Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Apple's tardy removal of scam ChatGPT app: broken app review is strong argument for breaking App Store monopolies (as Republican House majority intends)

Yesterday the Coalition for App Fairness quoted (on LinkedIn, and via the Washington Post) from an agenda paper by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives the following action item:

"Ensure app stores are not engaging in unfair or deceptive practices against developers without expansive anti-trust authorities for Chair Lina Khan."

Between the FTC and the DOJ, it's actually the latter that is addressing App Store issues. It would be great if the former at least recognized that Microsoft's acquisition of Activision Blizzard can make a major contribution to the #OpentheAppStores effort. But at this stage that may be too much to ask for.

Some people--including some of Apple's and Google's allies--claimed that the narrow Republican victory in last fall's House of Representative elections would spell doom for a revival of the Open App Markets Act initiative (The Open App Markets Act is dead, long live the Open App Markets Act) during the current (118th) Congressional term. It's not going to be easy to put the OAMA back on the agenda. But it's the best proposal that has so far been made by Capitol Hill lawmakers to "[e]nsure app stores are not engaging in unfair or deceptive practices against developers."

Just asking Apple and Google to refrain from such behavior would definitely not be capable of improving the situation. Hard and fast rules are imperative.

Apple's app review is broken for the combination of three reasons:

  • It's simply not practicable without major negative effects on the app development process and on many app developers' businesses to have a single company review all apps, and to have more power than governments as rulemakers on what apps (and functionalities) are acceptable.

  • Despite its huge levels of profits, Apple employs only a fraction of the number of app reviewers as Google. As an app developer I got the impression that Google--whose app review rules I've also complained of--has developed some better tools for automating parts of the review process, just based on the material (screenshots etc.) that Google sent along with rejection notices.

  • Apple's app review is just about enforcement of rules--rules that are largely just designed to strengthen Apple's strangehold on the app economy and to maxmimize user lock-in. If you submit an update to an existing app with new features, they won't care unless those features relate to their economic interests. The moment you create a new in-app purchasing (IAP) item, app review will take longer because taxing app developers is what Apple's app review is primarily about. In one word: greed.

Former app reviewers have criticized the state of affairs. I don't doubt that many of the people working in that department would like to do a good job, but Apple's priority number one is not to do what's best for end users. The only solution is to have third-party app stores so there will be competition among multiple app stores not only on price but also on the quality of app review.

As TechCrunch and others reported, Apple's App Store and the Google Play Store were "flooded with dubious ChatGPT apps": apps that charge end users looking to find a ChatGPT app, which its maker (OpenAI) hasn't published so far. Those apps then monetized ChatGPT through IAP offerings, when in reality anyone can use ChatGPT for free via the web. Some of that scam reached the top of the App Store charts.

After those reports were published, Google reacted, but Apple was slow to respond even with respect to the most successful one of those apps:

As Mysk noted on Twitter, the App Store was even showing ads promoting that app while there were media reports out there flagging the issue:

TechCrunch updated its article to mention the belated removal of that app, but mentioned that plenty of other apps referencing ChatGPT still remained on the App Store.

It's typical of tyrants that instead of putting out fires quickly, they're too busy celebrating themselves, as did Apple's Eddy Cue in his reflections on last year. No one would deny that the App Store has made a lot of money. It's just that if Apple was not abusing its aftermarket monopoly, app developers would be able to invest even more and customers would get better products at lower prices. If the iPhone had never been created, it might have taken another five years or more for touchscreen phones without physical keyboards to succeed, but it's not realistic that it wouldn't have happened at all. Google showed, albeit as a fast follower, how easy it was to quickly implement that kind of user experience, and Apple's patent assertions failed to kneecap Android. Now, the situation Android is only gradually better, and in my previous post (on Google's efforts to get the enforcement of an Indian antitrust ruling stayed) I stressed the importance of a level playing field for third-party app stores on Android. One company's unreasonableness doesn't justify the other's similar conduct. It would have been possible to have a mobile revolution without an app tax and without an app review tyranny.

Will Apple apologize for having enabled and promoted the scam, and will it automatically refund iPhone and iPad users who were ripped off?