In a brief call today about Basecamp’s Hey email app from the iOS App Store, Apple’s Phil Schiller told me that there would currently be no changes to its rules that would allow the app to continue to be offered.
“Sitting here today, there’s not any changes to the rules that we are considering,” Schiller said. “There are many things that they could do to make the app work within the rules that we have. We would love for them to do that.”
The call came after several days of public scrutiny of Apple’s handling of the Hey app. After an initial approval, the developers at Basecamp, including two of its founders, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, took to Twitter to note that an update had been repeatedly rejected, with the core of the argument being that they were not offering an in-app purchase for the full service in addition to offering it on the Hey website.
The current experience of the Hey app as a user downloading it from the App Store is that it does nothing. It is an app that requires you to subscribe to the Hey service on the web before it becomes useful.
“You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store,” says Schiller. This, he says, is why Apple requires in-app purchases to offer the same purchasing functionality as they would have elsewhere.
To be clear, this is against the App Store rules for most apps. The exceptions here are apps that are viewed as “readers” that only display external content of certain types, like music, books and movies — and apps that only offer bulk pricing options that are paid for by institutions or corporations rather than the end user.
Schiller is clear on our call that Hey does not fit these rules.
“We didn’t extend these exceptions to all software,” he notes about the “reader” type apps — examples of which include Netflix. “Email is not and has never been an exception included in this rule.”
In fact, Hey’s Mac App was rejected for the exact behavior for which the iOS app is being targeted. Schiller says that the iOS app’s original version was approved in error, and should never have shipped to the store.
The questions, then, really center around whether this should be the case, rather than is there some sort of arcane vision of the current App Store rules that would allow the Hey app to continue to be on the store.
I asked Schiller if this meant Apple felt entitled to a portion of the revenue of every business that had an app, regardless of whether that business was an iOS-first.
“I get why there’s a question here,” he says. “But that’s not what we’re doing.”
Schiller says that there are a number of decisions about how to charge customers that Basecamp could have made to make the app acceptable under current rules. He lists several, including charging different prices in the app and on the web, and offering a free version with additional functions.
But, he says, if you’re going to charge for it and it is a digital service, then Apple wants developers to use the in-app purchase mechanic and Apple payment system to ensure that users have a good experience in the app and that the payment system is secured.
One way that Hey could have gone, Schiller says, is to offer a free or paid version of the app with basic email reading features on the App Store, then separately offered an upgraded email service that worked with the Hey app on iOS on its own website. Schiller gives one more example: an RSS app that reads any feed, but also reads an upgraded feed that could be charged for on a separate site. In both cases, the apps would have functionality when downloaded on the store.
Other options are more familiar to many users, which includes a completely free app with an upsell that is also an in-app purchase.
Unfortunately, of course, the current rules would prevent Hey from advertising or even mentioning any upgraded service, and that would have to be marketed through off-app channels.
The ongoing debate around the issue is summed up well by Sarah Perez on TechCrunch yesterday and I encourage you to read that if you’re not up to date. And just today a story in the Times landed about Facebook’s gaming app having been rejected for rules five times. All of this brewing a perfect storm in advance of Apple’s WWDC conference aimed at developers and nearly day and date with the launch of an EU antitrust investigation.
I’ve been thinking hard about it myself, as someone who covers Apple extensively and has often been witness to the behind-the-scenes anxiety that developers have about whether Apple will reject an app from one moment to the next because of a personal interpretation of the App Store rules.
I think that, for me, it boils down to some simple observations. The fact is that Hey violates app store rules. Which means that the question is not “how can we contort those rules or squint enough to justify it” but instead “should those be the rules”?
As far as why Apple would look at a situation like this and not see an obvious minefield, I believe that it internally thinks that it is doing the right and just thing. It built the platform, it deserves to profit from that platform which does contribute enormous economic impact to both digital and physical sectors. And there are indisputable security and privacy benefits to Apple controlling the payments platform.
And for those that would say “but surely it sees the optics!” I think that those people often underestimate the power of scale. Apple approves some 100,000 apps every week and the vast majority of rejections are for minor issues quickly fixed. That kind of scale can often bend perception on behalf of an organization and its guiding forces, because they see a vast calm sea with a few breakers — where the media is focused on the breakers alone.
Here’s how I feel about that, though, and where the blind spots may lie here.
