Apple Takes Another (Small) Step Back from its Business Abuses (Updated)

Posted on August 27, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Apple, iOS, iPadOS with 22 Comments

UPDATED: This isn’t the victory we had hoped for. Apple has only agreed to let developers contact their own customers about other ways to subscribe or pay for services … via email. And not in their native apps. That’s ridiculous. –Paul

Apple, amazingly, has settled a class-action lawsuit brought against it by app developers and will now let them communicate with their own customers. I know, that sounds like a “basic human right,” as Apple describes privacy, and something very much akin to free speech. But Apple is an abusive monopolist that does everything it can to squeeze every last penny it can out of developers who, to date, have had no other choices.

But slowly, that edifice is being chipped away by a growing tsunami of legal and antitrust challenges from around the globe. And this is the latest, but not the last, change that’s coming as a result. It is long overdue.

“The App Store has been an economic miracle; it is the safest and most trusted place for users to get apps, and an incredible business opportunity for developers to innovate, thrive, and grow,” Apple executive Phil Schiller said in a carefully crafted statement about the settlement. “We would like to thank the developers who worked with us to reach these agreements in support of the goals of the App Store and to the benefit of all of our users.”

According to the terms of the settlement, developers can now communicate with their own customers to let them know that there are alternative purchase options available to them; however, they still cannot do so inside of apps delivered by Apple’s App Store, just via email. That means that they can tell users about their own websites, for example, where they can pay for services outside of Apple’s in-app payment system.

Among the other major changes triggered by the settlement, Apple has also agreed to stop artificially changing search results to highlight its own apps and services. Or, as Apple humorously puts it, “Apple has agreed that its Search results will continue to be based on objective characteristics like downloads, star ratings, text relevance, and user behavior signals. For “at least the next three years.” Unbelievable.

Developers who have made less than $1 million per year—so about 99 percent of them, according to Apple—and were impacted by Apple’s monopolistic business practices from June 2015 through April 2021—again, about 99 percent of them—are entitled to damages payments worth $250 to $30,000 each. Apple has set aside $100 million for those payments.

Yes, this is only a single, small step towards the goal of truly fair mobile app stores. But it’s a first step, and one in the right direction. And it is perhaps notable that the judge overseeing this case, Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, is the very same judge who is now deciding Epic v. Apple. And one has to think that this concession on Apple’s part represents a legal precedent that should impact that case as well. Good.

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Comments (22)

22 responses to “Apple Takes Another (Small) Step Back from its Business Abuses (Updated)”

  1. curtisspendlove

    She seems like an excellent judge, well-versed on tech and willing to learn what she doesn’t know. I’m impressed with what I’ve read and seen.

    I still don’t like the idea of multiple app stores; but more flexibility for developers is a good thing. Although, I do see Apple using this as a “see we can be reasonable” type of bargaining chip to try to reduce any future (or current) constraints forced on them.

    • sykeward

      I completely agree. There have been a handful of judges overseeing these highly-technical cases who have really put in the work to understand and make fair, factual rulings that will hold up. They're the unsung heroes of this entire process.

    • wright_is

      This was a settlement between the two parties outside of the court, to avoid it being put before the judge to decide on what would be fair…

      • pecosbob04

        A settlement implies that both sides have come to a position they both perceive as being better than rolling the dice on a possible winner take all decision. Fair is not part of the calculus except as spin for the so-called pundits.

  2. Andi

    Can you imagine this happening on Windows or MacOS? This ridiculous gag order basically, dictating what you can and you cannot talk to your own customers. Apple probably thinks Spotify's customers are actually Apple's first and foremost.

    • jgraebner

      That's pretty much exactly what Apple thinks. They've pretty directly said that they believe iPhone users to be Apple's customers first and foremost and that those customers have access to other companies' applications and services under Apple's permission and oversight.

  3. wright_is

    It is a shame that this only affects US developers. It would be a much bigger statement, if they did this for all developers worldwide.

    As it is, it seems like it is just buying its way out of the lawsuit and not an honest change of direction.

  4. wright_is

     From The Register:

    Apple will now "permit developers to communicate outside the app (eg, by email) with customers regarding alternative purchase options, and will eliminate the Guidelines restriction that currently prevents developers from using information from within the app for this purpose."

    Apple already tweaked the rules around direct contact between devs and users earlier this year to allow communication about alternative payment options. While this new change isn't a major advance, allowing in-app communication is a step forward.

    That sounds like they can communicate in the app?

  5. rbgaynor

    Apparently the lawyers involved in this settlement will be taking a 30% cut off the top of the settlement fund (or $30 million). Imagine that, the lawyers are insisting on collecting a pre-agreed upon fee...

    • curtisspendlove

      Class Action Lawsuits are notoriously bad for the collective and mostly only profitable for the lawyers.

      But the important part here is the change of policies.

  6. Chris_Kez

    I don't think Apple shares email addresses with developers, so how do developers go about getting those to let their users know about alternative pricing options?

  7. spiderman2

    they start to be scared

  8. lvthunder

    Great more emails. I can't wait.

  9. murray judy

     “We would like to thank the developers who worked with us to reach these agreements ..."

    This is PR-speak for "We're still pissed at the developers that sued us."

  10. lezmaka

    I wonder if the settlement specifically states "email" or allows any communication outside the app. If it does specify email only, I'm guessing Apple would find a way to punish developers for texting and snail mailing customers if it found out.

    • lvthunder

      If a developer sent me a text message I didn't want I would never use another one of their apps again.

      • waethorn

        The closer you are to owning a cellphone, the closer you are to 1 for a provider to sell your phone number.

      • lezmaka

        You've never used an app that uses SMS for two factor auth or a food/grocery delivery app?

  11. lezmaka

    It's an improvement, but it's not really a "step" (not criticizing wording in the article, gotta use something). It's more like back when social distancing was common but there's that one person that's going to get as close to you as possible. You ask them to step back, and they move their head back about 1 inch. That's basically what Apple did here.

  12. nbplopes

    Given the circumstances I’ve found this trial very vert fishy. Who are the two devs behind these trials, honestly nobody’s. Went to the website of one … looked really fishy.

    More fishy is how lousy was the settlement for devs. I mean not for the two, these devs from nowhere, get $100M minus expenses … can now retire for nothing … now the others get some candy and that is it! The change in policies are minimal if none existent.

    It looks like Apple can now go to another court … look we settled with everyone but Epic ….