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Michaël Nass, the founder of FMobile and president of the Groupe MINASTE non-profit organisation operating FMobile is making a public letter destinated to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc. You can return to FMobile's main website by clicking here.
Dear Mr. Cook. Open letter to Apple.
E-mail sent on 19/08/2020.
Letter openly released on 22/08/2020.
Dear Mr. Cook (or anyone at Apple reading this email),
I have never written to Apple until now, but I feel what I have to say today is important. I’m French, therefore there will certainly be mistakes in my writing, I’m sorry about that. This will be a long mail, as I have a lot of things to say about the App Store, and I hope you will read it until the end.
1- Introduction and context
I am a student developer working in a small French non-profit organisation benevolently. We make apps and services that benefits a lot of people, very often for free or with the lowest prices possible when the costs are too high to offer the services. We always take care of every users security and privacy, just like Apple do, and we believe it is a normal thing, on top of being a moral thing to do, as a non-profit organisation.
I have always loved Apple and the Apple eco-system. My first digital device ever was a 4th gen iPod Touch. My first computer was a 24-inch iMac from 2008. Since then, I still use Apple products on a daily basis today: with a 2016 MacBook Pro, a 2018 iPad Pro and an iPhone 11, and the great Apple TV 4K. I am very happy with these devices. I love how the hardware and software are perfectly integrated into one product.
2 - The starting point: discovering my first genuinely bad experience with Apple
However, when I started publishing apps on the App Store in 2018, my vision of the perfect ecosystem shaded. I made an app that was very requested by French users of the Free Mobile carrier, like me. I found the app great, and did a beta test. A lot of people were also pleased with the app. I was really exited to publish my very first app. But things didn't went as planned. The App Review started rejecting my app every single time I tried to publish it, but every time for another reason until they completely stopped responding. It felt like having a great house, whose walls were tightening to the point I felt I was getting prisoned, except it had a small door. The small door was to abandon the project and leave the Apple platform as a developer. I did not want that. I wanted my big house back, by pushing the walls back to their place.
I submitted my first build on January 13rd 2019, but the App Review only approved it on May 4th of the same year. In parallel, we had another app concept to promote creations by a community of small developers that are never placed in foreground by the App Store but yet do interesting projects. The concept was as simple as listing an app available on the App Store (therefore safe apps) every Monday at 12AM on our app. The app was approved once, but when we tried to update it, it got refused because the concept of the app itself was against the App Store guidelines. We are not a company, we had no income from this app. We had great satisfaction from the small developer community and curious users seeking for small unknown projects, but we decided to completely abandon the project after the app update rejection. As my own app was growing fast in TestFlight, I did not abandon it as quickly as we did with the Small-App-Spotlight app. When it eventually made it on the App Store, I received again a lot of various rejections on every update I tried to upload an update. Very often, the rejection reasons are so unclear - if I get any because the rest of the time the App Review just doesn't review the app at all - that it just feels like the Review Team doesn't want the app to be on the store but cannot justify why and cannot quote a proper App Store Guideline rule.
3- The consequences for developers
This entire experience went to the point to, before tapping the «Send for Review» button on App Store Connect, I kept thinking: «What will they refuse the app for today?», knowing by experience the app wouldn't be published on the store on this day. This still continues today, and I began to warn other developers around me about this dark side of the Apple ecosystem. This is not a good experience, as I put a lot of efforts into this app, and it keeps being delayed for no reason, and absolutely never for a security/safety/privacy issue. I now have trust issues with Apple. I have no doubt the next product you will announce will be great, or the next operating system update you will push will be amazing and bring a lot of cool stuff to the end-users. But I now fear the App Store. I genuinely believe that with this behaviour, Apple is (perhaps unintentionally) killing the developers creativity. I had a lot of cool ideas I wanted to try to develop and bring to life on iOS or iPadOS, even if maybe nobody would be interested in them, I would have at least tried to and have fun bringing my ideas to life, but I never started them because I kept thinking about the app getting rejected and having done all the work for no reason. As a matter of fact, I voluntarly do not quote the apps nor organisation names in this email because I don’t trust Apple anymore enough to do that, and also because I do not expect a case-by-case resolution of this issue. This discourages me to continue developing on the Apple platform, even though the programming experience is great, especially with Xcode 12 that I have been using in beta and that is absolutely great compared to the previous version.
