The recent App Store rejection of Basecamp's new email app Hey has triggered much overdue conversation around Apple's relationship with third-party developers.
As a very brief recap of the situation, Apple has a number of rules that developer's must comply with in order for their apps to ever grace a customer's iDevice, including mandatory use of Apple's payment mechanisms when selling any digital goods or services. And while there are exceptions if certain conditions are met and hoops jumped through, this issue essentially boils down to Basecamp wanting to charge customer's directly and Apple not allowing it.
As a developer who's enjoyed some success on iOS, Apple has been good to me, and like many I'd prefer not to rock the boat but I would like some choice. And given Apple is one-half of a mobile operating system duopoly with Google – currently under investigation by the EU on antitrust concerns – perhaps now is the time for the Cupertino tech giant to revisit some of its policies.
One part of the controversy revolves around money; Apple takes 30% of all App Store revenue, which some have grumbled about for years and congressman David Cicilline in a recent interview labeled as "highway robbery" and "unconscionable". In comparison, as of early last year, Microsoft takes 15% of sales revenue on its Windows App Store, and just 5% of those generated from a direct link (presumedly from external marketing exercises from the company behind the product). Another comparison one could make is with content creators and Youtube, where Google takes a massive 45% of advertising revenue on the platform, making 30% all of a sudden seem quite reasonable.
I think the actual figure here is not the key issue though, it's the fact that the App Store is the only way to distribute iOS software to customers that's the problem. Given the shear size of Apple these days and their immense influence on the technology sector, the company does have a duty to be transparent and competitive in its business operations.
Imagine a world where Apple takes 5% of App Store sales revenue, would most developers be far happier? Of course. Imagine another world where Apple takes 30% but allows an alternate means to distribute applications, would most be happier then? I think so.
If Apple does change course towards either scenario it will lose some revenue, and for a for-profit company any move in that direction on the surface doesn't make sense. Third-party developers have been and will continue to be part of Apple's long-term success, however, and how they feel should be important to the company.
John Gruber discussed an undercurrent of App Store dissatisfaction from developers in a piece from earlier this week:
This resentment runs deep and is stunningly widespread. You have to trust me on the number of stories I’ve been told in confidence, just this week. Again, putting aside everything else — legal questions of antitrust and competition, ethical questions about what’s fair, procedural questions regarding what should change in the written and unwritten App Store rules, acknowledgement of all the undeniably great things about the App Store from the perspective of users and developers — this deep widespread resentment among developers large and small is a serious problem for Apple.
This issue is a complex one and while ultimately I feel Apple can do what it likes, I also think those in charge should reflect on their values and reconsider the company's current position. I'd say it's unlikely but maybe, just maybe, Apple will go some way to addressing these concerns at WWDC, their imminent developers conference.
As a developer, who has put up with this for over a decade now, I’m only asking one thing. Please consider how many of us feel this way, and how bad this will be for developers and eventually, customers, if Apple keeps being allowed to move the goal posts further and further without us pushing back.