Last week, Apple released iOS 13.6.1, iPadOS 13.6.1, and macOS 10.15.6 Supplemental Update to fix a storage bug on the iPhone and iPad and bugs on the Mac. The Setapp subscription service has added iOS versions of multi-platform apps to its offerings, but you’ll have to pay extra per device. Rich Mogull’s children are back in school in Arizona, and he offers hard-won advice for how his family is navigating remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last but far from least, Josh Centers explores the major complaints about the App Store, analyzes them, and offers potential solutions. Notable Mac app releases this week include Mellel 5.0.3, Carbon Copy Cloner 5.1.21, Banktivity 7.5.2, Moneydance 2020, Microsoft Office for Mac 16.40, DEVONthink 3.5.2, and SoundSource 5.0.3.
As the dog days of summer drag on, Apple has shipped three bug-fix operating system releases: iOS 13.6.1, iPadOS 13.6.1, and macOS 10.15.6 Supplemental Update.
iOS 13.6.1 and iPadOS 13.6.1
Apple released iOS 13.6.1 and iPadOS 13.6.1 to fix what could be a troubling issue in those operating systems. Both address “an issue where unneeded system data files might not be automatically deleted when available storage is low.” So if you are already running iOS 13.6 or iPadOS 13.6, you should probably update right away, especially if you’re mysteriously running out of storage space (see “iOS 13.6, iPadOS 13.6, macOS 10.15.6, watchOS 6.2.8, and tvOS 13.4.8 Add News Features, Car Keys, Symptom Tracking,” 15 July 2020).
Additionally, iOS 13.6.1 fixes:
- A thermal management issue that caused some displays to exhibit a green tint. I’ve seen this on the iOS 14 beta.
- A bug that could cause Exposure Notifications to be disabled for some users.
You can install these updates from Settings > General > Software Update, in iTunes, or in the Finder on Macs running macOS 10.15 Catalina or later. iOS 13.6.1 is a 109.4 MB download on the iPhone 11, and iPadOS 13.6.1 is an 81 MB download on a 10.5-inch iPad Pro.
Neither update has any published CVE security notes.
macOS Catalina 10.15.6 Supplemental Update
The macOS Catalina 10.15.6 Supplemental Update, which you can install from System Preferences > Software Update, fixes two bugs:
- Instability when running virtualization apps like Parallels Desktop, VirtualBox, and VMWare Fusion
- 2020 27-inch iMac screens appearing washed out after waking from sleep
At his Eclectic Light Company blog, Howard Oakley notes that only the Books and VoiceOver Utility apps saw small build number increments, although there were additional system-level files with changes. He suggests that the changes to the AMDRadeon kernel extensions may have addressed some kernel panic problems that a few users had been reporting after the macOS 10.15.6 update. Also notable is that Macs with Apple’s T2 chip receive new firmware, which you’ll remember can be installed only by Apple’s installer during a macOS update.
Again, there were no published security fixes.
If you’re already running 10.15.6 Catalina, particularly on a 2020 27-inch iMac, we recommend updating as soon as possible. Otherwise, feel free to wait a bit and see if other issues develop.
Since 2017, the Setapp service has been providing subscribers with access to an ever-increasing number of Mac apps for a single $9.99-per-month fee, with options for families and businesses. See our full Setapp coverage for details.
By my count, Setapp is now up to 193 Mac apps, but the big news that the company just announced is that it is adding iOS apps to the service. At the moment, eight apps are available: the iOS versions of Mac apps 2Do, Gemini, MindNode, Paste, PDF Search, SQLPro Studio, Taskheat, and Ulysses.
In conjunction with the addition of iOS apps, Setapp has switched to a per-device subscription approach. The main subscription remains $9.99 per month, but to use the iOS apps, new users have to add another device for an additional monthly. Previously, you could use Setapp on a second Mac just by signing in, and it appears that existing users now have two devices available, one of which could be used for an iOS device. iOS apps aren’t yet available for those with Family plans, but Setapp is working on it.
At the launch last week, Setapp priced additional devices at $4.99 per month, but after users complained, the company dropped the price. Setapp PR manager Julia Petryck said:
As a result of feedback from the Setapp community, today we’re changing the price for additional devices for all Setapp plans to make it more affordable to start using iOS devices with a Setapp subscription. The price for each additional device has been decreased from $4.99 to $2.49.
Kudos to Setapp for responding to its users so promptly. Since enabling both an iPhone and an iPad would require two device subscriptions, $4.99 for each of them seemed expensive, whereas $2.49 per device feels more reasonable.
As with Setapp’s Mac apps, the amount you’d save by subscribing through Setapp rather than paying or subscribing through the App Store varies, but Ulysses alone has a $5.99 per month subscription cost through the App Store. That said, before this change, the iOS versions of Ulysses and a few other apps were free for Setapp users—our security editor, Rich Mogull, found that his previously free activation of Ulysses ends at the end of the month. So this change is good for developers but may be more expensive for users who use only one or two iOS apps.
Adding an iOS App to Setapp
Assuming you have a free device slot available, registering an iOS app via Setapp is easy, if somewhat unusual. You start by launching Setapp on a Mac and navigating to the app you want to install.
Once there, click the iOS App button, which presents a dialog with a QR code to scan using the Camera app on your iPhone or iPad.
Scanning that QR code simply loads the App Store page for the app, from which you can download the standard app from the App Store—there’s no special version in play here. All the iOS apps in Setapp are free to download with in-app purchases.
The magic occurs in the next step, where you click Done or move the slider to “2. Unlock full version.” That reveals another QR code that, when scanned, opens the downloaded app and registers it (and your device, on the first usage) into your Setapp account. From then on, the app works just as though you had purchased a normal subscription.
I’ve confirmed that the process works as documented.
How Is This Acceptable to Apple?
You’d be forgiven if this sounds like an end-run around Apple’s 30% fee, and indeed, Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines state:
3.1.1 In-App Purchase: If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, (by way of example: subscriptions, in-game currencies, game levels, access to premium content, or unlocking a full version), you must use in-app purchase. Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc. Apps and their metadata may not include buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms other than in-app purchase.
