I won’t take the time to rehash the details of Apple inexplicably throwing the book at Basecamp and their new email app Hey less than a week before WWDC. However, I don’t see how discussing it can be avoided with things shaping up the way they are. I will never understand how tone-deaf this company can be, at times.
I think this back and forth with Basecamp over their Hey email service and whether it follows the App Store rules coming up when it did underlines exactly how important it is for Apple to become more self-aware and show some restraint, rather than grasping for every dollar within reach. That, or at least restrain the arbitrary nature of App Store enforcement by making the rules make sense for the tech world of today. The 30% cut of sales that developers have to give to Apple (with some conditions for subscriptions and certain types of apps) needs to be lowered, the rules need to be clarified in a way that makes sense, and Apple needs to stop badgering companies that circumvent their in-app payment model by going it on their own. Keeping them from asking for payment directly from their apps is enough.
If Apple doesn’t reign itself in, the United States government, famous for always sitting on its hands when regulation needs to be developed and then using a sledgehammer when a scalpel will suffice to make up lost ground after that, will step in and restrain them. Probably very poorly and inefficiently. That should be lovely. And that isn’t nearly as bad as the treatment they can expect from the more trigger-happy EU. I really can’t muster any sympathy for Apple at this point because they brought this on themselves, but I will be honest and say that I also don’t have that much for the high pitched whining from a few on the other side, either.
There are plenty of small developers that can be negatively affected by Apple’s arbitrary and poorly implemented App Store rules and I do feel for them. They are the real victims when Apple’s rules and arbitrary enforcement miss the mark. And the 30% cut Apple takes does seem punitive in 2020 in a way that it absolutely didn’t in 2008. I can clearly remember how developers sang the praises of the early App Store and gladly handed over that same amount because they could actually make money on mobile in a way that had never been possible before.
Many of today’s developers don’t remember just how poor the situation was for mobile app development before the App Store. As an owner of Windows Mobile devices and their predecessors back to 1997, I can tell you from experience that it was pretty terrible. There was little great software available and what was available was very expensive. Part of the reason why it was so expensive- piracy. Apple and Google changed all of that. They boiled selling apps down to a tap of a screen. They restrained piracy to the point that prices fell (too much, in the end, but that’s another story) and grew a market where one didn’t exist before. No matter what any politician or well-meaning tech reporter says, those two companies absolutely, 100%, without a doubt deserve a cut of the profits generated from their platforms. Google may choose a more (but not completely) open path, but that doesn’t mean that Apple should have to as long as they can behave themselves. That last part is the trick.
Because Apple doesn’t allow competing app stores on their mobile devices, they have to back off of their 30% rate for the majority of apps. As an Apple fan, I sincerely hope they do, because the alternatives proposed by our tech-illiterate politicians range from breaking up companies to dismantling ecosystems instead of fixing the actual problems. If Apple doesn’t want those things to happen, then they need to wake up and act in their own self-interest and the interest of their reasonable fans who don’t want to see their platform of choice opened up arbitrarily.
I will be 100% clear right here- I prefer Apple because it IS NOT 100% open. I absolutely prefer the added platform integration and security of their walled garden approach and I’m willing to pay a little more to get it. It isn’t perfect, but it is better, in my opinion. And I say this as someone who has sold and worked on “open” systems for 20 years.
I have been burned repeatedly by the benefits of open systems over the years. By things that are supposed to work together, but don’t. I have based entire customer systems on value-add middleware solutions for our open system that the vendor stopped supporting, killing that customer’s option to upgrade and move forward. Do you know how much fun it is to tell a customer they can’t upgrade without an entire rebuild of their system after just a few years after touting all of the advantages of their open system? There’s something to be said for an integrated ecosystem that a company with resources is invested in. I sell more of those systems today in my job because they are what my customers want. I want that same security and peace of mind when it comes to my consumer electronics. But none of this excuses what Apple is doing with the App Store.
I will say again, I really do feel for small, independent developers who feel the pinch when Apple does things like this. As for Spotify, Epic Games and a few other, much larger companies that have their own damn platforms and exclusives repeatedly interjecting themselves into this debate as if they are victims, they can go kick rocks. I have absolutely no sympathy for them, whatsoever. I and my customers have to pay mandatory subscriptions for every device and server I purchase for every job that I install. And it’s not cheap. The developer of the platform gets their cut, or you lose something. The only difference in my case is that no one is paying attention to this industry the way people pay attention to the big tech companies. It’s how much that cut is and how the market is managed that needs to be ironed out.
As for Basecamp, they aren’t some small, independent developer, but they aren’t a massive company that can go toe-to-toe with Apple, either. I guess that’s why David Heinemeier Hansson has gone on an epic Twitter tirade to make his case. I get it. Apple has done them wrong and they need to fix it. He took it personally.
But Mr Hansson could also stand to back away from the keys at this point, as well. Anyone who says people pay Apple for iCloud so they can use Apple for email, or that Apple gives a single damn about offering email at this point, is reaching like they’re falling off a cliff. If you want to talk about Apple’s competitive practices around Apple Music, then you can make some salient points. This argument that Apple is somehow bumping Hey off because they will compete with Apple Mail? Come on, man. Add to that several “mafia” comparisons and talk of shakedowns and you have some real tin foil hat talk going on in that Twitter thread. Reel that mess in.
Hansson has plenty of legitimate arguments to make around how poorly Apple has handled this situation and how obscure and arbitrary their handling of the App Store rules is. Many of these so-called rules don’t appear anywhere in writing, which gives all the fodder in the world to those who think Apple is out to destroy a $25 million a year company with a new email service. The fact that Apple doubled down after an update to Hey was blocked was also just as tone-deaf if not worse than their handling of batterygate when it was first reported. I get that Apple has developed a massive bureaucracy, but they have got to get a handle on incidents like this where they literally become their own worst enemy.
The bottom line is, Apple needs to fix this. They are all about services revenue these days and I understand that, but they are going to have to dial down their expectations from the App Store and focus on customer direct subscription revenue. If they want to keep developers happy, the group that they won over with the App Store back in 2008, they have to keep winning them over with some willingness to listen to them and change.
Whatever Tim Cook planned to say to open up WWDC, the App Store rules and their enforcement and pricing had better be addressed close to the beginning. It’s hard to imagine this all happening at a worse time for Apple, but maybe a public slip-up in front of their target audience right before the big show will bring them to their senses and be good for them, in the end. This close to WWDC, I don’t see how Apple can brush off serious complaints amid already in-progress investigations. Like they did after antennagate and a few other “gates,” Apple has got to stop being their own worst enemy and remember who helped them build their success.