Followers of politics will know that one of the most depressing responses you can get to a revelation of wrongdoing is cynicism. Some will say the thing isn’t happening; some will say it is but it isn’t wrong; but the worst, to my mind, are those who agree that it’s happening and agree that it’s terrible, but performatively insist they knew all along and can’t believe the naivety of anyone who’s surprised.
(Quite often, by the way, they paraphrase a line from Casablanca, from the scene where the corrupt police chief insists he’s “shocked, shocked!” to find that gambling is going on in Rick’s notorious nightclub. The musician and writer
John Darnielle has argued that any such quotations should be met with the next line from the script, which exposes the previous line’s empty cynicism:
“Your winnings, sir.”)
I was reminded of this mindset this morning, when reading Apple’s response to a
Forbes exposé which we’ve already discussed
in some depth elsewhere.
To sum up the findings: Apple has been buying Google adverts on searches for the names of iOS apps with high-value subscriptions. This means that when iPhone users search for HBO, for example, there is a good chance they will see Apple’s advert instead of the organic search result, and end up signing up through the app instead of the owner’s website.
Lucky Apple thus snags a 15% (or, for the first year, 30%) cut of a subscription fee that could run into the thousands and would otherwise have gone entirely to, say, HBO. And aside from missing out on the full value of the subscription, developers have found that Apple’s bids push up the price they have to pay to advertise their own apps.
Why does all this make me think of Captain Renault’s hollow cynicism? Because Apple’s response was (partly) to point out that this is a “very standard business model”, and that it has been going on for five years. The former is certainly true, since we’ve checked and Google does the same, and we’re prepared to take Apple’s word for it on the latter; and both undermine somewhat, if we’re being brutally honest about the otherwise admirable work of a fellow news site, the research undertaken by Forbes for its article. But they are not conceivably an excuse.
Many things are very standard business models. Cloning someone else’s successful app is a very standard business model on the App Store, but Apple recognises that it is also bad for the ecosystem as a whole and has tried to stamp it out. Collecting and selling users’ private data is a very standard business model throughout the tech industry, but Apple stands alone, and has
made a lot of enemies, in its efforts to do better. (Mind you, an anonymous developer cited in Forbes’ article says: “We all know what Apple’s doing for its privacy stuff is for its own pockets.” This is the danger when cynicism becomes the default setting.)
So when Apple’s response is that the thing it’s been accused of is true but other companies do the same, I feel like that brings a spotlight to the wrongdoing of others, but in no way lessens the intensity of the one that should continue to be shone on Apple itself.
This is a shabby way to treat companies that Apple would refer to as partners. It’s a shameless diversion of revenue from the merely large companies who are making the things people actually want to pay for, into the pockets of the huge company that merely provides the platform where these interactions are obliged to take place because the rules of the App Store are so strict.
The difference between secret and quiet
I should move on, because Apple’s defence is not merely that this behaviour is commonplace and has been happening for a while. Let’s check the
MacRumors article which reports on the gist of Cupertino’s rebuttal:
“Apple says that the allegation that it is ‘secretly’ or ‘quietly’ purchasing ads for developers without their knowledge or consent is an overt mischaracterisation. On the contrary, the company says that it regularly engages in conversation with developers about the ads it places and many developers express their appreciation for this support.”
Did you spot the sleight of hand? Apple has subtly conflated three separate claims about its ad-buying – that it is secret, that it is quiet, and that it is non-consensual – and attempted to refute them all with a single sentence that as far as I can see actually refutes only one.
Let’s split that sentence in two, and focus first of all on the claim that Apple “regularly engages in conversation with developers about the ads it places”. That would appear to explode the idea that the adverts are secret (which is a strange notion anyway since people do tend to… see adverts, otherwise they’re a bit pointless). But it doesn’t prove that Apple hasn’t been quiet about the whole process, which is both a vaguer claim and a lower threshold.
My learned colleague
the Macalope says this word “is a little ridiculous: what is Apple supposed to do, take out an ad saying it’s taking out ads?” But I would disagree, and say that the claim of non-quietness would be satisfied if most people affected were aware of what Apple was doing. Is the average web user, when they search for HBO and see an ad at the top, aware firstly that this is an ad for Apple rather than for HBO, and secondly that Apple has placed this advert in order to divert part of the value of the subscription to itself? I would say that some are, and some aren’t.