However, Setapp is adamant that its approach is legit, responding to a question on Twitter with:
We would never put our vendors at risk. Therefore we’ve received approval from Apple before going forward. It was confirmed that applications with integrated Setapp iOS framework fulfill the App Store Guidelines.
Indeed, since all the iOS apps in question also work on the Mac, they would seem to fall under this exception:
3.1.3(b) Multiplatform Services: Apps that operate across multiple platforms may allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired in your app on other platforms or your web site, including consumable items in multiplatform games, provided those items are also available as in-app purchases within the app. You must not directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase, and your general communications about other purchasing methods must not discourage use of in-app purchase.
Of course, Apple remains the ultimate arbiter of how that paragraph will be interpreted. One point of concern—the fact that the purchase is mediated through Setapp—would seem to be addressed by Setapp’s statement that apps that integrate the Setapp iOS framework fulfill App Store guidelines. Another hitch could be the requirement that “those items are also available as in-app purchases within the app.” It’s hard to know how the Setapp approach of compensating developers with a proportion of subscription fees based on app usage would translate to a comparable in-app purchase.
When I asked if Setapp planned to add any iOS-only apps or if the only iOS apps would be companions to Mac apps, Julia Petryk’s response suggested, albeit a bit ambiguously, that iOS-only apps might be in Setapp’s future: “Yes, iOS apps will go through the review process by the Setapp review team and in case of their approval, they will join Setapp.”
Given Apple’s explicit prohibition—Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc.—it’s hard to imagine that Apple will allow Setapp to provide access to iOS-only apps. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned with the App Store, it’s that Apple reserves the right to interpret or change the rules as it wants.
For now, though, we’ll give Setapp points for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the iOS world and providing a service that at least some subscribers will appreciate. Whether it’s worthwhile remains a personal question based on how many of the iOS apps you would use and how many devices you need to add. Still, I have to say that we enjoy having access to the Setapp library of Mac apps on an ongoing basis.
Like many families, our lives were completely upended last spring by the sudden transition from regular school to “School at Home.” Our three elementary school students hung up their backpacks, stored their lunch boxes, and started attending classes through Zoom, Google Meet, or whatever tool their teachers adopted as our school system struggled to adapt.
Given that we live in the COVID-19 hotspot of Phoenix, Arizona, my wife and I carefully tracked local infection rates over the summer as it became clear that in-person classes were not going to be viable. Our school system eventually offered two options: self-paced online learning, or teacher-led online classes that would more closely replicate the school day. We decided on the latter option since that would allow us to re-enter normal schooling once our area met health and safety requirements.
We spent the summer planning for virtual learning at home, and how to manage working from home as our children simultaneously school at home. As someone who has run multiple online training classes and has worked predominantly at home since 1997, I leveraged my knowledge to help build a good learning environment and technology base to support our children. My wife, who doesn’t currently have a paying job, took the lead on organizing the house and handling the day-to-day technical support. School is already up and running here in Phoenix, and here is our advice for making the best out of a challenging situation.
Create a Workspace
Anyone who has worked at home for an extended period quickly learns the importance of having a dedicated space for work. Aside from the organizational advantages of keeping your work tools in a consistent spot, a dedicated space allows you to separate work time from personal or family time. The benefits of this approach apply equally to children in school. They need an area to keep papers and school supplies accessible and, ideally, at least somewhat organized.
Using a shared surface like the kitchen table is far from effective, and even a desk in a child’s room can be counterproductive if you can’t monitor them or they can’t mentally separate school time from personal time. After trying a few different options, these are the ones we think work best:
- Buy or construct a desk for each child. Inexpensive desks are widely available and can make all the difference. These aren’t going to become family heirlooms, and there’s no need to get fancy with drawers.
- Use your corners. We crammed small, light desks into corners of different rooms in our house. This separation reduced the noise overlap from simultaneous online classes as we had to spread three “classrooms” around our home. When the weather is nicer (which means not too hot here in Phoenix), one of the desks moves to our back patio.
- Get creative. For my older daughter, we installed a wall desk in her room. These are basically bookshelves with one larger surface that folds down. It’s great for space, and after class, she can fold it up and hide all the schoolwork for that critical mental separation. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to install.
- Plan around your outlets. Ideally, you should place desks near electrical outlets. Since our kids mostly use iPads, I swapped out the outlets in their workspaces with ones with built-in USB-A and USB-C charging ports. We bought each child a dedicated cable that they aren’t allowed to unplug. Trust us, you’ll go through more cables than socks if you don’t keep them locked down.
- Don’t forget your own workspace. If you work at home, you need your own space, even if you have to spend time helping your children get through their days. One friend has her son work part of the day in her office; later on, he goes off to a separate space when she doesn’t need to keep a close eye on him.
- Put a clock with big numbers on every desk. Kids are used to being directed around school buildings for different classes. It’s too easy for them to lose track of time and miss a class. A cheap clock with big numbers on every desk is probably one of the best investments you can make.
- Print out the class calendar and keep it visible. Even if your school provides calendar invites or a digital schedule, we found that posting a printed schedule in each workspace helps both our kids and us keep track of which virtual room they should be in.
- Buy a desk organizer and twice as many writing instruments as you think you need. Virtual learning doesn’t mean paper goes away, especially if you have elementary-aged children. Cheap organizers are widely available, and it’s worth getting one on the larger side to keep all the pens, pencils, and other accouterments off the floor. Science has shown that small black holes orbit children and selectively absorb school supplies at exactly the moment they are needed, so keep spare stock close at hand.
Build a Great Network
Not everyone has the best choices for their Internet connections, especially those of you on a budget, but few things will frustrate your child and their teacher more than a bad network connection. Losing connectivity is incredibly disruptive. We are fortunate to have a fiber connection and a powerful, business-class home network, but I’ve been called in to help friends and family members optimize their less robust networks:
- Get the best Internet connection you can. Most videoconferencing services adapt to lower bandwidth connections, but reduced video resolution, frame skipping, and dropped audio is hard on both students and teachers. Such things probably make you crazy too, and most kids lack the patience and understanding of adults.
