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How could Apple make the App Store better for developers?

Recorded – watch the full episode on YouTube.

‌What do you think Apple could change about the way they run the App Store itself to make it better for indie developers?

Ish Shabazz: I can think of a thing that would make it worse – something I hope they don't do. What happened for Apple Arcade for games, I can accept that in the game arena. What I hope never happens is a one-time subscription for the entire App Store, because I think that would just basically kill indie development. Because at that point, the revenue would likely be based on time spent in the app.

That becomes really difficult being an independent developer. Depending on what kind of app you're making, your goal could likely be for folks to spend very little time in the app. Productivity apps, for example, actually don't want folks spending a ton of time. In fact, you have a widget, so that they don't have to necessarily even go to the app. So then how would you ever get compensated from that? That would be a horrible thing.

I think in general though, there's not enough effort on the side of the App Store to keep it clean and tidy. There is some effort and I appreciate all the folks who are doing app review and such, but I think there's a set of rules that isn't evenly applied and sometimes creates confusion on what's allowed and what's not.

For example, when David Smith released Widgetsmith, which is a fantastic app that really changed the landscape of many iPhones over this past season. There was a copycat app that got higher SEO rank in the App Store, that was clearly a scam. It was clearly a scam app, clearly the same, and because his app was so huge, why doesn't Apple realize that the number one app in ranking now has this competitor in SEO, that's a complete rip off.

I actually contacted Apple before, because when Stickers came out there was someone who was literally taking Bitmoji and making sticker apps from them. I'm like, "Hey, Apple, look at this." They replied to ask whether it was my copyrighted material, and of course the answer was no – I was just reporting it on behalf of someone else." They're like, "Well, we don't really have a process for that." So it’s things like that – if they could just keep it as a tidy area, I think that'd be nice.

Something else I would like is with subscriptions, because I hate the model of free previews. There's the free trial that automatically bills you if you can't remember to cancel it, and I don't like that pattern – It feels like a dark pattern to me. I prefer a free trial where at the end of the trial it just no longer works, kind of like the way media streaming service would be. You use it for the trial and then at the end of it, if you want to continue, you would have to pay in order to continue.

"I prefer a free trial and at the end of the trial, it just no longer works. Kind of like the way a media streaming service would be."

But I don't like the idea of you automatically paying. Maybe I'm biased because I'm getting a little bit older and forgetful. I've was using some thing, the phone rang, and I never got back to it. I don't like that pattern, so I'd really appreciate it if that pattern were to change. Though I wonder how that'll go, because I'm sure it impacts the bottom line quite a bit, but I would hope that the goal would be to make the best user experience.

I think the best customer experience is if I'm trying something out, and at the end of that the app just stops working – kind of the way screen time works. So if at the end of the day, if you've been on Twitter for too long, it'll gray out the icon and be like, "Nope, you’ve got no more." That's the perfect way of handling it. You know what, if you want to continue using this app, you got to pay. I think that's a much better way of handling it.

Paul Hudson: Okay. Let's try and unpack what you said because there were a few different things in that answer. The Apple Arcade for apps thing is interesting because there's a brilliant Apple developer, Ricky Mondello, who was on WebKit for a long time. They are now doing authentication stuff, which is great as well. They regularly tweet about if you're going to do a web feature, like a new web standard, always think about how it can be used for evil. How people would twist that to abuse it? Arcade for apps is a great example – if it is based on time, we would start making apps that make you want to spend more time in the app, and that would be a disaster. As you said, many very good quality apps make it such a short usage – and that’s why we use them.

So then you get into, okay, let's make it based on app launches. You can see that being abused to heck as well, constant prompts to come back and launch the app, whatever. There are all sorts of weird evil ways you can abuse that. So I hope it never happens. It'd be interesting to see what would happen if they tried it, but it's so full of problems.

With Arcade, if someone makes an FPS game, you can get 10 of those, 20 of those, 30 of those, and they don't really compete. I can have Red Dead Redemption and Doom at the same time and not think one is the other. Whereas when it comes to a calendar app, I'm going to kind of want one calendar app.

Ish Shabazz: Just the one.

Paul Hudson: Maybe if I'm fussy, I might use two, but you don't want multiple things, so it becomes more challenging to handle that more fairly. So, I think App Arcade won't happen, but we'll see.

As for uneven rules, this is a challenging area because I think we're still seeing Apple saying, “running to the press doesn't work." Yet running to the press always works, or at least nearly always. They change their mind once it comes out that they were uneven, or heavy handed, or unfair, or whatever it happens to be, they change their mind very quickly. It's so easy to do now thanks to Twitter, or 9to5Mac, or MacRumors – they are always happy to throw up, “app developer angry because so-and-so wording was changed." Apple seemed to cave in a little bit, I think.

"Evenly applied rules. No matter how crazy the rules are, if they're evenly applied people will tend to understand."

Ish Shabazz: That has for sure been a thing. But I think also internally I don't know that everyone's been on the same page about it. I had an app rejected once that had already been in the store. That's the other thing too – it’s weird when you've been there for a while and then suddenly you're rejected for like a bug fix. I got rejected because in my promo video the text message on the screen said, "WTF." Just like that: WTF. They said, “we don't allow that in the store." And that's weird because they have five apps with WTF in the app icon, and one of them is literally called WTF. Why? WTF could mean anything, right?

