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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $ 120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $ 544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, one story completely took over the news cycle: Hey vs. Apple. An App Store developer dispute made headlines not because Apple was necessarily in the wrong, per its existing rules, but because of a growing swell of developer resentment against those rules. We’re giving extra bandwidth to this story this week, before jumping into the other headlines.

Also this week we look at what’s expected to arrive at next week’s WWDC20, the TikTok clone Zynn getting banned from both app stores (which is totally fine, I guess!), Facebook’s failed attempts to get its Gaming app approved by Apple, as well as some notable Android updates and other app industry trends.

Main Story: Hey vs. Apple

One story dominated this week’s app news. Unless you were living under the proverbial rock, there’s no way you missed it. After Basecamp received App Store approval for its new email app called Hey, the founders, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, turned to Twitter to explain how Apple had now rejected the app’s further updates. Apple told Basecamp it had to offer in-app purchases (IAP) for its full email service within the app, in addition to offering it on the company website. They were not happy, to say the least.

This issue came to a head at a time when regulators are taking a closer look at Apple’s business. The company is facing antitrust investigations in both the U.S. and the E.U. which, in part, will attempt to determine if Apple is abusing its market power to unfairly dominate its competitors. In Hey’s case, the subscription-based app competes with Apple’s built-in free Mail app, which could put this case directly in the regulators’ crosshairs.

But it also brings up the larger concerns over how Apple’s App Store rules have evolved to become a confusing mess which developers — and apparently even Apple’s own App Store reviewers — don’t fully understand. (Apple reportedly told Basecamp that Hey should have never been approved in the first place without IAP.)

Apple has carved out a number of conditions where apps don’t have to implement IAP, by making exceptions for enterprise apps that may have per-seat licensing plans for users and for a set of apps that more directly compete with Apple’s own. These, Apple calls “reader” apps, as they were originally directed making an exception for Amazon’s Kindle. But now this rule offers exceptions to the IAP rule for apps focused on magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, VoIP, access to professional databases, cloud storage, and more.

That leaves other digital service providers wondering why their apps have to pay when others don’t.

Apple didn’t help its argument, when earlier in the week it released a report that detailed how its App Store facilitated $ 519B in commerce last year. The company had aimed to prove how much business flows through the App Store without Apple taking a 30% commission, positioning the portion of the market Apple profits from as a tiny sliver. But after the Hey debacle, this report only drives home how Apple has singled out one type of app-based business — digital services — as the one that makes the App Store its money.

Apple’s decision to squander its goodwill with the developer community the week before WWDC is an odd one. Heinemeier Hansson, a content marketing expert, easily bested the $ 1.5 trillion dollar company by using Apple’s hesitance to speak publicly against it. He set the discussion on fire, posted App Store review email screenshots to serve as Apple’s voice, and let the community vent.

Amid the Twitter outrage, large publishers’ antitrust commentary added further fuel to the fire, including those from Spotify, Match, and Epic Games.

For more reading on this topic, here are some of the key articles:

  • TechCrunch’s exclusive interview with iOS App Store head, Phil Schiller. The exec said Apple’s position on the Hey app is unchanged and no changes to App Store rules are imminent. “You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store,” he argued. (Except of course, at those times when such an experience is totally fine with Apple, as in the case of “reader” apps.) Schiller also said Basecamp could have avoided the problems if Hey had offered a free version with paid upgrades, or if it offered IAP at a higher price than on its own website.
  • Daring Fireball’s comments on the “flimsiness” of Business vs. Consumer as a justification for Apple’s rejection of Hey. John Gruber points out that the line between what’s a business app and a consumer app is too blurred. Apple allows some business apps to forgo IAP if they sell enterprise plans (e.g. per seat plans) that often involve upgraded feature sets that aren’t even iOS-specific. But in this day and age, who’s to say that an email service doesn’t deserve the same ability to opt out of IAP in order to serve its own business user base? After all, what if it upgrades its paid service with web-only features — why should Apple get a cut of that business, too?
  • App Store policy criticism from The Verge. Nilay Patel sat down with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson to discuss the plight of Hey for its The Vergecast podcast. Cicilline said Apple’s fees were “exorbitant” and amounted to “highway robbery, basically.” He said Apple bullied developers by charging 30% of their business for access to its market — a decision which crushes smaller developers. “If there were real competition in this marketplace, this wouldn’t happen,” he added. The Verge’s Dieter Bohn also argued that Apple’s interpretation and enforcement of its App Store policies is terrible.
  • Basecamp CEO’s take on Apple’s App Store payment policies: Basecamp, the makers of the Hey app, put out a company statement about the App Store rules. The statement doesn’t add anything new to the conversation that wasn’t already in the tweetstorm, except the Basecamp response to Schiller’s suggestions which was something along the lines of 😝. The bottom line is that Hey wants to make the choice for its own business whether it needs the benefit of being able to acquire its users through the App Store or not. One way requires IAP and the other does not.
  • Vox’s Recode examines the antitrust case against Apple. The article doesn’t reference Hey, but lays out some of the other antitrust arguments being leveraged against Apple, including its “sherlocking” behavior,

Headlines

Apple has denied Facebook’s Gaming app at least 5 times since February

The Hey debacle is only one of many examples of how Apple exerts its market power over rivals. It has also repeatedly denied Facebook’s Gaming app entry to its App Store, citing the rule (Apple Store Review Guidelines, section 4.7) about not allowing apps whose main purpose is to sell other app, The NYT revealed this week.