I think it’s reasonable to say Apple has done this quietly – not least because it reportedly booked the adverts under a different name, and journalists had to use the tracking links to work out that they were all placed by the same agency. Of course, it’s completely understandable that Apple wouldn’t lead its ad copy with a statement that CLICKING ON THIS AD WILL MEAN HBO GETS LESS MONEY. But the fact that Forbes itself seemingly wasn’t aware that this was a common practice suggests Apple hasn’t been excessively noisy about what it’s doing.
Engaging in conversation
I’ll be honest here: I don’t care that Apple has been quiet about placing adverts. The above paragraphs are about clarity and getting annoyed by misleading rebuttals.
What is really key to this situation, I think, is consent. If developers are as thrilled by the free advertising as Apple suggests, it could seek consent in every single case and get it, right?
But that’s not what Apple says. Look again at the sentence:
“On the contrary, the company says that it regularly engages in conversation with developers about the ads it places and many developers express their appreciation for this support.”
There are so many ambiguities and elisions there that I want to scream. Regularly, for example – what does that mean? Once a month? Once a year? Or is it being used as it would be vernacularly, to mean “more often than my own completely subjective assessment of a normal frequency”?
And what does Apple mean by “engaging in conversation with”? Is there two-way dialogue? Do the developers get to veto the plan? Or does Apple just notify them? (The Macalope imagines this as a “sending them an email saying ‘We’ve updated the App Store terms and conditions, pray we do not update them further’ kind of conversation”.)
The decent thing to do – and perhaps it is unrealistic to expect this – would be to contact the developer in advance each time Apple plans to advertise an app, and seek their consent. Perhaps that is what Apple means by engaging in conversation. But my suspicion is that if the company meant that, it would say it.
Finally, let’s talk about those “many” appreciative developers who enjoy the advertising support. Again, that refutes nothing in Forbes’ article. Forbes never wrote: “Apple has bought adverts and every single developer is up in arms, with literally no exceptions.”
Indeed, it should surprise precisely no one that some developers have told Apple they’re pleased. Some will have done the maths and figured that the swings of the extra signups will outweigh the roundabouts of the lower per-signup revenue. Others will simply have reasoned that Apple is a massively powerful enemy to make, and what’s the point complaining to its face when it so rarely makes concessions?
And I hope I don’t need to point out that being pleased about something after the fact is not the same as having given consent for the process that made it possible. A dog might be pleased it hasn’t got worms any more, but that doesn’t mean it consented to taking the pill.
Enabler, or enemy?
Apple loves talking about its friendly, empowering relationship with app developers, frequently commencing press events with updates on the latest stratospheric sales figures from the App Store. Tim Cook even cited the number of jobs created among such companies in his
defence of Apple in front of the US House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. There is a lot of truth to this: an entire economy was created when Apple opened the App Store in 2008.
But Apple’s friendship with devs is complicated, and becoming more so all the time. Quite a lot of the time, Apple is a rival, not a friend: it has its own apps, of course, and it likes iPhone owners to use them rather than those made by third-party firms. And when iPhone owners are downloading those third-party apps, Apple wants them to do so in the way that maximises its own benefits, not those of the developer. We’re already seeing that in the way Apple pushes IAPs for subscriptions; if it’s forced to allow alternative payment methods and
sideloading, as seems inevitable, the war will escalate.
So sure, we can all act cynical and world-weary, and feign a lack of surprise that Apple is whisking revenue out from under the noses of people it describes with a straight face as partners. We can say this is standard behaviour from a corporate giant, and what else would you expect?
But I think Apple is at a crossroads, and with its control of the App Store
wavering, it needs all the allies it can get. The App Store has benefited many developers around the world, but it has benefited Apple too; Cupertino has just as much to lose as they do if the whole thing declines, or drifts out of its control.
So maybe it’s time for Apple to walk the walk, and start treating developers as genuine partners: no more revenue poaching, no more sneaky absorption of app features into iOS, no more dictatorial behaviour. And who knows? Perhaps that could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Different Think is a weekly column, published every Tuesday, in which Macworld writers expose their less mainstream opinions to public scrutiny. We’ve
defended the notch, argued that
Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs, and called Apple TV+ a
disaster movie without a happy ending. See you next week!