Last week we saw another heated App Store controversy, as a new email app ran afoul of Apple’s in-app purchase rules, resulting in some sharp words from the developers and a seemingly intransigent response from Apple.
The app in question, Hey, was actually the client app for a new paid email service that had been developed by Basecamp, the maker of the popular eponymous online project management tool. The problem was that since Hey is a cross-platform service, the iOS app is only one point of entry, and naturally the developers didn’t want to give up a 30% cut of their subscription revenue by offering in-app purchases.
So instead, Basecamp did what many other big companies like Netflix and Amazon have been doing for years — they simply released the app without any support for in-app purchases at all. Instead, users were required to sign up on the website before they could use the iOS app.
On the surface, this should have been perfectly acceptable, since it’s literally the exact same thing that Netflix is doing — download the Netflix app and open it and you’ll be presented with a screen that requires you to sign in, or tells you that you’ll have to visit Netflix’s web site to sign up.
Not a ‘Reader’ App
Unfortunately for Basecamp, it seems that Netflix is covered under an exception in the App Store guidelines that doesn’t apply to email apps. Specifically, a clause on “Reader” apps makes allowances for apps that are designed to consume content from an online service, such as Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime and Kindle, and even Dropbox and Google Drive, but it doesn’t apply to things like email apps.
While the first version of Hey for iOS was approved, Apple blocked subsequent updates on the basis that the developer wasn’t offering subscriptions via in-app purchase, and in fact noted that the original version should never have been approved in the first place.
Unlike some developers who would have either walked away disappointed or caved to Apple’s demands, Basecamp’s team did neither — CTO David Heinemeier Hansson, who has already been quite vocal about App Store antitrust issues took to Twitter to rail against Apple, claiming that it was acting like a bunch of “gangsters” and calling the behaviour “abusive and unfair.”
Not Changing the Rules
Meanwhile, on the other side, Apple’s Senior VP of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, made it clear that Apple wasn’t about to change the rules just to accommodate Hey. However, in the process, Schiller also emphasized that it wasn’t about the money — or at least not just about the money — but insisted that Apple was concerned about providing a positive customer experience.
To Schiller — and, by extension, Apple — this “positive customer experience” means that users should be able to download an app and actually expect it to do something right out of the box, without having to go somewhere else to sign up for a service. As Schiller said, “You download [Hey] and it doesn’t work. That’s not what we want on the App Store.”
Schiller’s comments actually cleared up one of the mysteries about Apple’s decision regarding Hey, and that’s the fact that Basecamp’s other mainstream app, Basecamp, has always been available on the App Store, despite also being a front-end app for a paid online service that doesn’t fit into any of Apple’s exceptions. The difference, however, is that Basecamp offers a free tier for personal use, whereas Hey cannot be used without payment.
Again, however, there’s a certain inconsistency to this, as Apple has long allowed apps like Netflix that similarly “don’t work” when you first download them unless you’re already a subscriber, but clearly for whatever reason Apple considers these “reader” apps to be acceptable. Perhaps this is due to their popularity in general, or maybe Apple just assumes that users are less likely to be surprised to discover that they need to subscribe to services like Netflix and Spotify before they can actually watch or listen to content.
Either way, it seems like Schiller’s comments likely resonated with Basecamp’s developers, giving them a way to appease Apple without having to bake in-app purchases into their iOS app and give Apple a cut of their revenue. In fact, in an interview with TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino, Schiller suggested that offering a free version with additional functions was one of the things that Basecamp could do to make the app acceptable to Apple.
A Path Forward
As Jason Fried, Basecamp’s CEO reported on Monday, the company got a surprise late Friday night when Apple suddenly approved the iOS app update that had been pending for most of the week.
Late Friday night, on June 19th, Apple’s App Store Review Board surprised us by approving the pending bug fixes to the HEY iOS app that were held up all last week.Jason Fried, Basecamp CEO
In a 9:15 p.m. email from Apple’s App Store Review team referred to a series of “olive branch” Tweets from CTO David Heinemeier Hansson, where he basically called Schiller’s potential bluff, adding that while they “won’t be shaken down for 30% of revenues” they’re will to “try some of the other ‘many things'” that Schiller suggested.
While the pending Hey update didn’t immediately reflect any changes to the service, Apple’s team noted in response to Hansson’s Tweets that they were willing to approve the update in good faith in order to work with the Basecamp team on a “path forward.”
In his announcement, Fried cited Schiller’s comments about the app not working out of the box, saying that his team “thought we were following Apple’s unwritten rules for multi-platform SaaS products” — the same rules that seem to have applied to “long-approved apps from Netflix, Google, Salesforce, and Nintendo,” and while Fried still expresses bewilderment as to why Hey should be treated differently, he conceded that complying with Schiller’s suggestion of offering a free version of the app with basic features was obviously the path of least resistance.
So, as Fried notes, Basecamp’s team worked over the weekend to get an update onto Apple’s desk on Monday morning to add the changes that Schiller asked for, which was to allow users to sign up directly in-app for what is essentially still only a free trial, but seems like it may be enough to appease Apple’s App Store Review team.
In short, the way that Hey will work now is that users who download the app on iOS will be able to sign up directly within the app for a free, temporary, and randomized email address just so that they can try out the service. The address will work for 14 days, “like a temporary SIM card you buy when travelling,” but users who want to keep using the service will need to eventually go to Hey.com directly to sign up for a paid account.
Whether this will actually satisfy Apple remains to be seen, since its stance on “trial” apps has always been a bit unclear, but it seems likely that Apple will take it as a concession to allow it to back down on its stance on Hey without losing face.
While it’s nice to see a happy ending here, the unfortunate part is that it still doesn’t really address the bigger picture, which is the fact that many of Apple’s App Store rules seem inconsistent and capricious at the best of times, and while arguably they are just App Store Review Guidelines, Apple still needs to do a better job of establishing some more practical ground rules and communicating them effectively to create a more welcoming environment for developers. After all, for every one developer like David Heinemeier Hansson who has no problem speaking out, there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of developers who are afraid to speak out for fear of offending Apple. In fact, as John Gruber recently noted, “almost none do.” Apple still needs to be better than this.