On Tuesday, Congress revealed whether it believes Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have a monopoly. In some cases, the answer was yes.
But also, an app developer revealed to Congress that it – just like WordPress – had been forced to make money mostly free app. That the developer testified that Apple had demanded in-app purchases (IAP), even though Apple had approved its app without them two years earlier – and that when the developer dared to send an email to customers notifying them of the change, threatened Apple with removing the app and blocked all updates.
That developer was ProtonMail, makers of an encrypted email app, and CEO Andy Yen had some burning words for Apple in an interview with The Verge this week.
We have known for several months that WordPress and Hey were not alone in being strongly armed by the most valuable company in the world since then StratecheryBen Thompson reported that 21
And they are still scared, says Yen. Although Apple changed the rules on September 11 to exempt “free apps that act as a standalone companion to a paid online tool” from the IAP requirement – Apple said explicit email apps are excluded – ProtonMail has still not removed its own in-app purchases because it fears retaliation from Apple, he says.
He claims that other developers feel the same way: “There is a lot of fear in the room right now; people are completely petrified to say anything. ”
He can know that. ProtonMail is one of the founders of the Coalition for App Fairness, a group that also includes Epic Games, Spotify, Tile, Match and others who banded together to protest Apple’s rules after those rules were applied to them. There is a group that tried to gather as many developers as possible to form a united front, but some were not so ready to risk Apple’s anger.
This is clearly not the case for Yen – in our interview he compares Apple’s tactics with a Mafia protection racket.
“The first two years we were in the App Store, it was fine, no problems there,” he says. (They were launched on iOS in 2016.) “But a common practice we see … when you start getting significant footage in uploads and downloads, they start to look closely at your situation, and then as any good mafia blackmail goes, they come to shake you for some money. ”
“We did not offer a paid version in the App Store, it was free to download … it was not like Epic where you had an alternative payment option, you could not pay at all,” he says.
Yen says that Apple’s demand came suddenly in 2018. “Out of the blue, they said one day that you have to add purchases to the app to stay in the App Store,” he says. “They stumbled upon something in the app that mentioned that there were paid plans, they went to the website and saw that there was a subscription you could buy, and turned around and demanded that we add IAP.”
“There is nothing you can say about it. They are the judge, jury and executioner on their platform, and you can take it or leave it. You can not get any kind of fair hearing to decide whether it is justifiable or not justifiable, everything they say goes. ”
“We complied just to save our business,” he adds.
Yen tells me that there was a month-long period where ProtonMail could not update the app at all, even for security reasons, and Apple threatened to remove the app if his company continued to delay. So ProtonMail decided to increase the cost of the entire service on iOS by about 26 percent to meet Apple’s needs and eat the rest itself.
“When Apple charges 30 percent extra … we do not have a 30 percent margin! It is very strange to find a company with a 30 percent profit margin, he explains. “We had to raise prices, and we were not even able to communicate to customers that they could get it cheaper from our site.”
And while Apple is increasingly highlighting itself as a privacy company, Yen claims that Apple’s 30 percent cut actually hurts privacy-centric apps – because it’s hard to compete with Gmail when you have to pay a fee for your service and you are also is taxed. He explains:
Google exists by selling your data to third-party advertisers to subsidize the services you receive for free, but it’s very bad for users’ privacy because companies are encouraged to abuse your privacy as much as possible. The alternative to that is the subscription model … we have a certain percentage of customers who pay, and that is what sustains us. It makes us pay 30 percent tax, but the ad-based models do not have to pay, and it counteracts business models that are confidential.
He finds it difficult to compete fairly with Apple’s own apps when you need to give 30 percent of your revenue to a direct competitor.
The elephant in the room is that Apple changed the rules in September, allowing free accompanying apps, included email clients to avoid the IAP requirement. Shouldn’t any of these points matter less today, at least for apps like his? But Yen says ProtonMail has not yet bothered to try to remove the IAP, in part because the rules as written will still prevent him from telling his customers that there is even an upgrade to be had.
This surprised me because Apple on September 11 explained to us that it did not prohibit app developers from communicating with their customers outside the App Store, and that it would look at adapting the language in the rules to say it more clearly. But surely, almost a month later, App Store Guideline 3.1.3 (f) still prohibits “solicitation for off-app purchases.”
Today, Apple reaffirmed to us that the rule is milder than it sounds: “free apps that act as a standalone companion to a paid online tool” do not need to use IAP for that long the apps themselves do not offer purchases, and for so long the apps themselves do not ask users to buy outside the app. Developers can advertise for different prices online, TV, billboards or other places outside the App Store, the company says The Verge.
When he hears this, Yen says that ProtonMail will actually try to remove Apple’s payment system in the app – but he is still skeptical enough that he plans to test the theory with the company’s next app, ProtonDrive, just to be safe. He does not want to risk ProtonMail.
Yen says it’s strange that Apple’s actual written rules are not as clearly defined as what I’m telling him, and that he does not trust the rules in general: Apple originally justified blocking the app due to a vague rule that apps should not. includes irrelevant information, ”he says, and he believes that the results of app review are largely predetermined:“ They made a decision, and then it’s just a matter of pointing to the relevant sections of the rules to justify the decision they have already made. ”
He’s not the only one who thinks Apple’s decisions are arbitrary. We’ve written several times about the company’s inconsistent enforcement, but Phillip Shoemaker, Apple’s own head of app review from 2009 to 2016, also spoke to Congress about its bomb-shell antitrust report. He testified that Apple’s top executives would find pretexts for removing apps from the store; that apps that compete with Apple’s own services often have trouble getting through the review process; and that Apple’s new guidelines, which supposedly allow cloud gaming in the App Store, were probably written to “exclude Google Stadiums” and were “completely arbitrary.” (I came to the same conclusion about Stadia as well.)
You may be wondering what Apple thinks about all this, and so we asked. Tells Apple The Verge without a doubt it does not reciprocate the developers – it works with them to get their apps in store, and claims that they use the rules fairly. Apple points out that developers have many ways to communicate and appeal Apple’s decisions, including the ability to appeal entire rules, and that it will no longer hold bug fixes unless the app has legal issues.
After my conversation with the CEO of ProtonMail, another developer who had been forced to suddenly add purchases in the app, told me that she was not willing to risk removing IAP yet, partly because the rules are not clear enough, and partly on due to the arbitrary nature of Apple’s review.
“Even if approved, there would be no guarantee that in the future another reviewer would not interpret the rules differently and reject the app, forcing us to re-implement IAP,” said Belle Cooper, co-developer of the Behavior Tracking App .io. “We do not really fear retaliation. It’s more that we will not always live in fear (more than we already do) that they will suddenly reject us and force us to do a whole bunch of work on their terms. It was a very stressful experience last time and threw a key in our plans for the app, and we are nervous that it could happen again. “
Cooper says she tried to challenge Apple back in September 2017 when the company forced her to add purchases to the app – two years after the app was first approved – but she did not get very far:
I claimed we were a “reader” app and they said no. I claimed that other apps did the same as us and pointed out some examples, and they said we can not discuss other apps. They allowed one or two important bug fixes that they had blocked after I spoke to them on the phone and promised to do what they asked.
I have to wonder how many more developers have stories like these. Maybe more will share them now? (My DMs are open.) It feels like someone is already getting bolder: here are a few examples I was passed on while researching this story.
I also wonder if Apple can follow developer Marco Arment’s advice, because as he jokingly points out, Apple’s rules around in-app purchases are clear as mud right now.