- There may be (and my back channel, and other people’s back channels, indicate that there is) a large groundswell of resentment and irritation with the App Store that goes un-expressed because people are afraid and need it to survive.
- Sometimes the source of the criticism matters — Hansson may be annoying and vociferous and takes a worst-motivations stance in his public comms, but change and self examination do not always originate with people who we consider to be our friends or allies. And it is twice as hard to apply the change that comes from people who are angry and seemingly unkind — but maybe right.
Call me naive, but I do feel that there is a superset of genuine, core values that Apple does apply to its business in a way that is genuinely unique among big corporations. I’m sure some people will disagree (read: many) but I’ve seen it first-hand in covering the company and in discussions (official and personal) with many, many, many of its executives and rank and file employees over the years. Much like John Gruber I find it hard to square the circle with finding a way forward here that sets aside “we are doing what is right” for “what is the right thing to do”?
Shortly before publishing this interview, Apple provided a letter to TechCrunch that was also sent to Fried and Hey.
The letter reiterates the reasons Apple says that Hey does not comply with current App Store policy. It reads, in part:
“Thank you for being an iOS app developer. We understand that Basecamp has developed a number of apps and many subsequent versions for the App Store for many years, and that the App Store has distributed millions of these apps to iOS users. These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years. We are happy to continue to support you in your app business and offer you the solutions to provide your services for free — so long as you follow and respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow.”
So for now, no thawing.
Full letter follows:
We are writing to let you know the appeal results for your app, HEY Email.
The App Review Board evaluated your app and determined that the rejection was valid. Your app does not comply with the App Store Review Guidelines detailed below. As you are aware, this is the reason your Hey Email app was rejected when it was submitted to the Mac App Store on June 11, 2020.
The HEY Email app is marketed as an email app on the App Store, but when users download your app, it does not work. Users cannot use the app to access email or perform any useful function until after they go to the Basecamp website for Hey Email and purchase a license to use the HEY Email app. This violates the following App Store Review Guidelines:
Guideline 3.1.1 – Business – Payments – In-App Purchase
If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, you must use in-app purchase. Your app requires customers to purchase content, subscriptions, or features outside of the app, but those items are not available as in-app purchases within the app as required by the App Store Review Guidelines.
Guideline 3.1.3(a) – Business – Payments – “Reader” Apps
Reader apps may allow users to access previously purchased content and content subscriptions. Your mail app is not one of the content types allowed under this guideline for “Reader” apps (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VOIP, cloud storage, or approved services such as classroom management apps). Therefore, customers must be given the option to purchase access to features or functionality in your app using in-app purchase.
Guideline 3.1.3(b) – Business – Payments – Multiplatform Services
Apps that operate services across multiple platforms may allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired in your app on other platforms or on your website, provided those items are also available as in-app purchases within the app. Your HEY Email app does not offer access to content, subscriptions, or features as in-app purchases within the app. In fact, the app does not function as an email app or for any purpose until the user goes to the Basecamp Hey Email website to start a free trial or purchase a separate license to use the app for its intended purpose.
To resolve this issue, please revise your app such that it does not violate any of the App Store Review Guidelines and terms.
There are a number of ways that you could revise your app or service to adhere to the App Store Review Guidelines. Customers who have previously purchased access to content, subscriptions, or features elsewhere may continue to access these items in your app, as long as new iOS customers are given the option to purchase access using in-app purchase as required by the App Store Review Guidelines.
If you would prefer not to offer users the option of in-app purchases, you could consider having the app function as marketed — an email client that works with standard IMAP and POP email accounts, where customers can optionally configure the Hey Email service as their preferred email service provider. This would allow the app to function as an email client without requiring an additional payment to use its features and functionality. Under this approach, what you sell on your website is clearly an email service separate from the function of your app as distributed on the App Store.
We are here as a resource as you explore these or other ideas to bring the Hey Email app within compliance of the App Store Review Guidelines and terms.
Thank you for being an iOS app developer. We understand that Basecamp has developed a number of apps and many subsequent versions for the App Store for many years, and that the App Store has distributed millions of these apps to iOS users. These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years. We are happy to continue to support you in your app business and offer you the solutions to provide your services for free — so long as you follow and respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow.
We hope to assist you in offering the Hey Email app on the App Store.
App Review Board