More than ever, Apple has been under a lot of pressure and scrutiny. There is a bad sentiment among the Apple developers community about Apple’s App Store business practices. Apple is on the defensive and doesn’t always offer their best side when it comes to the way they answer critics be it out of court or in court.
Many well-known developers and Apple’s pundits are demanding, loud and clear, wide-ranging changes: reducing the App Store commission, opening up the iPhone to allow sideloading of applications, allowing third-party payment processing platforms, etc. These demands target the iPhone fundamentals. Apple is trying to hold them back while slowly evolving the rules to keep the fundamentals intact and developers happy.
Developers get all the tech press attention making a status quo an untenable position for Apple. Where are the opposing voices to those demands? Except for rare cases like Snapchat CEO, most of the time opposing voices come from ordinary users. They don’t get all the needed attention enabling a notable opposition. This is where this essay comes in. I want to express my fierce opposition to many of the App Store change proposals. When it comes to the iPhone identity, the platform security and the privacy protection mechanisms, I’m paying Apple to make decisions, not individual developers. I don’t believe in decentralizing models. They aren’t a synonym for a secure and enjoyable user experience. They serve the agenda of a minority, not the masses.
Is the App Store too successful?
According to recent documents made public during the Epic vs Apple trial, Apple runs the App Store with a 78% operating profit margin. That is quite a lot. This number makes many developers uneasy with Apple’s stance on their 30% commission and think it’s time for Apple to reduce this commission. My question is, what is the right number? There is no easy answer, and if there were one, it would probably change over time. Just like Apple, developers are hungry. Just like Apple, developers are running businesses.
More about developers demands
There is a lot of noise surrounding the Apple developers community and what they ask Apple to do. This leads to confusing and contradictory interpretations of what Apple must do in reality to please developers, tech experts and governments. In recent tweets from the well-known and respected developer, Marco Arment (here, and here), this is not about application sideloading, nor alternative to the current App Store or change to Apple’s commission. The fundamental problem lies around in-app purchase control by Apple. If Apple ever opens up IAP, will developers stop there? I highly doubt it. Developers are needy.
Many developers would love to bypass Apple’s payment processing system behind IAP so they can skip the “Apple tax” and provide better value to the end-users by allowing more flexible alternatives or lower prices. This is their argument. Speaking of more flexible alternatives, the same reasons are invoked when developers suggest allowing sideloading of applications. The idea is to provide more choices to the users. What are the costs of these choices? We are not hearing enough about them.
Let’s see in more detail these demands, their potential side effects on the iPhone identity and their potential hidden costs.
About third-party payment processing providers
When I read Marco Arment’s tweets regarding IAP, I responded:
“Explain to us how payment providers can differentiate themselves? It’s a very basic and narrow feature. Why one dev would use XYZ payment processing over Apple’s? It’s not about commission %? Are you sure? That’s the only differentiating factor.”
Let’s face it: a payment processing system is a feature, not a product1. They accomplish a narrow task of allowing users to purchase with a credit card or other payment methods for goods (digital, virtual or physical). That’s about it. The problem is, this is a very sensible interaction between a user and a provider, and it is very lucrative for the middle man who will take a commission from each transaction. The big picture here is that user security is at stake. Lots of bad things can happen during and after the transactions are taking place. You don’t want to mess around here. Trust is paramount and must be protected at all costs.
As a user who values privacy protection and security, I want to minimize the number of times I need to give my personal information like my credit card, phone number or home address. Let me be clear: when it comes to the App Store, I won’t buy something through a third-party payment processing system unless Apple previously vetted it.
Next up: sideloading applications on the iPhone
Let’s start with a quick explanation of what is sideloading. According to this Wikipedia article:
“When referring to Android apps, “sideloading” typically means installing an application package in APK format onto an Android device. Such packages are usually downloaded from websites other than the official app store Google Play. For Android users sideloading of apps is only possible if the user has allowed “Unknown Sources” in their Security Settings”
So, why ask for sideloading of apps on the iPhone? Possible reasons could be to allow for a third-party payment processing system. Something that goes against App Store’s rules. It could be to offer more choices to the end-users to get their apps from. Another reason would be to enable third-party application catalogues with a different feature set or more focused content, with or without curation. But, as an iPhone customer and as Apple puts it during the Epic vs Apple trial:
“Epic wants us to be Android, but we don’t want to be,” said Apple lawyer Karen Dunn, referring to the ability to sideload apps outside of the Google Play store on Android devices. “Our consumers don’t want that either,” she added.
