Apple’s desire to tax and control its app ecosystem is earning outcry from developers, government, and outside observers. It’s a stand-off musicians and creators should watch closely.
First, let’s set the scene. The European Commission in Brussels yesterday launched a probe into the way the App Store works, meaning this is now on the level of government policy.
Two rules have been part of Apple’s platform for some time: first, a 30% commission goes to Apple on any in-app purchased subscription fees. Second, Apple restricts apps from telling you about alternative purchasing possibilities outside the app.
Now, as of about 24 hours ago, I might have expected some music makers to side with Apple, not least because the complaint to the EC came in part from [cue sinister music] Spotify. And I don’t think any musician right now is concerned about Spotify having more money or power. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)
But there’s a twist.
The very same week as the EC announced its case, Apple is caught in a battle with a much-hyped new email app from the creator of popular Web productivity tool Basecamp.
That product is an email service called Hey. Users subscribe for a hundred bucks a year, and there’s a client for iOS. Background:
Now, you might not particularly care about email services. But what’s troubling here is that Apple seems to go even beyond their existing rules – keeping in mind their existing rules may already run afoul of European law. As David Pierce writes on Protocol:
Hey does cost $99 a year, but users can’t sign up or pay within the iOS app. It’s an app for using an existing outside service, just like Basecamp’s eponymous platform — and Netflix and Slack and countless other apps.
Apple is now refusing to let the developers of Hey ship bug fixes to their customers, and doubling down on the logic even though it seems to defy Apple’s own stated rules.
So not only does Apple have rules that are arguably anticompetitive, possibly illegally so in some localities, but it doesn’t seem able to enforce them consistently, either. And that’s a story we’ve heard again and again about large platforms for media.
In a statement regarding the European Commission, Apple dismisses complaints as being a “handful of companies” (even though a broad swath of developers has raised similar concerns). Tellingly, they also claim: “we want to maintain a level playing field where anyone with determination and a great idea can succeed.”
But that’s been the problem with Apple – and Amazon, and Spotify, and Facebook/Instagram. Is it really a level playing field? (Uh… or does it have sand traps, if we want to screw up the sports metaphor?)
Dieter Bohn argues to The Verge that it isn’t:
Big players are objecting, too – including Epic Games, makers of Fortnite, and Match Group, parent of Tinder. We’ll have to watch to see if those larger players provide cover for independent developers with similar concerns.
In music, we are particularly impacted by Apple’s rules. Apple helped make digital downloads a success with iTunes and iPod. But now apps not made by Apple are blocked from purchasing and from downloading music. So even as music producers celebrate the artist-friendly approach of Bandcamp, you can’t directly buy or download Bandcamp music (or Beatport, or any other store) to Apple’s devices.
And services like Bandcamp are subject to the same inconsistent and restrictive rules as these other services. So they’re limited in offering subscriptions – partly because Apple wants to direct that business to their own competing platforms. And you can’t buy music, either. If in fact Apple has escalated its crackdown on outside subscriptions, I wonder if that could have implications for the likes of Bandcamp, too.
Not to mention, when Spotify started down the all-you-can-eat subscription model that sank the value of music albums, Apple used its monopoly to chase the same idea. So there’s reason to resent Apple for helping accelerate the devaluation of music in the first place.
I think that’s particularly damaging now. Artists are struggling to stay afloat without gigs. Does Apple – the company that already sold the phone to you, and possibly and iPad and/or computer, too – really need to get richer off every purchase? If that money comes through Bandcamp, for instance, you did all the work. Hell, you may not earn back the amount of money you spent on buying something like Logic.
Apple did relax its rules at the start of April on video sold inside its platform – a game-changer, wrote Tae Kim for Bloomberg at the time. But that only applied to video, and only “premium subscription video.” (Canal+, Amazon Prime, and others quickly took advantage.) It also should demonstrate that this is not in fact a security concern.
Now, maybe there is an advantage to Apple’s own payment platform. But payment platforms don’t normally take nearly a third of the revenue.
Meanwhile, the entire tech oligopoly continues to get richer while artists across the board struggle to pay rent and eat. Apple’s stock was just targeted at $400 and is expected to go higher. And billionaires have massively expanded their wealth, even as governments make excuses about how much they can do to cover out-of-work citizens. (See an extensive report by the Institute for Policy Studies, for one widely-cited examination.)
So please – tell us again all about this level playing field, not just from Apple, but all the tech giants.
I really hope there is some policy change here. There’s no question to the App Store offers opportunities. But imagine if its payment and subscription services were fair. It could open that window wider, just as independent creative types need the sunlight.