- Buy a decent Wi-Fi access point. When a friend or family member calls me to help fix their network, the most common culprit is their reliance on whatever Wi-Fi access point came from their Internet service provider or the access point they bought 10 years ago. Newer technologies are both faster and work better in the increasingly crowded wireless spectrum.
- Consider a Wi-Fi extender or mesh network for better coverage. A Wi-Fi extender works with your existing access point to extend wireless networking coverage. While they aren’t the most efficient option and increase latency, they help significantly if distance or walls degrade your signal. Alternatively, consider stepping up to a mesh networking system like Amazon’s Eero (see “Eero Provides Good Wi-Fi Coverage in a Handsome Package,” 25 June 2016), Linksys’s Velop (see “Velop Provides First-Rate but Expensive Wi-Fi Mesh Networking,” 9 July 2018), or Netgear’s Orbi. Mesh Wi-Fi systems are like advanced extenders that use two or more devices spread across your home for better coverage. Unlike extenders, they often use a dedicated backhaul for traffic and include additional intelligence to optimize connections.
- Use wired backhaul connections where possible. Newer houses and apartments may have Ethernet cables running to multiple rooms. Many Wi-Fi extenders and mesh networks can use a wired connection for the backhaul between access points, which may dramatically reduce latency and improve connectivity.
- If all else fails, move closer to the access point for a better signal. ‘Nuff said.
- Consider creating a guest network for less secure devices. Many newer home network devices support the idea of a guest network, separate from the main network. You may find yourself having to use older or less secure devices from the school system. Placing them on a guest network will keep such devices from being a bridge to attack your personal or work devices.
My home network was already in great shape thanks to using business-class hardware from Ubiquity and wired access points, plus a 1 Gigabit fiber connection to my ISP. However, I still upgraded my primary firewall/router for better security. Doing so also improved our overall traffic management since we now have at least four simultaneous video chats running for most of the day. I then created a dedicated wireless network, using the same hardware, for school-owned devices to isolate them from our personal devices.
Pick the Right Devices and Peripherals
Our kids have long used their own iPads, but my son’s iPad was older, slower, and couldn’t run all the software he needed very well. Although our school system provides Chromebooks and iPads, we decided to upgrade his iPad and return the school-owned devices for less fortunate families in our district. As with your network, it is critical to provide your child with a stable, functional device.
School-owned devices might not be the best option, or they might be your only option. School systems aren’t known for their well-funded IT departments, and many rely on older and outdated technology that might be difficult to get working at home. On the other hand, these devices are already pre-configured with all the required software and may even include tech support. Some schools might even require you to use them.
Be conscious as to the needs and experiences of your child and the requirements of the school. Check with the school system to ensure they support your operating system and device type. In our experience, we’ve been able to run everything we need on all our devices, but there was a bit of a learning curve, especially with Google Classroom on the iPads.
Speaking of iPads, now is a great time to pick up a keyboard and maybe a trackpad or mouse. Most children today are tablet natives, but as they move from content consumption to content creation, the addition of input devices will open up more screen real estate. We found that the onscreen keyboard often obscured important parts of the screen, especially in browser-based applications, and adding a physical keyboard was the only way to make certain sites work.
Since I have a bit of a technology addiction, we started this journey with a mix of old and new gear and let the children migrate to what they were most comfortable with. My 7-year-old-son stuck with his new iPad and a keyboard. We considered adding an Apple Pencil or Logitech Crayon, but he hasn’t needed that for any of his assignments yet. He has headphones available, but we tend to keep him on speaker since he isn’t the most dedicated student, and that allows us to keep tabs on his studies. My wife spends much of her day checking in on him and helping him as necessary.
My middle daughter uses her iPad and a keyboard, but she backs it up with the school-provided Chromebook. She likes to video conference on one device while typing her work on the other. She asked for some cheap Bluetooth headphones and uses them pretty consistently.
My oldest daughter absconded with my late 2012 MacBook Pro. I restored the stock operating system, and it performs significantly better than I expected. She also has an iPad but hasn’t used it that much for school since she picked up the laptop.
We also have a family iMac available, but the kids just use that for larger projects like making presentations or editing videos. I also have an old monitor and adapters for the iPads and laptops, but, so far, they sit unused.
Prepare for Your Shifts on the Help Desk
Depending on the age and experience of your children, you might find yourself in the unenviable position of being the family’s tech support. Then again, some of you might have been leaning on your kids for years to keep your tech running. Here are some recommendations for handling issues we’ve been experiencing as we started schooling at home:
- Prep their apps ahead of time. If possible, spend some time learning the main applications your school uses and test them out before classes start. Our school switched video chat to Google Classroom, and we nearly missed the first day of classes since we didn’t know Classroom had integrated video chat, but you had to install the app and know where to tap on the iPad. I then quickly installed all the Google apps on the iPads since my kids had previously just run them in the browser.
- Record login credentials on stickies. I strongly recommend that you write down all the usernames and passwords your kids need to use, even if you use a password manager. We ran into problems on the first day of school because the district wasn’t clear about which logins went with which services and didn’t support single sign-on. Password managers are great, but they may be too hard for younger children, and regardless, you might need to move quickly between devices and accounts, so having a paper backup is a good idea. Yes, I realize the irony of a security expert recommending that you write down your passwords.
- Make bookmarks. You and your child will be visiting the same sites repeatedly. Take a few minutes to bookmark all the school sites and give them useful titles so they make sense to you and your child.
- Get ready to call tech support. No matter how technically capable you may be, you might need help with internal school systems. Many schools and districts now offer remote technical support. Write the number down and stick it on the refrigerator even if you don’t think you’ll need it.
