Sunday, February 13, 2022

A few tweets perfectly sum up the structural unsustainability of exclusive iOS app review by Apple

In my recent post on Microsoft's answers to the App Store monopoly mess, I called Apple a hermit kingdom and said "a market failure in capitalism actually creates a situation that has a lot in common with a communist dictatorship." Alternatively, one can also liken this structural problem--as I did in a Korea Times op-ed last year--to medieval feudalism. That's not really better from a competition standpoint.

With open app markets and multi-platform app stores, Microsoft proposes a real fix, not just a symptomatic cure or window dressing. While Apple encourages developers to report on their App Store experience, it's hard to trust them until they take real steps to address the real issues. Anything less is make-belief, lip service, or window-dressing.

The question is not whether Apple should be allowed to operate a store. They're not a Walmart because you can't open a competing store across the street, the equivalent of which would be an alternative store on iOS. The alternative is not to reach a billion users--which is not an option. The best solution is to have alternative app stores competing for developers. Another possibility would be to restrict Apple's control over its own store as long as it's the only game in town.

Developers are rightly frustrated. However, it's important to focus on structures, not people. Comments on social media--or even court filings, such as in Coronavirus Reporter v. Apple--that attack Tim Cook are not constructive, such as this recent tweet by Paul Graham. Based on his biography, there's no reason to assume Steve Jobs would have qualms over how Apple is treating developers. Jobs might even have reacted furiously to some of the criticism (including, but not limited to, the #FreeFortnite campaign). If Tim Cook retires in a few years without having done a single meaningful thing that improves Apple's treatment of developers, then one can still blame him. There can be no doubt that he wants the best for Apple and that he is extremely rational, so with all that's going on in terms of legislation, regulation, and litigation, there still is the chance of Apple making all the right choices--right not just in a legal or moral sense, but also best for Apple itself.

Today I really just wanted to draw the attention of my professional audience to a few tweets that I consider highly illustrative of the structural problems with app review.

First, an Apple-Microsoft comparison by @littlesteve:

As for "computer says no," the problem is that Apple has to handle such huge quantities of app submissions every day that they have to automate the process to a high degree, and flexibly assign new requests to whoever is available to respond. That makes the experience impersonal most of the time. Also, it's understandable that even when you do communicate with someone at App Review, they just give you their first name (which may not even be their real one). I wouldn't blame them for any of that if we didn't depend on them like we do.

It's also understandable that Apple says you must submit an actual app to them to get a decision. You can't just describe what you plan to develop and ask them whether they will approve. Here, again, the problem is not that they do it that way: the problem is that if you actually create that app and they reject it, it's one click for them (plus another to reject your appeal) and an enormous loss for you as a developer.

On Friday, David Barnard of @RevenueCat stated "the asymmetry of App Review" extremely well in this tweet:

Dave Wood describes the same problem in different words, and rightly notes that Apple lacks democratic legitimacy for the power it has over developers:

Alex Guichet, a former member of Apple's App Review team who is now working for Tesla, says this was one of the reasons he left, and followed up explaining that senior management--not the app review team itself--is responsible for this situation:

Some of the same people who believe Steve Jobs would treat developers better than Tim Cook--such as the Coronavirus Reporter folks--doubt the quality of the app review team. That, too, is just a distraction from the structural issues that need to be fixed. In 2020 I was in contact with an app review team leader named Bill, and even when we disagreed, it was always a rational and constructive discussion. There may be other app reviewers who are less experienced or sophisticated, but I take Alex Guichet's word for it that he had great colleagues there who understood the problem.

Apple is still adamant about not loosening his death grip on iOS apps unless courts and governments force them to. That is regrettable, but Apple can only delay the inevitable.

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