When I start a project, I used to think: «How will the people like it? Is it new and disruptive enough? It it breaking new boundaries and brining things that were not possible before?», and now I have to tell you I think: «How will the App Review like it? Is it standardised enough? Does it share common points to other apps that do similar things and are currently available on the store?», and at the same time I don’t like nor want to think like that when I start a project.
4- The in-app purchases problem
The in-app purchases is not a new problem. We have heard a lot of other developers complain about it, and so do we. As we are not a company, we let the users of our apps generously making a donation to our organisation to help finance bigger projects. And I have to say that letting Apple do profit out of our benevolent work is quite frustrating. We could use the missing money to make our apps better faster, but instead it goes right in Apple's wallet. Not only that, but also we used to provide official donation certificates using the HelloAsso payment network, the French nationwide donation portal for non-profit organisation, that takes no commission for us. And the in-app purchases just don’t allow us to do that. We tried to explain this situation to the App Review, but of course we did not succeed doing anything but listing to them and use the in-app purchases, against our willingness, after trying to completely remove the donations from our apps, which was something odd for us to do. The commission Apple takes on each in-app purchase is a problem some companies have to which we are not directly related, but to which I still personally believe such a high tax harms small businesses, and prevent fair competition notably in the Music streaming industry, to which Apple is directly involved and plays a big role.
[Added on 22/08/2020] Furthermore, we feel very uncomfortable using the In-App Purchases as were used to let the donater choose the amount he wants to donate using the HelloAsso platform, which we cannot do using Apple's Payement System. We are forced to make a selection of possible donations which are really painful to configure on App Store Connect and sound very commercial as none of them are round numbers (0.99$, 3.49$, etc...), and the little text "Uses in-app purchases" on the App Store page makes our apps look commercial when they are absolutely not. Finally, we cannot recieve donations when testing our non-published apps on TestFlight via Apple's Payement System, while it is the moment when they are the most welcome as we are actively seeking ressources to finalize these apps quicker. [End of addition]
5- In my opinion, the App Store should completely be rethinked
My trust issues with Apple are not definite. I still hope Apple does something about it. I want the App Store to be a safe place where developers can distribute any app they want, as long as they do not harm the end user or the device. The App Review role is important, but their mission should keep the App Store safe from malicious software, spamming apps, instead of exclusively deciding which app they will let in or out depending on what arranges the company or not. The review process needs to be more transparent, and the App Review Team should reject an app only if it is putting the end-user at risk. The Apple in-app purchases has real advantages in terms of security, easiness with Face ID, and the payment protection that Apple can offer, therefore it is completely legitimate for Apple to ask for a commission in exchange of the services provided. But at the same time, I believe Apple should also let app developers use an alternative payment system, like HelloAsso in our case, but as well as PayPal, Stripe, physical payement (SEPA transfer, cheques, gift cards…), or anything the end-user might want to use in addition to Apple’s payement system. Apple would still make the proposition of Apple’s Payement System mandatory to guarantee the safety of the users, but the developers would be able to choose other payment methods in addition to it, at the price they want. At the same time, I would love to distribute apps that are not flagship apps, but more fun apps that are worth more than a TestFlight non-beta link. Therefore, as another supposition, for a lot of my apps, I would definitely be ready to prevent them to being discoverable without a link or the exact app name, which means a significant reduction of visibility, in exchange of the certitude that it will be accepted as soon as it is not harmful for the user or the device, and that I can use the payment system of my choice in it.
If you have read this email that far, I salute your consideration to listening what your consumer have to say, and hope you will take them into account to make the App Store a more welcoming place for developers and more competitive market for the end-users. Other than the App Store, I really believe Apple is doing an amazing job at what it do, with the development tools, the AirPods experience, services like Apple Music, Apple TV+, iCloud, and of course the hardware and software, without forgetting the incredible effort to make the people's privacy protected. I can't wait for the first Apple Silicon Macs to come out and begin a historic transition for the Mac. I do not want to leave the Apple ecosystem and switch to another, because I find it is almost perfectly great. Almost. Therefore, I really hope I will soon be able to trust the App Store again with bold changes that will restore my confidence, and hopefully the confidence of thousands of other developers, of Apple being one of the greatest company in the world.
I know you and Apple can do it, and will eventually find your own way of doing it.
A tech-fan developer that has grown with the Apple ecosystem since 2011.