Paul Hudson: Yeah, could. It doesn't, but it could.

Ish Shabazz: It doesn't. But I mean, I didn't explicitly say it. It just had that abbreviation. Now I would be okay with that rule if it was a consistent rule. Or if it was like a warning, like, "by the way, next time you got to do this." I couldn't put up the bug fix because I have a video that in a text message on the screen had WTF somewhere in the bit.

Paul Hudson: That's frustrating.

Ish Shabazz: Evenly applied rules. No matter how crazy the rules are, if they're evenly applied people will tend to understand. We don't like these rules, but the rules are evenly applied. But once it's subjective, like, "Well, just resubmit, it'll go through." Now we have an issue. I feel like that's something that they can work on.

Paul Hudson: So my very first app for iOS was a flashcard program, so I could do English, Greek, and Latin at the same time – multiple languages. It got rejected by Apple because I used the name Flashzilla, and Flash was not allowed on the App Store. I was like, "No, no, it's not using Adobe Flash. It's a flashcard program." So that was lovely.

"I think upgrade pricing would be great. I'm an advocate for any model that really makes sense."

Ish Shabazz: The name Flash! Wow, that's an interesting rejection. Well, I have a collection of the most amazing rejections – I've been rejected so many times. It's really something

Paul Hudson: It never gets nice. It's always, always annoying. It takes ages to submit an app and get it all done properly, and now you’ve got to tweak some screenshot in three different device sizes, or something hideous like that. Yeah, that's cruel.

Ish Shabazz: Luckily review times now are down to a day, but when review times were like a week or more, holy cow – it was rough.

Paul Hudson: There’s a great point here from Prathamesh Kowarkar who says, "I just wish they gave us upgrade pricing." Now, Apple have resisted this for a long time, and we're seeing increasing numbers of freemium apps on the App Store, or subscriptions taking over as a standard, because there's no reliable way to generate income otherwise. You can sell your $5 app and then you're supporting it for years and years for free. So I think upgrade pricing would be a lovely addition, even now I'd happily welcome it.

Ish Shabazz: I think upgrade pricing would be great. I'm an advocate for any model that really makes sense. That one doesn't work for many of the apps that I have, but I think if someone wanted, why not? Some of the complexities we have in subscription pricing right now, subscriptions are insane. So you can have a subscription price, but then have a different price if a person has a subscription, then cancels the subscription and then comes back. You have like incentive pricing on top of that. Then there's all these different tiers and varying ways in which you can get to subscription. That is so much more complicated than upgrade pricing. I think upgrade pricing just should be an option just because, it's a shame that it's not.

"At the time, Apple made it very difficult to cancel a subscription. It was like buried the way to do it. Now it's a lot easier."

Paul Hudson: To add to that, Apple's subscription receipts often don't include enough information to tell you what subscriptions are actually being renewed. Apple makes you do most of the work here. This is where companies like RevenueCat are just dominating because they take all that pain away from you and make it easy to do subscriptions, so you can focus on making a good app, not on subs and IAPs and renewals and family sharing and all that stuff. There's a lot of work in there.

Ish Shabazz: I actually really hate the StoreKit API. I understand it's tough to work on, so if anyone's listening and you have to work on StoreKit, my apologies.

Paul Hudson: We appreciate you, StoreKit team.

Ish Shabazz: I appreciate it because it is bringing in revenue, but it's still a bit of a pain.

Paul Hudson: Finally, you mentioned the complexity around forgetting to cancel subscriptions because it is surprisingly easy to do. In fact, there was a whole range of mini scandals for a while about wallpaper apps costing $99 a month. They knew folks who started a seven-day trial would basically forget to cancel it. They're just out to scam money. Well, technically it’s not a scam because folks are getting wallpapers for albeit at extremely inflated prices, but it basically is a scam, right?

Ish Shabazz: A little scammy because under normal circumstances, would you pay that much for the service? The other thing is at the time, Apple made it very difficult to cancel a subscription. The way to do it was buried, but now it's a lot easier – you can just go to the App Store, click your avatar, and go to subscription, and see them and cancel them. But at one point in time it was almost impossible to find. Then there was no refund policy for subscriptions – you can refund direct purchases, but you can't refund subscriptions. So you have people who've just paid $700 for wallpapers with no ability to get a refund. It was just an incredibly dark, dark pattern that messed things up for everyone.

Paul Hudson: Yeah, exactly. So it was making money in a scammy way.

Ish Shabazz: A very scammy way.

Paul Hudson: They made a lot of money doing basically no work and Apple were allowing it – they were letting it through.

Ish Shabazz: They were and it was weird because sometimes they would reject other folks for how they presented their price. But there was no guide, so for a long time Apple didn't say what they wanted, but they will reject you if you didn't give them what they wanted, at the same time as there's another app that's just like scamming folks, the $700 wallpapers stuff, and they're fine. It was just a really, really an odd time, and I'm glad that that has improved. There's always work to be done, but it's improved a lot over the last few years.

This transcript was recorded as part of Swiftly Speaking. You can watch the full original episode on YouTube, or subscribe to the audio version on Apple Podcasts.

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