Get Creative, and Build Good Habits
My wife has become the master of making the day at home feel like a day at school or summer camp. Our days start at regular times, and the kids have to wake up and get dressed just as they normally would. My wife then makes lunches and sometimes even puts them in lunchboxes, just as if the kids were going to school. She converted a small table to serve as our cafeteria and lays out the same snacks we would send to school for their breaks. At the end of their scheduled classes, small group activities, and project work, the kids have to clean up their workspace to prepare for the next day, even if they’ll have to do homework later.
We treat every weekday like a school day, on a school schedule, and try to replicate the structure to the extent possible.
We’re also concerned that they get enough physical activity, so I converted our garage into a gym and playground. While winters in Phoenix are mild, the temperatures have been over 110ºF (43ºC) for over 40 days. We pulled out the cars, put in a portable air conditioner, bought some cheap gymnastics mats, and bolted some gymnastics rings to the ceiling. I won’t say their aerial shows are up to Cirque du Soleil standards yet, but we’ve had surprisingly few injuries.
Don’t Forget Mental Health
These are unprecedented times, with levels of persistent fear and uncertainty permeating society in ways not seen for generations. In many ways, children are more flexible and resilient than adults. Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the short and long term impacts not only of school at home, but also of the changes to family dynamics, social activities, and personal concerns as kids return to in-person education.
Our children need time to be children. Just as all work-at-home experts recommend stepping away from the home office at the end of the day, it is incredibly important to allow your children the same separation. Most kids have lost a lot of the milestones that define childhood: birthday parties, play dates, summer camps, vacations, and regularly scheduled activities. My wife and I are trying to temper their losses with creative approaches.
Our kids get a break when their school requirements end, just as I used to go to a friend’s house or veg out in front of the TV back in my elementary school days. We encourage them to play out in the garage, including participating in virtual dance or gymnastics classes, or head out to the park around the corner with plenty of water and sunscreen. While we’ve cut off indoor playtime with friends, we accept the moderate risk of outside play with a little social distancing. With fewer kids occupied by scheduled activities, the park around the corner is now home to evening pickup soccer games with groups of kids that never even knew they lived in the same neighborhood. It’s a risk, but one we decided to accept.
Our children don’t get to skip homework, but the time is blocked no differently than when they attended in-person school. Some parents feel they need to put extra time in to compensate for less effective online learning, but we feel providing mental breaks is more important. We also try to provide evening and weekend diversions, including movie nights (sometimes outside using a cheap projector and a sheet), trips to a nearby pool, geocaching (see “Internet-Guided Offline Recreation (IGOR): Geocaching,” 9 June 2003), and takeout dinners from their favorite restaurants. For my 9-year-old daughter’s birthday later this month, we let her pick out a house nearby to rent for a weekend for a little staycation.
We also have one last and hard rule—my daughter just barged into my office to ensure I included it in this article. We don’t allow them to have devices in their bedrooms at night, but we make sure they always have a block of time before sleep to read from paper books.
Make the Best of a Bad Situation
School at home is challenging, especially since we don’t know how long it will last. Even in locations that are offering in-person schooling, there is always the risk that an outbreak will send students back home.
No one—parents, teachers, politicians, or employers—consider this an ideal or even good situation, but it’s the reality we now live in and must accept. The only rational response is to make the best of it and try to provide the most normalcy possible for our kids.
I fully recognize that our household is in a far better situation than many due to our economic stability and having an available parent who can keep the kids on track. But I hope others can learn from these tips while adapting to online schooling.
The early days of the App Store might have been rocky, but from the outside, they seemed like a virtual gold rush. The media was full of stories of independent developers becoming wealthy from simple apps. But after that initial excitement, many smaller developers now find themselves having a hard time making even a modest living in the App Store and feel like they’re locked in an abusive relationship with Apple.
Simultaneously, government regulators and media alike have started to focus more attention on the business practices of Apple and other big tech companies. Apple is already facing new regulations in the European Union and increased scrutiny at home (see “A Quick Rundown of Big Tech’s Showdown with Congress,” 31 July 2020). Depending on what happens in November’s US elections, that scrutiny could intensify.
At this critical juncture for the company, we wanted to take the opportunity to analyze the complaints against Apple regarding how it runs the App Store. We’ve spent a long time observing and considering these issues, and you may agree or disagree with our evaluation and conclusions. As we are neither regulators nor Apple executives, the decisions are ultimately not up to us. We merely want to lay out the issues and offer suggestions on how Apple can improve, for the sake of users, developers, and even the long-term viability of the company itself.
That 30% Cut
Let’s start with the most surface-level complaint: ever since Apple unveiled the App Store in 2008, the company has taken a 30% cut of every app sold and every in-app purchase. Apple later reworked this structure slightly so that the company takes a 30% cut of a recurring subscription only in the first year, after which it falls to 15%.
When he introduced the App Store, Steve Jobs said that the 30% cut was purely so Apple could break even. While there’s no requirement that the company honor that initial claim, it’s hard for small developers to see Apple raking in billions in profit while they struggle to earn a living.
Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), who recently chaired Congress’s hearing with CEOs of four Big Tech companies, including Tim Cook, said on a recent appearance on The Vergecast:
Because of the market power that Apple has, it is charging exorbitant rents—highway robbery, basically—bullying people to pay 30 percent or denying access to their market,” said Rep. Cicilline. “It’s crushing small developers who simply can’t survive with those kinds of payments. If there were real competition in this marketplace, this wouldn’t happen.
Now, to be sure, there are much broader issues with the App Store than the so-called “Apple tax,” but even discounting Cicilline’s overheated language, we can’t ignore the issue, either. Many of the other App Store squabbles over the years have revolved around that cut, who has to pay it, and how developers can work around it. For instance, it was the core of Spotify’s recent kerfuffle with Apple:
Apple requires that certain apps pay a 30% fee for use of their in-app purchase system (IAP). However, the reality is that the rules are not applied evenly across the board. Does Uber pay it? No. Deliveroo? No. Does Apple Music pay it? No. Apple does not compete with Uber and Deliveroo. But in music streaming Apple gives the advantage to its own services.
