Hey, Controversy

Apple sides with users, and Hey, that didn’t work out for a new app.

As you have all likely seen this week, there has been some App Store drama over Apple’s rejection of the Hey.com email client. This is a story that has two important parts:

  1. App Store Rules
  2. App Store Rule Enforcement

But first, the drama.

  1. Hey.com is a subscription email service only, and you can only buy said service on their website.
  2. They had an approved iOS email client.
  3. They launched, and submitted a bug fix for review in the App Store.
  4. Bug fix update to the app was rejected, because the app gives the user no way to pay for the subscription in the app, via an In-App Purchase, and instead is web driven.

Pause here for a moment, because there are two things to be outraged by: that the app was initially allowed, and then rejected; and that surely you can name other apps which require a subscription, but which you cannot subscribe in the app. Others are just mad this rule exists.

The rest of the story is then that the Hey.com powers-that-be complained on twitter to try and get social justice for their app. This, actually, is a proven strategy which works a lot of the time. And makes all parties look very whiny.

This time it did not work, as Apple’s Phil Schiller basically came out to say: put up or shut up — if you don’t like our rules, then go somewhere else.

And to be clear, getting someone like Schiller to respond was the entire purpose of the social media outrage, it’s just that Hey.com did not think that would be his response. And that sucks for Hey.com because there’s a simple ‘new service success matrix’ and having a good native app on iOS is a crucial part of that matrix.

Or put another way:

  1. Hey.com needs to be on the App Store in order to be successful (who wants web mail on an iPhone?)
  2. The App Store does not need Hey.com to be successful.
  3. The App Store is private and has rules, don’t play by those, you get booted.

That’s life. I don’t know if it should change or how and I don’t care. This is the reality and it was a known thing going into it. That’s the bottom line.

Now let’s talk about those two things I mentioned at the top:

1. The Rules

A lot of people take issue with the fact that Apple wants a cut of revenue from developers for subscriptions. The cut is big at 30% for the first year and then 15% thereafter. And these developers almost feel like: Apple should be lucky there are apps (look at Android, burn); and Apple makes fuck-tons (technical term) of profit so this is a meaningless amount of money to them.

Let’s me explain why these are poor arguments to use against Apple. Apple is a publicly traded, for profit, company. And as such, they have a duty to shareholders to make profit, not to give it away because they “have enough” profit — but to increasingly make as much profit as possible.

That’s how the stock market works, sorry to burst your utopia — but the job of Apple is not to let a penny slip by. So for Apple the calculus is not “are we ethical” the calculus is: will this hurt profit? The answer is really simple to figure out: how many developers (and thus how much revenue) would Apple lose by sticking to its guns, versus how much money they would lose by reducing their cut to something lower than what it is.

Or to put this another way, if you want Apple to reduce fees by half what it is now then you have to prove that by not changing the fees, Apple is bound to lose half (or more) of their revenues in the App Store by way of developers leaving or something. Which, yeah, not likely.

Thus, the rules are not likely to change.

Apple is essentially saying: developers should be so lucky that this platform is so enormous for them to sell on. So easy for them to sell on, and so well supported for them to sell on. They should happily give us our cut. Again, you don’t have to agree with the cut, but you need to base your understanding in reality — Apple is one of the largest companies in the world, and to argue against something they are doing, you need to do so in the frame of their world, not yours.

Remember what I said: these apps need Apple, more than Apple needs these apps. Case in point: Microsoft Word, versus Pages. If an important enough app is not cutting it for users, Apple just makes the app themselves and gives it away for free. Ask Microsoft how that works out for them.

So yes, you can leave the App Store, but even if your app were seen as essential by Apple and users, that would just lead Apple to write the app themselves. The math is super simple (because giving in, would be a cut across the board, so it is cheaper to write an app, then give away half the App Store revenue or possibly more). That’s why it would take more than just one app — and keep in mind every year Apple removes this risk by making more of the successful apps themselves. Every year.

Now, many are saying that the government should get involved finally and regulate shit. First: have you seen the current government? Second: this is a lose-lose for all parties: users, developers, and shareholders of Apple. Because what developers are really asking for is black and white rules, but what the government is very good at is decidedly not black and white rules — have you ever filed taxes? That’s what we would get, the government solution would be harder for Apple to enforce, be harder for developers to play by, and result in fewer options for users. Literally you would be consulting lawyers before you could submit an app, and can you afford that? And that’s considering the government even understood the nuances of the App Store, which I highly doubt this government does.

(For further reading, catch up on Microsoft after the anti-trust lawsuit, they basically were stagnant for a decade plus.)

The best way to get the rules to change is for enough developers to threaten to leave, in other words a union. But it’s also gotta be the right developers, the ones making money in the store. But if they an app is making money, why would they want to make it easier for their competition by joining some union? They wouldn’t.

Yikes, look I am not saying agree with the rules, but I am saying: be realistic and see the entire picture. Change is great and all, but perhaps you are spending your energy on the wrong change. ((Have you read the news?))