As much as the idea seems like giving a glass of cold water in hell, it is well documented that multiple App Stores is a bad idea. More on this in the next section.
Do we need App Store fragmentation? In return for what? To me, the iPhone is like a game console. I know people don’t like this comparison because it goes against their arguments. Enabling other App Stores on the iPhone would be like asking Google to make Google’s Suite from Amazon or Azure so that Azure can offer Google’s suite with “better value”. Come on.
Allowing more than one App Store
As a customer, I don’t want another App Store. My gut feeling is that most iPhone users don’t care about the simple fact that there is a single place to get apps from. It’s part of the iPhone identity.2 The iPhone gave birth to the App Store, and the App Store gave birth to the iPhone. They come together.
Having more than one App Store means having different update mechanisms or channels, which breaks the App Store simplicity model of managing application updates.
I don’t want to “manage” my iPhone like I manage my iMac. I don’t need a MacUpdater utility on my iOS devices to update apps from different stores. I don’t want to mess around with serial numbers, activation keys. I want a coherent apps shopping experience. This is what I’m buying when I get an iPhone. Otherwise, I would be using an Android device. Period.
I would argue that asking for an alternative App Store is asking the iPhone to become another Android platform. I know, the Mac already allows for things like SetApp. You know what? I don’t want another macOS platform either. I’m a big fan of the Mac for what it is. The same goes for the iPhone. I’m fond of the iPhone because of the tight integration between the operating system and the App Store and Apple’s ecosystem. I want the possibility to share my purchases within my iTunes Family. I want the power of the full stack integration. This value proposition is not open to trade in any form, and I want Apple to protect.
Apple is far from perfect, but then what?
Apple is not perfect; far from it, even Apple’s top brass knows it. They certainly can do better and they did in the last five years. They do listen. Yes, they have their agenda, but hey, Apple is a business, not a charity or a political party going for an election. I’m not too fond of how Apple defends itself when challenged on their App Store business practices. At the same time, I don’t believe in the idea of developers willing to give back to the customer a portion of their savings they will get by not paying Apple’s commission. I’m afraid I have to disagree with the notion of Apple holding back innovation with their strict App Store rules. The Mac serves as a great example here: it’s a more open platform, sideloading of apps is possible, many payment processing systems are available, and yet software innovation is not what it used to be. Most high-profile developers are releasing Electron-based applications instead of going the AppKit way. It’s not what I call innovation. It is regression. It is about being “good enough”. Low hanging fruits like supporting basic operating system features (widgets, rich notifications, share sheets, etc.) lack developers’ attention. Why? Lack of resources? I think it is about being lazy. That is what it is. I read a lot of bad faith in the room these days when I read about developers’ complaints.
Is there any way to compromise?
To my disdain, allowing additional App Store payment providers is one possible compromise that I would be willing to accept IF they are vetted by Apple. It would certainly please Spotify execs.
Sure Apple could build an API allowing third-party secure payments systems from Stripe or PayPal. Services like Netflix could then skip Apple’s tax and offer a lower-price service. Yet, I believe developers would eventually complain again about why Apple doesn’t allow one guy or another to offer XYZ payment processing service.
We are witnessing a slow but steady turning point in the tech industry. In the last decade, we saw the birth of powerful platforms like Apple’s App Store or Amazon. The market landscape profoundly changed, pushing boundaries of what is possible, transforming business models and testing free-market laws. The next decade will probably be where regulators force big players to give back some control while weakening the fundamental attributes that gave birth to these platforms and made them popular. I call this regulated regression.
Oh, one last thing. I’d like to drop a few interesting Twitter poll results from Steve Troughton-Smith a vocal Apple developer. These results are very telling.
What these results show is that, in reality, things are not as black and white as we might think. Developers would be willing to offer their apps on other App Stores yet continue to stay in the App Store. Developers think that Apple must redo their homework when it comes to the policies regulating the App Store. Yet, most people think Apple is entitled to a percentage of ALL digital transactions made on its platform.
Finally, I would argue that not all Apple Developers are angry. Developers behind the excellent Halide camera application are such an example. They recently wrote a very telling blog post recently. For them, the App Store is not perfect but it was an enabler for their business. Yet, some other developers like Marco Arment are utterly frustrated with Apple’s attitude as he recently wrote in a rare blog post. I can’t wait to see Apple dancing this coming WWDC, trying to woo developers.
You can read my previous essay on a related subject: “My Take on Apple’s 30% Cut and a Proposal“.
Photo credits: William Hook on Unsplash