Facebook’s Gaming app, which launched on Android in April, isn’t just another app store, however. The app offers users a hub to watch streamers play live, social networking tools, and the ability to play casual games like Zynga’s Words with Friends or Chobolabs Thug Life, for example. The latter is the point of contention, as Apple wants all games sold directly on the App Store, where it’s able to take a cut of their revenues.

One of the iterations Facebook tried was a version that looked almost exactly like how Facebook games are presented within the main Facebook iOS app — a single, alphabetized, unsortable list. The fact that this format was rejected when Apple already allows it elsewhere is an indication that even Apple doesn’t play by its own rules.

Zynn gets kicked out of App Store

Image Credits: Zynn

Zynn, the TikTok clone that shot to the top of the app store charts in late May, was pulled from Apple’s App Store on Monday. Before its removal, Sensor Tower estimates Zynn was downloaded 5 million times on iOS and 700,000 times on Google Play.


TechCrunch

For the first time, Apple has published the number of requests it’s received from governments to take down apps from its app store.

In its latest transparency report published Tuesday, the tech giant said it received 80 requests from 11 countries to remove 634 apps from its localized app stores during July 1 and December 31, 2018.

Apple didn’t list the apps that were removed but noted in most cases why the apps were pulled. China made up the bulk of the requests, seeking to remove 517 apps claiming they violated its gambling and pornography laws. Vietnam and Austria also requested the takedown of several apps which violated its gambling laws, while Kuwait asked Apple to pull some apps that fell foul of its privacy laws.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Lebanon were among the countries that requested the removal of some apps, along with The Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland.

The move comes more than a year after the company promised to publish the figures starting with this latest transparency report.

Apple said it will in a future transparency report — slated for mid-2020 — will report on appeals received in response to government demands to remove apps from the company’s localized app stores.

The tech giant also for the first time posted several national security letters it received permission to publish.

National security letters (NSLs) are controversial subpoenas issued by the FBI with no judicial oversight and often with a gag order preventing the company from disclosing their existence. Since the introduction of the Freedom Act in 2015, the FBI was required to periodically review the gag orders and lift them when they were no longer deemed necessary.

Apple first revealed it received an NSL in 2017 but never published the document. In its latest transparency report, the company finally published the letter — along with four others from 2018 which had the gag order lifted in April and May 2019.

As for the rest of the report, most of the government demands went down during the six-month period compared to the previous reporting period.

Apple said it received 29,183 demands from governments — down almost 10 percent on the last reporting period — to access 213,737 devices in the second half of last year.

Germany issued the most legal demands for the six-month period ending December 2018 with 12,343 requests for 19,380 devices. Apple said the large number of requests were primarily due to police investigating stolen devices.

The U.S. was in a distant second place with 4,680 demands for 19,318 devices.

Apple also received 4,875 requests for account data, such as information stored in iCloud — up by 16 percent on the previous reporting period — affecting 22,503 accounts.

The tech giant also saw a rise in the number of government requests to preserve data for up to three months. Apple said it received 1,823 requests, up by 15 percent, affecting 5,553 accounts, during which law enforcement sought to obtain the appropriate orders to access the data.


TechCrunch

Oh, Bixby. Samsung made big promises and some key acquisitions ahead of its launch. But the company’s smart assistant got off to a rocky start and has had trouble making a name for itself in amongst a sea of competitors ever since. 

Third-party integration has long been one of the categories in which Samsung has promised to truly distinguish Bixby. Back in November, the company announced that it would finally be opening the assistant up to third-party developers with the release of Bixby Developer Studio. Those developers finally began to deliver on the promises of the company’s Viv Labs acquisition.

Bixby Marketplace main2

The launch of Bixby Marketplace is the next step in the process. Now vendors can make their Bixby integrated services (or “capsules”) available to users. The store opens today in the U.S. and Spain, launching with a handful of key apps, including Google Maps, Spotify, iHeartRadio, NPR and Yelp.

That’s a good start, but attracting a critical mass of developers is always the hard part of getting these things off the ground. On the upside, Bixby’s already available on a LOT of devices, when you factor in all of Samsung’s flagships from the last few years. And that number is slowly but surely growing as the company integrates it into additional appliances, TVs and the like. Though the company hasn’t done itself any favors with the still MIA Galaxy Home speakers.


TechCrunch

Good news: Apple now allows you to download bigger apps over a cellular connection than it used to.

Bad news: there’s still a cap, and you still can’t bypass it.

As noticed by 9to5Mac, the iOS App Store now lets you download apps up to 200 MB in size while on a cell network; anything bigger than that, and you’ll need to connect to WiFi. Before this change, the cap was 150 MB.

And if you’ve got an unlimited (be it actually unlimited or cough-cough-‘unlimited’) plan, or if you know you’ve got enough monthly data left to cover a big download, or you just really, really need a certain big app and WiFi just isn’t available? You’re still out of luck. That 200 MB cap hits everyone. People have found tricky, fleeting workarounds to bypass the cap over the years, but there’s no official “Yeah, yeah, the app is huge, I know.” button to click or power user setting to toggle.

The App Store being cautious about file size isn’t inherently a bad thing; with many users only getting an allotment of a couple gigs a month, a few accidental downloads over the cell networks can eat up that data quick. But it really does suck to open up an app you need and find it’s requiring some update that exceeds the cap, only to realize you’re nowhere near a friendly WiFi network. At least give us the choice, you know?

On the upside, most developers seem to be pretty aware of the cap; they’ll hack and slash their app install package until it squeaks under the limit, even if it means downloading more stuff through the app itself post-install. Now, at least, they’ve got 50 more megabytes of wiggle room to start with.


TechCrunch


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