But there are problems with Spotify’s examples. One rule that Apple applies consistently is that real-world goods and services aren’t subject to the 30% cut. That’s why Uber doesn’t pay the fee, and why you can purchase physical goods through the Amazon app, but you have to open a Web browser to buy Kindle ebooks. And of course, Apple Music doesn’t pay the 30% cut because Apple would be paying itself. That’s just silly.
To put it in concrete terms: the difference between 30% and something reasonable like 10% would probably have meant some of my friends would still have their jobs at Omni, and Omni would have more resources to devote to making, testing, and supporting their apps.
While we can’t discount expert testimony—Simmons said the 30% cut hurt Omni, and we believe him—it should be pointed out that many developers have thrived in the App Store. Plus, everyone knows about the 30% going in and should be working it into their business planning. Would more developers succeed with a lower cut? We honestly don’t know.
Apple has responded the most vigorously to this issue of the 30% cut. Apple’s arguments break down to the following:
- The App Store has generated a tremendous number of jobs and billions of dollars in payments to developers.
- Apple’s cut is much lower than if the software was sold through retail outlets or cellular carriers, which charged fees as high as 70%.
- Most apps are free and thus generate no revenue for Apple.
Apple has made these arguments consistently, and they were clearly outlined in Tim Cook’s opening statement to Congress.
However, it is misleading for Apple to compare the App Store to physical distribution. It’s not as if the only places to buy software before the App Store were brick-and-mortar stores. Internet-distributed commercial software started in the 1990s and was commonplace in the 2000s. Kagi was founded in 1994, and eSellerate in 2000, both with the express purpose of enabling developers to sell their software over the Internet. Mac users especially know this because it wasn’t as though you could walk into a CompUSA and buy a copy of BBEdit.
Developers have been distributing software online for a long time, with rates much, much lower than 30%—more like 3% to 8%. And they still do! Developers on the Mac and other platforms still often distribute outside of the App Store at much lower rates. In fact, the Mac App Store seemed to stagnate for years until Apple found ways to lure back high-profile developers like BBEdit’s Bare Bones Software.
The 30% fight may soon be coming to a head. Epic Games, producer of Fortnite, arguably the hottest game in the world, pulled a fast one by slipping in an option to buy in-game currency at a discount, bypassing Apple’s standard in-app payment system. Epic is playing a game of chicken with Apple and is so far losing. Apple quickly booted Fortnite from the App Store, though said in a statement that they were willing to let it back in as long as Epic follows the rules. Epic is now suing Apple in an effort to lift App Store rules:
Epic seeks injunctive relief in court to end Apple’s unreasonable and unlawful practices. Apple’s conduct has caused and continues to cause Epic financial harm, but as noted above, Epic is not bringing this case to recover these damages; Epic is not seeking any monetary damages. Instead, Epic seeks to end Apple’s dominance over key technology markets, open up the space for progress and ingenuity, and ensure that Apple mobile devices are open to the same competition as Apple’s personal computers. As such, Epic respectfully requests this Court to enjoin Apple from continuing to impose its anti-competitive restrictions on the iOS ecosystem and ensure 2020 is not like “1984”.
The clever reference to Apple’s “1984” ad aside, it’s hard to sympathize with Epic here. What it did was both sneaky and a blatant violation of the App Store rules, and Apple is reportedly now terminating Epic’s developer account. Epic is also suing Google.
Epic isn’t some small, struggling developer—Fortnite is one of the top-grossing apps on iOS, making $455 million in 2018 alone. And that’s just the App Store! Fortnite is also available for Windows, Mac, Android, and every mainstream gaming console. Apple’s 30% cut certainly isn’t breaking Epic’s business. The entire situation seems to be an effort to influence regulators.
Apple Picks Winners and Losers
At the Congressional hearing, Representative Val Demings (D-FL) expressed concern over Apple disadvantaging third-party apps in order to promote its own. Demings said:
I am concerned that Apple’s policies are also picking winners and losers in the app economy, and that Apple rules mean Apple apps always win.
The specific example Demings cited was Apple’s sudden banning of parental control apps using mobile device management (MDM), with the insinuation that Apple banned those apps to boost its own Screen Time feature, which was introduced in iOS 12. Cook defended the decision, as the company did at the time, by saying that apps that abused MDM in such a way were a threat to children’s privacy.
And that was true! But here’s the weird thing: Apple reversed course weeks later, specifically allowing parental control apps to use MDM. What happened to those privacy concerns? Even stranger, parental advocates had suggested opening API access to Screen Time, which would have been a “cleaner” solution.
There’s also a problem with Demings’s timeline: iOS 12 came out in September 2018, and Apple banned those apps in April 2019, about seven months later. That seems late if the goal was to boost Screen Time. Also, why would Apple feel the need to ban existing apps in order to boost a feature from which it makes no revenue?
Demings could have chosen better examples. Apple has prevented apps from coming to the App Store only to implement them in iOS later. An infamous example is f.lux, an app for adjusting blue light levels throughout the day. The developers had been petitioning Apple to allow it in the iOS App Store since 2009 but were told it was “too weird.” Of course, a similar feature later appeared in iOS in the form of Night Shift.
Moreover, Apple literally does choose winners and losers. An obvious example is the annual Apple Design Awards, which undoubtedly boost sales and downloads of the apps that Apple anoints. Even beyond those awards, Apple picks winners in the App Store every day with its featured apps, which benefit from top billing on the Today page of the App Store app.
To be fair, I’ve heard from developers that these featured articles don’t provide as big of a boost as one might think—people mostly interact with the App Store by searching, not browsing. But that doesn’t help Apple’s case. Either it admits that yes, it picks winners, or it has to acknowledge that it tries to promote certain apps, but it doesn’t help much. Neither is a good look.
Regardless of how well App Store features work, consider it from the point of view of a regulator. The App Store is the only place a developer is allowed to sell apps to iPhone and iPad users. Why are some apps highlighted? Why does Apple get complete control over distribution, take a cut of everything developers make through the App Store, and then arbitrarily decide which apps to put on the first screen? How is that a level playing field?
