Apple burns developer goodwill with surprise release of iOS 14

Apple’s developer relations have hit another sour note. At the company’s hardware event on Tuesday, where it announced new Apple Watch devices and iPads, Apple surprised developers with the news that it would be releasing the updated versions of its major software platforms, iOS 14, iPadOS 14, watchOS 7 and tvOS 14 on September 16, giving them less than a day to prepare.

The unexpected and accelerated timeline left many developers scrambling to ready their apps for App Review and has complicated developers’ plans for the iOS 14 launch day.

Some, like popular podcast player, Overcast, simply informed its users that its planned iOS 14 features won’t be ready.

Others are less forgiving, noting that Apple’s decision to release iOS 14 without looping in the developer community has added, as developer Steve Troughton-Smith put it, “a whole lot of unnecessary stress on developers in an otherwise stressful year.”

In addition, Apple’s decision impacts those developers who choose to wait to support iOS 14.

Typically, developers will often leverage an iOS launch day to promote their apps’ new features via press releases, blog posts and social media. News coverage from app review sites may even include roundups of notable updates to favorite apps, or highlight those apps that have taken advantage of new iOS features in interesting ways.

This year, instead, the developer community can’t worry about chasing press and accolades, as they now have to get their app ready for the iOS 14 update ahead of schedule.

Consumers may also be impacted by the surprise release, as well, as some app makers are warning users their apps may not work properly on the new OS until they’re updated for compatibility. One high-profile example is Nintendo, who tweeted that its Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp game won’t function following the update and is asking users to wait before moving to iOS 14.

Developers, who are often blamed with scathing app reviews for bugs, worry that customers will do the same now — even though Apple didn’t even have the final version of Apple’s Xcode available at the time of its announcement.

iPhone owners, however, are quick to update their software to the latest release. Ahead of Apple’s developer conference this summer, Apple released new iOS figures that indicated its iOS 13 operating system, which debuted in September 2019, had since been installed on 91% of all iPhones released within the last four years, and on 81% of all compatible iPhones.

That means there’s little time for iOS developers to update their apps before a majority of the iOS user base has moved to the new version.

This latest gaffe follows months of heavy-handed App Store rejections on Apple’s part, which even lead to a huge blowup between Apple and Basecamp over its modern email app, Hey, which was rejected over in-app purchase rules. Apple’s increased attention to potential in-app purchase losses also saw it rejecting the WordPress app at one point, forcing the company to issue a rare apology after being called out publicly.

Now, Apple is battling in court with Fortnite maker Epic Games over Apple’s right to commission Epic’s business when there’s no other means of addressing the iPhone market outside of Apple’s App Store. A company as large as Epic doesn’t need to rely on the services Apple provides, like distribution and Apple Pay, it argues, but is forced to by Apple’s terms.

Developers have also been taking note of how Apple describes its App Store business in its court filings, calling it something developers “reap the benefits from” — a turn of phrase that rubbed some developers the wrong way. After all, people buy iPhones for a number of reasons, but its ability to run apps is high among them.

Developers have watched, too, as Apple attempted to yank away Epic’s Apple Developer accounts, including those for its related game development platform, Unity, as well as Epic’s ability to support its users through “Sign in with Apple.” These hardball tactics on Apple’s part made it apparent to developers that Apple is ready and willing to leverage developers’ dependence on Apple’s tools to punish any developers who step out of line.

Then there’s the fact that Apple has been the focus of antitrust investigations into its App Store business that revealed how the company cut special deals, despite its claims that the App Store is “an even playing field.”

Recently, Apple updated its App Store rules to better spell out its terms around commissions and to find a path for new game streaming services to join the App Store. But the result is that its rules have now grown so complex, with so many carve-outs and exceptions, that some developers may be confused about what’s permitted.

In addition to this growing swell of developer resentment, Apple sprung the next-day release of iOS 14 on a developer community who, like everyone else, is trying to function during the coronavirus pandemic — a crisis that has completely upended people’s day-to-day lives. Many developers are now working remotely and homeschooling children. They may be directly impacted by COVID-19, too, perhaps with a sick family member.

Apple hasn’t explained to either the public or developers the reason behind its decision for the surprise launch.

correction: Epic Games creates Unreal engine. This post was updated to correct a mistaken reference.