How to fix the App Store?

June 24, 2020

I took the weekend to digest a lot of the complaints voiced by developers of all sizes, from Microsoft to Basecamp, to solo developers. I’ve identified three main issues:

  1. The 30/15% commission is unfair;
  2. The store guidelines are unclear, and their application inconsistent;
  3. There’s no real alternative to the App Store on Apple’s mobile devices.

I think the frustration about the commissions stems from Apple conflating two kinds of fees into one. On one hand, you have fees necessary to run the store, and benefit from everything it has to offer (friction-less payments, customer support, updates, free OS upgrades to minimize backward compatibility, etc.). On the other, you have referral fees, which would make sense if they existed to reward Apple for generating business for developers.

There’s probably little debate about the legitimacy of the store fees, but the referral fees are problematic because Apple takes a full commission whether the purchase originated from the developer’s website, or a direct search on the App Store.

A possible solution would be to split the two fees. There would be a 15% commission dedicated to supporting the store, charged for every transaction as it is the case today. An additional 15% would only be charged when Apple actively brings the customer to the developer, via a search, and ad, a recommendation card, etc.

What Apple announced today is a good step towards solving some of the issues related to the guidelines and their application. I would add two minor suggestions:

  1. More efforts to show they’re open to dialogue;
  2. No special treatment.

As for alternatives to their store, Apple has been promoting the web (i.e. PWAs) as one, but everyone agrees they’re falling short. There’s been notable efforts, specifically with the recent support for service workers, but the lack of important features such as push notifications is a clear sign of the disconnect between their claims and their actions.

No reasonable developer expects the web to be on par with native platforms. The former relies on a common-denominator approach, and is consensus-driven. The latter allows for differentiation, and is solely under the control of the platform’s owner. This is to say that the lag between the two is incompressible. However, all developers expect Apple to be up to speed on web standards, so that lag is at least uniform between the web, and all the more advanced native platforms they have to support.