Apple’s annual conference for app makers, which starts on Monday, is usually a lovefest. This year it’s going to be awkward.
Some developers are angrier than ever at Apple’s dictatorship over iPhone apps, accusing the tech giant of imposing unfair costs and complexities on them and iPhone users. Here’s what you need to know about this dispute, where Apple and the unhappy app makers have a point, and my suggestions for reaching app peace.
Why are app makers mad?
It boils down to what some app companies and lawmakers say is Apple’s domineering control of iPhone apps.
Some are angry at what they see as high and capriciously applied commissions that Apple takes when someone subscribes to an online dating service in an app or buys virtual gems in the Clash of Clans game. Apple takes a fee of up to 30 cents per dollar of each sale in an iPhone app. (It recently cut its commission to 15 cents per dollar for all but the top-selling apps, although that change affects a fraction of Apple’s app revenue.)
Other app makers believe Apple unfairly blocks their apps or puts them at a disadvantage to Apple’s competing internet services. The complainers could be a vocal minority among the couple million iPhone apps, but it’s an influential one — including Spotify, Match Group, Airbnb, Tile and the maker of the Fortnite video game, Epic Games, whose trial against Apple concluded last month.
Do the complainers have a point?
Yup. Apple has been running its app store using the same approach since it started it in 2008. That made sense at the time. It might not anymore.
People’s familiarity with apps makes it harder for Apple to justify its restrictions and commissions as though people couldn’t find apps without the company’s help. Apple also makes increasingly Byzantine rules to keep control over the app store, and they don’t always make sense. Why does Apple want an app to pay it a commission on the e-book edition of a cookbook but not the print version?
The big question for us is: What does Apple’s grip on the iPhone cost us, in higher priced apps or new ideas that never get off the ground because some developers don’t think they can make money under Apple’s terms?
But Apple is a little right, too.
Apple says that it deserves to be compensated for its role in the app economy. It brings hundreds of millions of potential customers to app makers’ doorsteps, makes it easy for people to buy stuff, and screens apps to make sure they’re safe. (The company’s vetting is definitely not foolproof, though.)
Apple overstates the value of what it does for app makers and the rest of us, but it is a meaningful contribution.
What’s the solution to app peace?
I have two suggestions, one mild and another aggressive. I doubt that Apple would do either voluntarily.
First, Apple should stop blocking app makers from telling people that they don’t have to buy stuff in the app. For example, YouTube Music’s streaming subscription costs $12.99 a month if purchased in the iPhone app. The same membership costs $9.99 from YouTube Music’s website. (YouTube pays a commission of $3 to Apple, and passes the cost on to us.)
If app makers were allowed to link to websites where people could buy subscriptions or digital goods for less, many people still wouldn’t do it because it’s a pain, my colleague Greg Bensinger told me. But Greg, a New York Times editorial board member, said that it would win Apple a lot of good will. It also would conform more closely to how Google operates its Android app store.
My out-there option is to ditch app stores entirely. It is easier and arguably more secure to find, pay for and download apps from a single digital storefront. But I’m no longer sure it’s worth the higher costs and control by app store owners. What if we just downloaded a Tinder or YouTube Music app from the companies’ websites? Or, as I have proposed before, what if there were no apps at all?
Tip of the Week
What you need to know about Amazon Sidewalk
Do you own an Amazon gadget like a Ring camera or an Echo speaker? Brian X. Chen, The Times’s personal technology columnist, has info and advice about a new shared internet network of Amazon device owners.
Starting on Tuesday, many people who own Amazon devices will be automatically enrolled in a new program that Amazon calls Sidewalk. Basically, it allows anyone who is part of this collective to share their internet connection with others nearby. If your neighbor’s Ring internet-connected doorbell camera has a poor internet connection and yours has a strong one, you can share your bandwidth with your neighbor and vice versa.
Amazon has a detailed explanation of Sidewalk on its website. Devices that will join Sidewalk are generally newer products, like the third-generation Echo speaker, the Echo Spot smart alarm clock and some Ring cameras that were released in 2019.
While Amazon’s intentions with Sidewalk sound good, security experts have raised concerns because there are many unknowns. What if hackers infiltrate the network and hijack devices? (That has happened before with Ring devices.) Or what if sharing our internet connections violates the terms-of-service agreements we have with our internet providers?
Amazon has published a white paper about its security measures. Still, being part of Sidewalk makes you an early test subject, and it will be no fun if something goes wrong.
I’m also not a fan of being automatically enrolled in a data-sharing program, no matter the intent. If this bothers you, too, here are the steps to opt out:
If you use an Amazon Alexa product:
Tap Settings, then Account Settings, then Amazon Sidewalk.
Toggle Sidewalk to the off position.
If you use a Ring product:
(If you do not see the Sidewalk options in your settings, it means your device is not compatible with the new program.)
Before we go …
India is the world’s most interesting technology battleground: The billionaire Mukesh Ambani is trying to buy an Indian grocery store chain, and Amazon is fighting to stop it. Aman Sethi writes for The Times that this is emblematic of giant companies’ efforts to use India’s stores to build loyalty in online shopping, and the Indian government’s role in shaping that fight.
He tried to warn us: My colleague Nicole Perlroth talks to Leon Panetta, the former U.S. secretary of defense, who has been warning for years about America’s vulnerabilities to digital hacking and laments that people, organizations and policymakers still haven’t changed their behavior despite crippling cyberattacks. “What will it take?” Panetta asks.
Trump’s voice still carries online: My colleagues have a set of graphics showing how some of former President Donald J. Trump’s views continue to travel far and wide on social networks even though he has been kicked off Facebook and Twitter. One exception: His false claims about election fraud haven’t spread far.
Hugs to this
Firefighters in Manhattan used paint and creativity to keep the fire house tradition of Dalmatian dogs alive.
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