The App Store is a great place to find apps for iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch, but is not without it’s issues. Apple’s App Store is often criticized for unfair policies often relating to the 30% cut of app and in-app purchases, or the app review process. This debate has recently been sparked again this year by the Hey email app and continued with Xcloud and Fortnite.
Hey: Guideline Clarity
The Hey app controversy began in June and focused on the 30% cut and Apple’s guidelines. Hey is a reimagined email service with many high quality features such as screening senders, multiple inboxes for emails of different importance, and a privacy focus, but all of this isn’t free, it costs $99 a year.
Basecamp, the developers of Hey, did not want to pay Apple’s 30% cut so they followed in the footsteps of larger apps like Netflix and Spotify and had no option to sign up in their app. Apple has a rule that says if your app requires payment to unlock features it must use Apple’s in-app purchases (Developer Guidelines 3.1.1). Apps like Netflix and Spotify reportedly get around this rule under an exception for “reader” apps under section 3.1.3(a) of the guidelines. This exception allows for “reader” apps to give users access subscription services without a way to purchase it in-app as long as they don’t directly push users to purchase the subscription off platform.
The Hey app thought they would be fine under this excpetion, but Apple said that they were not a “reader” app. And that is probably true, Apple appears to categorize “reader” apps as those that are for content consumption, like magazines, music, or video. Hey eventually ended up on the App Store by adding a feature for free randomized temporary email addresses, and this appeared to satisfy Apple.
Basecamp was trying to avoid paying the 30% App Store fee by having users purchase their subscription off of Apple’s platform. The way they tried to circumvent the fee is against Apple’s guidelines, and they most likely knew that. It makes sense that the app was blocked, because it goes against Apple’s guidelines, but Hey thought they could do what other Apps could do, but the way Apple chooses to enforce and interpret the rules meant that they couldn’t. Then the first issue with the Hey controversy is that how Apple chooses to enforce and interpret their guidelines isn’t made known to all.
If Apple were to make their guidelines more clear then there would be less issues like this. Basecamp could’ve known that only content consumption apps can leave out a sign-up option and that e-Mail doesn’t count for that. They could’ve know that they needed to add some functionality for free users to satisfy the review process. They could’ve kept their app on the App Store and Apple could’ve avoided the negative press. Apple should make their rules more clear and make more clear how they interpret the rules, so that all developers know better what they can and can’t do.
There was another issue with Hey though, and that was that their app wasn’t rejected when it was originally put on the App Store, but instead it was rejected on a bug fix update. This meant they probably thought they app was following the guidelines because it passed app review once. This error meant the app’s users couldn’t receive an important bug fix. Apple did make a change after this though, and now they won’t block bug fix updates for App Store guideline violations. That is a great improvement, but doesn’t fix apps being incorrectly approved. But, because Apple uses a manual review system, there’s not much that can be done now to fix that.
xCloud: Guideline Fairness
Xbox Game Pass is a subscription service that includes many games that users can play on device on Xbox, windows, or other devices through Microsoft’s project xCloud game streaming. Apple has set a precedent for not allowing game streaming on their devices, Google Stadia and Nvidia GeForce Now have both been blocked from the store. Apple is on record saying they won’t accept the game streaming services because they can’t review all the content.
Not being able to review all the content in a game streaming app doesn’t seem like a strong defense from Apple as there is a plethora of apps on the App Store where Apple doesn’t review all the content: YouTube, Amazon, Twitter, Apple News, Spotify, Safari, and many more. There will always be apps where not everything in the app can be reviewed by Apple, so then why block game streaming?
Apple doesn’t actually block all game streaming apps, just ones that they deem to be breaking guideline 4.2.7. This guideline says, among other things, apps that mirror a specific program from device—as opposed to a generic device mirroring app like TeamViewer—must mirror a device on the user’s local network. An app that follows that guideline would be Steam Link which lets you connect to Steam on your local machine to stream Steam games. Well, at least it used to, now Steam Link also let’s you connect to your PC running steam over the internet, which is technically breaking the rule. Apps like Shadow also fall under this guideline because they give you access to an entire remote PC to use for gaming or whatever you like.
Some argue that Apple is just blocking Xbox game streaming because it’s a direct competitor to the Apple Arcade service, and this may be part of Apple’s true motivation. Things like not being able to review all of a game streaming apps content and it mirroring programs outside a users network may be influential, but shouldn’t stop Apple from allowing the app on the store. The Apple Arcade competition may be influencing this, although people subscribing to Xbox game pass are probably not people considering Apple Arcade.