2. Rule Enforcement

This is where I think Apple really fucks up. As they are not very consistent about rule enforcement. So because this is my site, let’s amp the feels you have on this by way of analogy.

Let’s say Apple requires that you do not wear a face mask when you enter the Apple Store. Now, clearly, this is a stupid rule and fuck them, but also it is their store, their rule, and their right to be stupid. So you want to buy a Mac in the store, and you walk in with your mask on because you are sane. The rule has an asterisk about certain people being allowed to wear a mask, and you think you apply.

You walk in, and are initially let in by the security guard who frankly doesn’t give a shit, it’s a good gig and he doesn’t need your trouble. Then an Apple Store employee stops you, tells you about the rule and says you can remove the mask, or leave, your choice, but they are super sorry about it.

Now you are pissed, so you ask for the manager. The manager comes out, listens to what is going on, says you don’t count as an asterisk and tells you to remove the mask or leave.

So now you are telling everyone passing by in the mall (remember how that used to be!) that this is happening and many are like “fuck Apple”, some are like “fuck you”, and I am like “just go somewhere else then, stop being annoying”. But your strategy works, and out of the back of the Apple Store trots Phil Schiller, and he listens to what you say and then says: nah you gotta take off the mask or leave.

Even though you pointed out others wearing masks, even though you point out the asterisk — sorry their store, their rules. So you have to decide.

Clearly they should allow you to wear a mask (science!), but also like oh well. And I get it, you wanted to buy a Mac, but sorry. Apple gets to make the rules for the things they own, and they get to enforce them too.

Apple is inconsistent at enforcing this particular rule, because the rule is not black and white and that alone is pissing people off. You don’t know why others are allowed to wear masks and you can’t, and that alone is something to be pissed about.

Aside: You have to vote with your money

I want the convenience of Amazon deliveries, even though I know they fuck over those who work in their logistics chain.

Chick Fil-A if epically good, and I still eat there, even though I know they are ethically horrid.

We have to make choices with what businesses we patronize, and if those businesses offer something no one else does, we tend to ignore the other wrongs they do, and spend money there. You want change? You vote with your wallet, it is that simple. If a company thinks profits might be hurt long term by not changing, then they will change. We are literally seeing that all over from #metoo to #blm. It does work, but the message needs to be clear. The message on twitter about Hey.com is anything but clear.

Aside about IAP subscriptions

One thing I am sure that pisses Apple off is that developers have been using this tool as a loophole for a long time. They have been avoiding giving Apple a cut by subscribing users outside the App Store. I am sure this pisses Apple off, it would piss me off. And I am sure that plays into this.

I can also see that Apple has learned from the past. Schiller did make the rule a little more black and white “reader apps are exempt” being the statement (paraphrased). And with introducing ‘Sign in with Apple’ it is a clear: you must do this rule as well. New rules seem to be written to avoid ambiguity and bad enforcement. Apple does change, it’s just likely not to be in the way you want them to change.

Focus on Users

Apple employs an extremely simple, but effective business strategy: focus on making the best experience for users, and you will make loads of money. Amazon, Google, Uber, and many others copy this. But Apple is king of this strategy.

If Hey.com, or any other developer, wants an exception to the rule, then you need to prove that the best thing for the user is to grant that exception. Allow me to explain in two cases.


You cannot sign up for Netflix in the Netflix app, and Apple allows this and they say the do because it is a content consumption app. Which is likely a good cover-your-ass statement. The real reason: not having Netflix on the App Store would be objectively worse for users than Apple bending the IAP subscription rule.

Or put another way: if Android has a Netflix app, and iOS does not, then iOS is likely to lose more iOS users and thus profit than they would if they just waived rule and allowed the app. So even though the Netflix app is not an ideal user experience, it is the best Apple can do and Apple clearly feels not having Netflix on the iPhone is worse for the user than bending the IAP rules.


Now what Hey.com is saying: users have to subscribe on our website. What Apple is saying: that’s a worse user experience.

Stop there, because I know a ton of you agree with Hey.com, but I need you to be realistic as an iOS user. Is your argument that, as a user, the best experience is to use Safari to sign up and pay for Hey.com, and then further to always have to go to their website to manage that auto-recurring subscription? Is that really the argument? I think not.

Because that’s the worst user experience. The best is to have the App Store manage it, it makes signing up easier, safer, and faster. It makes management way easier.

So Apple, in looking at this says: it is objectively worse for users to bend the IAP rule, and by blocking Hey.com we are not likely to lose any meaningful amount of users. There are plenty of other options, so no, we will not make the experience worse for users.

Hey did not prove their case, and Apple sided with the users. You are also a user. Do you really want all these subscription based apps to start punting you to a website to sign up? Or do you actually find IAPs the best way to pay for subscriptions?

Yeah… Apple clearly agrees with you, that IAP subscriptions are way better than web subscriptions. And that’s why Hey.com got rejected, and frankly was always rolling the dice.

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