple would get a cut of as much as 30 percent.
Apple’s review guidelines clearly state that apps that sell services across multiple platforms are allowed to promote those goods on their own websites, but Apple stipulates that those items have to also be available for purchase within the iOS or MacOS app. Apple owns the marketplace, and without it developers would have almost no way of getting their apps in front of millions of iPhone and Mac users. Consider Apple’s cut a fee for the privilege, for the marketing of the app, and for support. But app makers more pointedly call this the “Apple tax.” Those include the media giant Spotify, which filed a formal complaint with European regulators against Apple last spring, saying that the 30 percent commission is a burden on app makers and gives the company an unfair leg up when it’s both selling its own software and controlling the marketplace for competing software. Netflix has fought this fee. Now Rakuten, the Japanese ecommerce company, has joined in filing a complaint.
And on Tuesday morning, the day after the Hey email app update was rejected, the European Commission opened antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay service. “It appears that Apple obtained a ‘gatekeeper’ role when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple’s popular devices,” said Magrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the EU’s antitrust commission. “We need to ensure that Apple’s rules do not distort competition in markets where Apple is competing with other app developers.”
“I mean, we’re not interested in changing our entire billing setup. If we change it, Apple takes 30 percent of our business,” Hansson says about the Hey app. “Those rates are completely outrageous. When we bill customers through the banking system, through the credit card system, we pay between 2 and 3 percent.” That’s a competitive market, Hansson argues, while Apple’s is not.
Later on Tuesday, Apple doubled down on its demands, this time with a phone call to Basecamp. As Hansson tweeted, “Like any good mafioso, they paid us a visit by phone. Stating that, firstly, that smashing our windows (by denying us the ability to fix bugs) was not a mistake. Then, without even as much of a curtesy [sic] euphemism, said they’d burn down our store (remove our app!), lest we paid up.”
Apple declined to comment on the record when contacted by WIRED. All of this comes just days ahead of Apple’s giant WWDC software conference, an annual can’t-miss event for thousands of developers worldwide. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, WWDC has the potential to be bigger than ever this year: It’s entirely online, and there’s no cap on the number of virtual attendees. Just yesterday, Apple announced that its app marketplace supported more than $519 billion in sales last year, making a point to say that around 85 percent of it went to third-party app developers and businesses of all sizes.
Those are big numbers, by any measure. Apple does things big. And it changed, in a big way, how people build, sell, and consume software when it launched the App Store more than 10 years ago. The question now, of course, is how big is too big.
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