If Apple Arcade is the reason Apple isn’t letting game streaming in the App Store, then Apple should change how they review apps that could be considered competition. Apple should get independent reviewers (which would require clearer guidelines to give them) for scenarios like this as well as work to keep the App Store open to competition for others. And, if Apple can’t fairly deal with competing apps then it may take some regulation to convince them to treat competing apps fairly.
If this isn’t the issue then Apple needs to be more clear on what the issue is so that the developers can work to get this medium onto the Apple platform. Because, if they allow video and music streaming on the store, why not allow game streaming too?
Fortnite: Another App Store
Fortnite, unlike the other apps on this list, was planning to get taken off this App Store. Epic Games, Fortnite’s developers, decided to do a “mega drop” in the price of V-Bucks, their in-game currency. But, there was a catch, you could only get the deal on mobile if you buy your V-Bucks direct from Epic Games not through App Store or Google Play in-app purchases. This meant implementing a 3rd party payment method for buying in game items which is against both Apple‘s and Google’s store policies.
Apple and Google both kicked Fortnite off of their respective stores, Apple acted first. And Epic quickly responded with a lawsuit and a really brilliant remake of Apple’s “1984” commercial. This commercial paints Apple as the big brother character and ends with #FreeFortnite. Tim Sweeney, Epic Games CEO, also continued to criticize Apple on Twitter. Since all of this happened so quickly, this was most certainly planned by Epic. On the surface this would appear another company trying to avoid the 30% cut to Apple, but this situation is a little different.
When an app or in-app purchase is bought typically 30% of that cost goes to Apple—although there is one exception for physical goods. Apps like Amazon, Lyft, and AirBnB do not have to pay Apple any cut of phone sales, car rides, and house rentals. Apps with subscriptions pay the 30% cut the first year of someone’s purchase and 15% for all subsequent years. Games selling digital items for games always pay the 30% cut. It should also be noted that Apple doesn’t take cuts of any outside deals like advertising.
Epic doesn’t have much grounds to fire at Apple for the 30% cut because their video game coins cost them nothing—although epic does still have other expenses. Apple also supplies many developer tools, an audience for apps, and hosting for the app and updates, while not taking any cut from many other apps, so this 30% cut is rightly justified. But, Epic Games is not targeting the 30% directly, they are targeting the App Store as a whole, saying it has a monopoly over iOS app distribution and iOS payment processing. What Epic really wants is an Epic Games store on iOS. They also say they are fighting for others to be able to open up App Stores on iOS. I
There is really one place to look for phones with multiple app stores: Android. Android has the Google Play Store, but also the Amazon App Store, Aptoide, F-Droid, among many, many others. But if you’re like me, then you haven’t heard of these other app stores, and already don’t have a lot of trust in the Google Play Store, so you may not be likely to use other iOS app stores. There is, though, one example of an alternate iOS App Store appropriately called AltStore which takes advantage of some developer tools to put together a small app store, but it’s not in any way officially supported by Apple.
This may seem like a noble move from Epic, fighting for the little guy, allowing other app stores to compete with Apple. But, this is probably mostly for their gain—if things go right. If they win it could potentially make Apple required to accommodate other app stores on iOS, giving Epic Games power to earn a lot of profit and cut into the Apple’s profit. If they lose they will have to give Apple their 30% if they want to be on the App Store.
Is another App Store right for iOS? I don’t know. It could help create more competition to encourage Apple to play more fairly. But, It could also spectacularly fail because people trust the Apple App Store and wouldn’t even look at other options. Apple would also argue that this ruins their platform because users won’t be safe from random applications and Apple can no longer control every level of the system as they do beautifully right now. But, at the end of the day Epic is not the group to fight for this, they are “just a billion dollar company fighting a trillion dollar company about money.” – Tim Sweeney
What, then, does Apple need to change? To prevent issues like the Hey removal, they already fixed part of it by not blocking bug fix updates for guideline violations, but there is more. Apple needs to be more clear with the guidelines: what developers are doing wrong and how they will enforce the guidelines.
To fix the xCloud and game streaming issue, Apple, again, needs more clarity in how they respond to guideline violations so that developers know how to fix things. They also need to treat apps more equally so that a truly competitive App Store can exist. Apple may also need to separate themselves from reviewing apps that compete with their services if they can’t review them fairly, because game streaming should be allowed.
To fix the Fortnite issue they need to fight a lawsuit against Epic Games. This was not Apple’s problem, it was Epic targeting Apple for their market dominance. Maybe Apple wins and things stay the same or maybe Epic wins and things on iOS could change forever.