App Store Ads
The App Store’s field can get even more tilted toward those who are willing to pay to play. Not only does Apple choose to highlight some apps, but thanks to App Store search ads, developers can pay to have their apps featured above those of their competitors. Numerous developers have complained publicly about this practice, saying that to even be competitive, they have to pay more money to Apple, on top of the 30% cut.
I searched the App Store for a few of my favorite independent apps by name. When I searched for the RSS app Reeder, the top hit, a paid ad, was an app called Knewz. I searched for CARROT Weather, and the top hit was an ad for NOAA Weather Radar. A search for Overcast… well actually, that pulled up an ad for Overcast because the developer, Marco Arment, paid for the placement. I guess I’m picking winners here too, but I don’t run the App Store.
At least Apple tastes its own medicine. A search for “Podcasts” placed an ad for iHeart over Apple’s own Podcasts app.
The upside of App Store search ads is that a smaller developer can—if they have the money—buy ads against a larger developer and potentially level the playing field. Of course, that assumes the larger developer won’t just outbid the smaller developer.
Nonetheless, it seems troubling for developers to have to pay Apple an additional fee to get top billing, even when users are searching for their apps by name. And as a user, it’s annoying that the specific app I search for is not the top result.
This is aside from other issues with App Store search, such as how easily it can be gamed and how it’s cluttered with junk and counterfeit apps. Let’s look at that last one.
One selling point for the App Store, and for Apple’s complete dominion over the distribution of iPhone software, is that Apple reviews each app to maintain a high standard of quality. This isn’t entirely untrue. Malware isn’t much of a concern for iOS users. However, there is plenty of junk in the App Store, and developers have, at times, been stunned to discover that Apple has approved blatant rip-offs of their original apps.
I’m not just talking about apps simply being copied by competitors, which, as Marco Arment explains, can’t really be prevented. But rather, bogus apps that are potentially harmful. Developer David Barnard explored this a couple of years ago (see “David Barnard Explains How to Game the App Store,” 30 November 2018), explaining how unscrupulous developers build junk apps from readily available templates, toss in absurd subscriptions, and gather personal information for profit.
To be fair, this problem also plagues the Google Play Store, and Apple does ban some of these apps, but the problem still exists. A quick search reveals multiple how-to guides on how to avoid fake apps:
- MakeUseOf: 7 Tips for Avoiding Fake Apps on Mobile App Stores
- Trend Micro: Gambling Apps Sneak into Top 100: How Hundreds of Fake Apps Spread on iOS App Store and Google Play
- Lifehacker: How to Spot Fake Apps in Apple’s App Store and Google Play
Apple’s entire argument for a closed App Store and all the headaches and fees that it entails is that it provides a safe, curated experience where users don’t have to worry about junk. As it stands, Apple isn’t holding up its end of the bargain, which hurts both users and developers.
Some Developers Are More Equal Than Others
Tim Cook told a whopper during the Congressional hearing: “We treat every developer the same.”
Several counterexamples came up at the hearing. For example, Apple maintained a special team just to handle app approvals for the Chinese search engine Baidu. If that’s not being more equal, I don’t know what is.
Also, you can rent and buy movies from the Amazon Prime Video app, thanks to a special arrangement between Apple and Amazon (see “You Can Now Make Purchases in the Amazon Prime Video iOS and Apple TV Apps,” 3 April 2020).
Apple says this program, which “lets premium subscription video entertainment providers offer a variety of customer benefits,” is open to everyone. Still, Amazon Prime Video is probably the only app you’ve ever heard of in this program. It also lets these providers sidestep Apple’s 30% cut. And it was largely unknown until the shocking change to Amazon Prime Video.
Phil Schiller, Apple’s outgoing head of marketing, said in an interview with Reuters:
One of the things we came up with is, we’re going to treat all apps in the App Store the same—one set of rules for everybody, no special deals, no special terms, no special code, everything applies to all developers the same. That was not the case in PC software. Nobody thought like that. It was a complete flip around of how the whole system was going to work.
Alas, it seems that there are special deals and special terms. There is special code: private APIs that Apple reserves for its own use. And, unless you strictly look at brick-and-mortar retail, the bit about PC software isn’t true. The Windows world was, and still largely is, a completely open market, for both better and worse.
Capricious and Arbitrary Judgements
It’s common knowledge that Apple will yank an app from the App Store with little notice or warning. But apps don’t even have to be in the App Store now to get pulled by Apple. The most recent and egregious example of Apple’s overreach happened to Charlie Monroe Software, a small, family-based developer in the Czech Republic that develops a number of Mac apps, including Downie (see “Downloading YouTube Videos in macOS,” 18 July 2019) and Permute. (Disclaimer: Charlie Monroe’s apps are available on Setapp, which has sponsored TidBITS in the past.)
On 4 August 2020, Charlie Monroe Software found that it had been unceremoniously booted from the Apple Developer Program, its certificates had been revoked, and its apps no longer worked on most Macs. In fact, if users tried to launch one of the company’s apps, they were instructed that it was dangerous and that they should move it to the Trash.
In its blog post, the company wrote:
At this point you no longer know whether you have a business or not. Should I quickly go and apply for a job? Or should I try to found another company and distribute the apps under it? What should I do?
The good news is that Apple soon restored the account and apologized for the mistake. We don’t know if Apple compensated Charlie Monroe Software for the loss of business and damage to the company’s reputation. It’s disturbing that Charlie Monroe’s deplatforming appears to have been the work of an out-of-control automated system. At the very least, Apple should have conducted a human review before threatening a developer’s livelihood, and even if the human review identified abuses, Apple should have allowed the developer an appeal before revoking their certificates. You know, that whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing that’s considered an international human right by the United Nations.
Another recent and well-publicized example came from Basecamp’s Hey, which is a paid, proprietary email service. Apple initially allowed the Hey app in the App Store, but then rejected any updates until Basecamp agreed to allow signups through Apple’s payment system, thus giving Apple a cut. The two parties eventually reached an agreement, and Hey is now available on the App Store.
