All things considered, Apple has had a great year, but it has been a rough ride for the App Store business:
- In July, Congress grilled Tim Cook over App Store policies (see “A Quick Rundown of Big Tech’s Showdown with Congress,” 31 July 2020).
- In August, Epic Games, maker of one of the most popular iOS games, rebelled against Apple’s in-app purchase policies, leading to its ouster from the App Store and a messy legal battle (see “Developers v. Apple: Outlining Complaints about the App Store,” 13 August 2020).
- In November, Apple responded to the criticism in part by announcing that it would halve the App Store fees for smaller developers (see “Apple Drops App Store Commission to 15% for Small Developers,” 18 November 2020).
But controversies surrounding the App Store are far from over.
Facebook vs. Apple
While all of this has been going on, a war has been brewing between Apple and Facebook over an announced iOS 14 feature that would require explicit user permission before app developers could track users across apps or websites, or access a device’s unique identifier. The feature was originally set to be mandatory for third-party developers with iOS 14, but Apple delayed the mandate until 2021 after receiving pushback from Facebook and others.
Facebook’s response can best be described as “panic.” Facebook estimates that the end of tracking could slash ad revenues in half. In its recent third-quarter investor call, the company spooked investors by calling the new feature a significant “headwind.”
With Apple’s deadline looming, Facebook is turning up the heat. The company took out ads in the 16 December 2020 editions of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, proclaiming that the company is “standing up to Apple for small businesses everywhere.” (Of note given the high profile of the ad—its headline incorrectly uses a prime mark instead of an apostrophe.)
Facebook claims that by giving users a choice in whether Facebook can track their activities, Apple is hurting small businesses, which depend on the personalized ads that Facebook offers. Presumably, if users were given such a choice, droves of them would opt out of Facebook’s creepy tracking. In a year where the COVID-19 pandemic and regional lockdowns are hammering small businesses, it’s a timely message, if a self-serving one. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called it “laughable,” siding with Apple.
The social media company didn’t stop with publishing ads. Facebook also announced it is joining Epic Games in its legal battle against Apple, providing supporting documents and other assistance to the Fortnite developer. Of course, Facebook has its own legal battles against the US Federal Trade Commission and nearly all US states and territories (see “The United States vs. Facebook,” 10 December 2020). Plus, CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined Tim Cook in the virtual hot seat in Congress earlier this year.
Cook responded to Facebook in a tweet:
We believe users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it’s used. Facebook can continue to track users across apps and websites as before, App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14 will just require that they ask for your permission first. pic.twitter.com/UnnAONZ61I
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) December 17, 2020
Taking a page from Facebook, jailbreak app store Cydia has also filed its own lawsuit against Apple, making similar claims and demanding similar remedies as the Epic Games lawsuit. (Namely, Apple is being a monopolistic bully that should allow alternative app stores on the iPhone.) Cydia has one unique claim: it actually predates the App Store by about a year. It’s hard to see an app store predicated on jailbreaking, which exploits quickly closed security vulnerabilities, as getting a lot of traction in court. Still, it’s an indication that Cydia thinks Apple might be vulnerable.
Publishers vs. Apple
In September 2020, Epic Games and Spotify, among others, founded the Coalition for App Fairness to pressure Apple and Google to change their software distribution policies. The primary complaints are that Apple and Google compete unfairly against third-party developers (Apple Music vs. Spotify, for instance), Apple and Google’s app store fees are too high, and Apple doesn’t allow competing app stores.
- Associated Press
- The Financial Times
- The New York Times
- The Washington Post
Digital Content Next lashed out at Apple earlier this year about the deal Apple cut with Amazon that reduced the usual 30% App Store commission so Amazon could sell videos directly through its Prime Video app (see “You Can Now Make Purchases in the Amazon Prime Video iOS and Apple TV Apps,” 3 April 2020).
Publishers are unhappy with Apple for other reasons as well, including Apple’s aforementioned privacy prompts. DMG Media, which owns the UK’s Daily Mail, has suggested it may pull its iOS apps over the new privacy features.
Apple vs. Brave
You might think with all of this pressure and new regulatory scrutiny, Apple would ease up on third-party developers, but if anything, the company has doubled down. The most recent target of Apple’s ire is the iOS version of the Brave Web browser. (It’s one of our favorites here at TidBITS, and we recommend it over Google Chrome.)
Brave has a unique and somewhat controversial approach to ads. The browser blocks ads by default but lets you opt in to view Brave’s own privacy-respecting ads in exchange for a cryptocurrency called the Basic Attention Token (BAT). You can keep BAT for yourself, or you can tip it to content creators you choose.
Apple had allowed this functionality in Brave for a while but suddenly cried foul, claiming that Brave was violating rules against giving others money without giving Apple a cut and performing tasks for cash. The latter rule is intended to prevent developers from offering rewards for things like positive App Store reviews.
Instead, with version 1.22 of Brave for iOS, the browser no longer rewards users with BAT for viewing ads. The company encourages users to enable ads anyway, promising that it will use the proceeds to support publishers. Brave says that a future update to its desktop browser will let iOS users extract the BAT they earned.
It’s yet another unfortunate example of Apple’s App Store policies limiting innovation.