Basecamp’s protest of Apple’s policies is already benefiting other developers

That’s one reason I suspect Basecamp’s public protest of Apple and its App Store policies has gotten so much traction. Basecamp, you will remember, is a mid-sized 16-year-old company that makes project management software, and a week ago it introduced a new email service called Hey[14]. Because email is the kind of service you expect to be accessible on all your devices, Basecamp made six native clients for Hey, including one for Apple’s iOS. I installed it on my phone and used it without any issue during the time I was reviewing Hey.

But then Basecamp submitted its first bug fix release for Hey, and Apple rejected it[15]. The issue: Hey did not let users sign up for the product within the app. Apple presented this purely as a customer experience issue — account creation is a necessary part of an email app — but it was also a revenue issue. Apple keeps 30 percent of revenue from signups like these, and Basecamp did not want to give it to them. Eventually Apple said it had been a mistake to let Hey into the App Store to begin with.

If we lived in a world with more than two mobile phone operating systems, it seems unlikely that Apple would be able to take 30 percent of an email app’s revenue just for hosting it in an app store. Instead the fees might resemble those in the more competitive payments industry, which hover in the low single-digit percentages. But more than 1.5 billion iOS devices are in use, and many of the customers who would potentially pay for Hey at $99 a year are users of those devices and expect to find Hey there. Amid a flurry of interest lately in Apple’s anticompetitive behavior[16] from regulators here and in the European Union, Apple’s obstinance in the Hey case drew outsized attention. What once might have been dismissed as a lone, cranky developer seemed symbolic of a larger injustice.

It started to look, in other words, like something closer to a human rights issue.

The Basecamp developers are — and I say this with fondness — loudmouths, and they have seemed to relish in highlighting the various logical gaps and inconsistencies in the App Store’s policies and their enforcement. Look close enough at any system of law or content moderation and it can start to feel arbitrary, but Apple’s has proven to be particularly vulnerable to criticisms. What Apple has prevented Hey from doing, for example, it has allowed the much larger Netflix to do, because Netflix has been designated a “Reader” app, exempting it from offering sign-up within the app. Maybe there’s a good, principled reason for holding email apps to one standard and video streaming apps to another. Or maybe Apple is just playing favorites.

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