But for a short while, that didn’t seem likely. Apple’s former marketing head Phil Schiller went on the attack, saying, “You download the app and it doesn’t work, that’s not what we want on the store.” Initially, since you couldn’t sign up for Hey from within the app, due to Basecamp trying to avoid Apple’s 30% cut, yes, it was nothing more than a login screen if you didn’t already have an account.
However, many apps in the App Store function this way. Two notable examples are the Netflix app and Amazon’s Kindle app. In fact, Netflix briefly allowed in-app subscriptions before abandoning them. Even more baffling, Dropbox, which is a business productivity app with interactive elements, somehow slides into this category too, even though it’s not providing access to commercial media.
To explain this exception, Apple claims that apps like Netflix and Kindle are “reader apps.” Since they’re only for media consumption, it’s perfectly fine for them to be, as Schiller would say, an app that “doesn’t work.” The distinction is nonsense. Even Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, often somewhat unfairly accused of being an Apple fanboy, called it out as nonsense, summing up his arguments with a picture of Steve Jobs flipping off the IBM logo. Perhaps “reader app” means an app Apple would normally reject from the App Store but wants to approve without making some sort of general exception.
I could list dozens of examples of apps being unceremoniously yanked from the App Store, sometimes for reasons we can all agree upon, such as being actively malicious. In these cases, it’s good for Apple to have a kill switch to protect users. But in others, it’s harder to defend Apple’s actions.
Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) asked Cook about this absolute control Apple wields between developers and users. Cook was blunt and unapologetic:
Whether you look at it from a customer point of view or a developer point of view, there are enormous choices out there. If you’re a developer, you can write for Android, you can write for Windows, you can write for Xbox or PlayStation. If you’re a customer and you don’t like the setup, the curated experience of the App Store, you can buy a Samsung.
In other words, “If you don’t like it, leave.” However, I think this argument is disingenuous:
- It’s easy to say that it’s simple for an iOS user to switch to Android, but sticky Apple services make it much harder in reality. iMessage is notoriously difficult to switch away from, and Apple knows that. Switching is especially difficult for those who rely on a Mac or other Apple hardware and just aren’t enamored of being forced to purchase iOS apps through the App Store.
- Many iOS developers already also develop for Android. Whether or not they prefer one platform over another is irrelevant if they need both to make their business work.
That’s not to say that Apple necessarily owes users or developers anything, but again, we’re pointing out that, if nothing changes, the choice maybe not be left up to Apple for much longer. In theory, I’m all for “if you don’t like it, leave,” but the reality isn’t that simple for most folks, and regulators will take that into consideration.
Thankfully, Apple is addressing this problem, at least somewhat. After the Hey imbroglio, Apple announced two long-overdue changes to App Store policy:
First, developers will not only be able to appeal decisions about whether an app violates a given guideline of the App Store Review Guidelines, but will also have a mechanism to challenge the guideline itself. Second, for apps that are already on the App Store, bug fixes will no longer be delayed over guideline violations except for those related to legal issues. Developers will instead be able to address the issue in their next submission.
These are excellent policies that should have been in place from the start. The European Union has taken this even further with new regulations that prevent publishers like Apple from banning apps without notice. As developer Steve Troughton-Smith pointed out, Apple must give 30 days’ notice before removing an app, must disclose any preferential treatment, and must have an external mediator for issues that cannot be resolved by App Store review.
How these policy and regulatory changes will actually work out in the real world remains to be seen.
Banning Game Streaming Services
Amazingly, while Apple has made some progress, in other ways, the company has doubled down. After its Congressional hearing, Apple expressly forbade services like Microsoft’s Project xCloud and Google’s Stadia game streaming services. Before I explain what xCloud is and why Apple’s stated reasoning doesn’t hold water, I need to explain how these services work.
Modern video games need a tremendous amount of processing power, either requiring expensive desktop computers or specialized gaming hardware. Years ago, a company called OnLive came up with a crazy idea: what if you ran the games on a server farm and streamed the video output to the player? And then took input from the controller and sent it back to the server? It would be a “thin client” for video games. Such a system would require an extremely fast Internet connection, but in theory, it would enable you to play even the most demanding games on modest hardware.
While OnLive was a commercial failure, the system worked better than anyone expected. Since then, successors to OnLive have come from Sony, Microsoft, Google, and Nvidia, all of which have improved upon the concept.
It’s important to understand that with services like these, native game code is not running on your device. The game is running on a remote server, and you are interacting with the instance of that game running on that server. I point this out because any accusations of malware slipping through such a system are completely unfounded. The only way that could happen is if Microsoft or Google put the malware in the game streaming app itself, which is both ludicrous and should be prevented by the standard App Store review.
Apple put a blanket ban on these services supposedly because the company can’t review every game that is offered. But Apple doesn’t review content that’s distributed through Netflix, Kindle, Spotify, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, or HBO, to name a few, and some of that content wouldn’t pass the App Store Review Guidelines if it were in an app.
Apple says the difference is that games are interactive. This doesn’t hold water either, because Netflix also distributes interactive video, including Microsoft’s own Minecraft: Story Mode. And even if an interactive video is somehow different from an interactive game, Apple currently allows other sorts of remote gameplay apps in the App Store, like Steam Link and PS4 Remote Play.
Granted, Apple also didn’t allow those apps for some time, but they effectively work the same way as Stadia and xCloud, the only difference being that the Steam Link and PS4 Remote Play apps stream games from a local game console over your local network rather than from a server on the Internet. Apple also allows remote desktop apps like Microsoft Remote Desktop which allow remote access to any sort of app. However, as John Gruber points out, Apple does put this distinction in writing in the App Store Review Guidelines 4.2.7:
The app must only connect to a user-owned host device that is a personal computer or dedicated game console owned by the user, and both the host device and client must be connected on a local and LAN-based network.
But Gruber also says that Apple’s official statement was nonsense. What’s the real difference between a host device on the local network and one that’s accessed over the Internet?
