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Apple sends a letter to Hey: Change your app or get out of the App Store

Apple says its rules are clear, consistent and enforceable. Developers have long said otherwise.

Apple apps

Apple touts all the things its apps can do — but competing developers feel they're not allowed to keep up.

Image: Apple

Apple sent a letter to Basecamp's Jason Fried on Thursday with a simple message: We're not going to allow the Hey app into the App Store as it is. There will be no more escalations, no hope of a rogue executive changing the outcome. Unless you make changes, you're not getting your app approved.

(Wondering how we got to this point? Here's how.)

Apple told the Basecamp team it has a few options. It can turn Hey into a standard email client in addition to the existing service, and allow users to log in with their existing Gmail and other accounts. Alternatively, it can let users pay for Hey from within the iOS app. "We are happy to continue to support you in your app business and offer you the solutions to provide your services for free," the company wrote, "so long as you follow and respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow." But if there are no changes, it says, the App Review Board's ruling stands.

It's been a week full of debate over Apple's store policies, after the EU launched an antitrust investigation and the developers of Hey accused the company of shaking them down for a cut of their revenues. Since then, a number of developers have shared their own complicated interactions with the App Store. "Unfortunately, shipping iOS software means being on the iOS App Store. Because of this, many developers are scared to speak out," the app maker Rogue Amoeba tweeted. "The sad result of this continued silence is that Apple can abuse their position of power, and they are."

Meanwhile, the antitrust allegations keep getting louder. Microsoft President Brad Smith told Bloomberg that regulators should investigate app stores in general, because "they impose requirements that increasingly say there is only one way to get on to our platform and that is to go through the gate that we ourselves have created." Rep. David Cicilline, the head of the House antitrust committee, told The Verge that Apple's fees amount to "highway robbery" and accused Apple of bullying and crushing small developers.

In a call ahead of sending its letter on Thursday, Apple reiterated again that Hey broke its rules and should have never made it onto the App Store in the first place. It also said Hey should have known the rejection was coming: Its Mac app was immediately rejected for violating the same in-app purchase rules as the iOS one. The company maintains it hasn't changed its rules and hasn't recently increased its squeeze on developers — though developers say they've felt it. The App Review team makes mistakes, but that's all that they are.

And again, Apple tried to explain the rules around which apps can get away with not using in-app purchases and which can't. First, if an app is a way to exclusively consume content purchased elsewhere, like songs or movies or podcasts, they don't have to have in-app purchases. These are known as Reader apps, and they're exempt in the guidelines — though even this gets messy quickly, as "approved services such as classroom management apps" are considered Reader apps as well. Even more complicated, and not found in Apple's guidelines, is this rule: If an app is paid for by a company and managed by an administrator — think Salesforce, HR services, all the things no regular person ever pays for and are run entirely by IT departments — that app doesn't have to require in-app purchases.

That, Apple said, is not what Hey is. Hey is a consumer app, paid for by users. And Apple takes issue with the idea that when one of those prospective users downloads the app, there's nothing they can do with it — they can't sign up, they can't pay, they have to go somewhere else before they can use the app. Apple doesn't like apps like that, at least when it feels they should be more accessible to their intended audience.

In the years since the App Store started, Apple said, it has only offered more ways for developers to avoid the in-app-purchase toll, by creating more exemptions and simplifying the rules. But it seems unlikely to ever allow an app to, say, collect credit card information or process subscriptions through PayPal within the app. And it feels entitled to its portion of revenues, as the company that created and maintains the store developers use.

Apple did allow for the fact that it may need to clarify and rethink its guidelines to make things clearer. For now, Basecamp, in an effort to get its app approved, is accelerating its Hey For Business program — CTO and co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson told me the company's already onboarded a couple of customers. They're hoping that by turning Hey into a service companies pay for, they can change the way Apple treats its app. I asked Heinemeier Hansson if he thought it was going to work. He responded in a text, "NO." Then a second later: "😂."

Here's Apple's full letter to the Basecamp team:

Hello Jason,

We are writing to let you know the appeal results for your app, HEY Email.

The App Review Board evaluated your app and determined that the rejection was valid. Your app does not comply with the App Store Review Guidelines detailed below. As you are aware, this is the reason your Hey Email app was rejected when it was submitted to the Mac App Store on June 11, 2020.

The HEY Email app is marketed as an email app on the App Store, but when users download your app, it does not work. Users cannot use the app to access email or perform any useful function until after they go to the Basecamp website for Hey Email and purchase a license to use the HEY Email app. This violates the following App Store Review Guidelines:

Guideline 3.1.1 - Business - Payments - In-App Purchase

If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, you must use in-app purchase. Your app requires customers to purchase content, subscriptions, or features outside of the app, but those items are not available as in-app purchases within the app as required by the App Store Review Guidelines.

Guideline 3.1.3(a) - Business - Payments - "Reader" Apps

Reader apps may allow users to access previously purchased content and content subscriptions. Your mail app is not one of the content types allowed under this guideline for "Reader" apps (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VOIP, cloud storage, or approved services such as classroom management apps). Therefore, customers must be given the option to purchase access to features or functionality in your app using in-app purchase.

Guideline 3.1.3(b) - Business - Payments - Multiplatform Services

Apps that operate services across multiple platforms may allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired in your app on other platforms or on your website, provided those items are also available as in-app purchases within the app. Your HEY Email app does not offer access to content, subscriptions, or features as in-app purchases within the app. In fact, the app does not function as an email app or for any purpose until the user goes to the Basecamp Hey Email website to start a free trial or purchase a separate license to use the app for its intended purpose.

Next Steps

To resolve this issue, please revise your app such that it does not violate any of the App Store Review Guidelines and terms.

There are a number of ways that you could revise your app or service to adhere to the App Store Review Guidelines. Customers who have previously purchased access to content, subscriptions, or features elsewhere may continue to access these items in your app, as long as new iOS customers are given the option to purchase access using in-app purchase as required by the App Store Review Guidelines.

If you would prefer not to offer users the option of in-app purchases, you could consider having the app function as marketed — an email client that works with standard IMAP and POP email accounts, where customers can optionally configure the Hey Email service as their preferred email service provider. This would allow the app to function as an email client without requiring an additional payment to use its features and functionality. Under this approach, what you sell on your website is clearly an email service separate from the function of your app as distributed on the App Store.

We are here as a resource as you explore these or other ideas to bring the Hey Email app within compliance of the App Store Review Guidelines and terms.

Thank you for being an iOS app developer. We understand that Basecamp has developed a number of apps and many subsequent versions for the App Store for many years, and that the App Store has distributed millions of these apps to iOS users. These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years. We are happy to continue to support you in your app business and offer you the solutions to provide your services for free — so long as you follow and respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow.

We hope to assist you in offering the Hey Email app on the App Store.

Sincerely,
App Review Board

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