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Subscription squabbling in iOS apps rumbles ever onwards


There have been some very sharply worded defences of Apple's new subscription payments requirements written over the last 24 hours:

  • John Gruber: What [Readability are] pissed about is that Apple has the stronger hand. Readability needs Apple to publish an app in the App Store. Apple doesn't need Readability.
  • "Kontra" at counternotions: Apple, the one company that makes bet-the-company type moves all the time, has done it again: they have decided to cull parasitic middlemen and aggregators from the ecosystem.
  • Ben Brooks: If you want to jump on Tommy's trampoline then you are going to have to be friends with Tommy and that means going to his stupid birthday parties and playing by his rules - but its (sic) a freaking trampoline so its (sic) worth it.
  • The Cocoanetics company blog: Right now you have to play under Apple's rule if you want a piece of the pie that's up for grabs on the iOS eco system. Stop whining and start building a service/products that Apple cannot be without. Then they'll either buy your business or find ways to let you breathe on their turf.

I have a simple question for these guys.

I own an iPad and an iPhone 4. I frequently use lots of content apps that will be affected by these new rules, such as Kindle, Spotify, BBC iPlayer and (when I am in the U.S. travelling from time to time) Netflix and Hulu. There's also software-as-a-service apps like Dropbox, Instapaper, Simplenote and Flickr -- all apps where purchases done outside the App Store unlock extra functionality inside the app itself.

Despite emails allegedly from Steve Jobs stating that these apps will not be affected, the exact wording in Apple's developer guidelines is "[a]pps utilizing a system other than the In App Purchase API (IAP) to purchase content, functionality, or services in an app will be rejected' (emphasis mine). It's far from obvious which apps are in the clear at this point, and Apple's typical reticence about coming forward and clearing things up is only prolonging the FUDstorm.

This change by Apple clearly jeopardises the existence of at least some of these apps on the iOS platform. I think everyone on both sides of the argument agrees about that.

Now, I am an enthusiastic user of Apple's iOS products. I really like working with them! But I am merely a user; I don't have shares in Apple and I don't have any apps in the App Store. I don't particularly care how much money Apple makes as long as it isn't cancelling projects because it's going broke, which seems unlikely. To the bloggers above and to the many others passionately defending this change, I simply ask: why am I supposed to be happy about this? Or to put it another way: if all those apps disappear from my devices, what's in it for millions of end users like me?

And I have a follow up question: if your answer is "nothing right now, but Apple has every right to make money any way it wants with this wonderful, compelling platform it has created"... OK, I accept that. If I didn't agree that iOS was great I wouldn't own an iPad and several iPhones. And Apple can charge whatever it damn well pleases; that's how capitalism works and the alternatives to that started with the letter C and ended with the fall of the Iron Curtain. But I would like to know: isn't Apple supposed to be the most user-centric company on the planet? Removing things people use -- that I use -- without any sort of quid pro quo doesn't sound like a user-centric change to me. It feels downright user hostile, in fact. Where's my upside?

I'm not disputing that iOS is a pleasant walled garden. But when the garden you've chosen to live in suddenly gets smaller because the gardener pulls up your favorite flowerbed and starts charging you to sit on your favorite bench, it's natural to be concerned -- not only about the bits you just lost but also about the next time the gardener decides to rearrange things without warning.

Or, as Marco Arment puts it: but one argument that Apple should care about: this policy will prevent many potentially great apps, from many large and small publishers, from being created on iOS at all. A broad, vague, inconsistently applied, greedy, and unjustifiable rule doesn't make developers want to embrace the platform.

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