We also get into some murky philosophical territory here. What defines a “video game” and distinguishes it from a movie? Is Minecraft: Story Mode a video game? Could you consider books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series to be games? (I recall offshoots that involved dice rolls and other elements associated with “gaming.”) The 2013 app Gone Home sparked some intense debate over whether it was actually a video game. Must an artistic work exceed some threshold of interactivity to meet the definition of a video game, and can a video game even be considered art?
I can accept on some level that Apple could have good reasons to treat game streaming differently than books and movies beyond merely protecting its own business interests. But I can’t clearly define the distinction. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” It might be more illustrative to use the more encompassing descriptor of interactive content, which may be easier to define.
The other argument in favor of Apple’s stance that I’ve heard is that Stadia and xCloud sell subscriptions or individual games outside of the App Store. But again, so does Netflix, and so do the Steam Link and PS4 Remote Play apps.
In a statement to Gizmodo, Microsoft responded to Apple’s decision:
Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content. All games available in the Xbox Game Pass catalog are rated for content by independent industry ratings bodies such as the ESRB and regional equivalents.
Microsoft could be an especially dangerous enemy right now. For whatever reason, the company seems to enjoy a favorable status with the federal government. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was not brought before Congress, despite Microsoft having a market cap on par with Apple’s. Microsoft was awarded the Pentagon’s lucrative JEDI contract over Amazon, although that’s being contested. Even more puzzling, the Trump administration is apparently assisting Microsoft in acquiring social video app TikTok from Chinese-owned company ByteDance.
Satya Nadella could easily appear before Congress and lay out the following facts:
- Apple blocks services like xCloud from the App Store.
- xCloud distributes interactive content.
- Netflix is allowed to charge a subscription fee to distribute interactive content without sharing a cut with Apple.
- The interactive content on xCloud is vetted and rated by the ESRB.
- Apple provides its own competing subscription gaming service, Apple Arcade.
If you’re a regulator, particularly one who doesn’t really understand the tech world, what conclusion would you draw?
Apple Has Devalued Apps
A much vaguer issue is the accusation, oft-repeated over the years, is that Apple, by providing so much software for free and encouraging inexpensive or free apps, has driven the price of software to near zero. Whereas developers used to be able to charge tens or hundreds of dollars for software packages, they now feel like they have to offer them at rock-bottom prices.
Making the problem worse is that Apple has prevented developers from charging for updates from day one. That forced developers to chase new customers instead of serving loyal users from whom they’d never see another cent.
Eventually, without allowing simple paid upgrades, Apple came up with a different solution: subscriptions. It feels like every app now offers or requires some sort of ongoing subscription. Subscription revenue is good for Apple’s Services business, and it provides steady income to developers, but users are frustrated by having to keep up with innumerable monthly bills and are left feeling as though they merely rent their software.
But how much of this is due to misguided or malicious Apple business practices, and how much is due to market realities? The very existence of the Internet has devalued many creative works—music being an infamous example. Apple is also often unfairly blamed for music becoming cheaper as well, but Napster was a thing long before the iTunes Store.
The simple fact is that the popularity of the App Store, and the relative ease of developing for it, have created a flood of apps. As the iPhone ad used to say, “There’s an app for that,” even for the most obscure use cases, and in reality, there are often multiple competing apps for any given task. Supply significantly outweighs demand, and the inevitable result is reduced prices.
We don’t have any proposed solutions here. The source of the issue is hard to pinpoint, and subscriptions have largely solved the upgrade problem for developers, even if users aren’t entirely happy about it.
The most likely path forward is for Apple to do nothing different until forced to change by a regulatory body. I say this is the most likely, because, from Apple’s statements, the company seems to think it has nothing to apologize for and feels that it is doing the world a favor in the way it’s running the App Store.
However, I think this would be a mistake that both the company and its fans would eventually regret. The sad truth, evident to anyone who watches Congressional hearings on tech, is that many legislators, even the younger set, do not have a firm grasp on the issues at play, much less on their subtleties. For example, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner asked Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, why Donald Trump Jr. was banned from Twitter, a completely separate and competing service. Oops! These are the sort of people who would be making the new rules.
A governmental solution already proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is probably better informed on these issues than most of her peers, is to split up Apple so that hardware, software, and the App Store are separate businesses. I think this would be a nightmare for both the company and its users. Imagine all the tight integrations we’ve grown accustomed to, suddenly at risk. Or worse, a spun-off company being purchased by Microsoft or another company. It’s hard to see a breakup solving these issues anyway since most of the complaints don’t revolve around Apple’s hardware and software having preferred status.
Another, more controversial solution would be for Apple to allow sideloading—being able to install apps in ways other than through the App Store—of apps in all of Apple’s operating systems. Some Apple users feel sideloading would confuse the user experience and worry that it would open up Apple’s platforms to bad actors. But the fact is that this system works fine on the Mac, and Apple still maintains some control over Mac software distributed outside the App Store. Despite the case of Charlie Monroe Software, it’s a system that gives developers flexibility and hasn’t resulted in the Mac drowning in malware.
It’s worth pointing out that enterprise users can already sideload their companies’ internal iOS apps, and there are alternative app stores out there already that take advantage of these tools that anyone can install with a bit of knowledge and chutzpah, no jailbreak required. You could argue that the sideloading problem has already been solved, but I think these alternative app stores survive largely because they remain below Apple’s radar. If an app distributed in such a way became a sensation, I suspect Apple would be quick to shut it down. My point here is that these systems are already in place and don’t seem to be hurting users; they simply require Apple’s blessing.
Alternatively, Apple could lower its rates, perhaps using a tiered system that would encourage the likes of Netflix, Basecamp, and Epic to take advantage of the better in-app signup experience. That one simple act would probably take a lot of heat off the company. However, with iPhone sales growth slipping and the Services segment becoming increasingly important, it’s hard to see Apple doing that voluntarily. The company is determined to maintain steady double-digit growth for Wall Street.
Finally, Apple could clarify its definition of “reader app” or eliminate the distinction altogether. Let any app use a payment system outside the app and let developers clearly state that in the app itself, so users don’t open an app to find a spartan login screen.
What Do You Think?
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