Basecamp’s protest of Apple’s policies is already benefiting other developers

A weird thing about running a tech company is that if you are very successful, at some point you will also be operating a vast quasi-legal system. Up to a certain point, one of your users complaining that they got locked out of their account is just a customer service problem. But after some threshold — after you’ve reached a billion people, certainly, but also well before then — the same complaint can look strangely like a human rights issue. Do you have the right to speak? Do you have the right to conduct business? And if you lose that right, to whom do you appeal?

That’s one reason I suspect Basecamp’s public protest of Apple and its App Store policies has gotten so much traction. Basecamp, you will remember, is a mid-sized 16-year-old company that makes project management software, and a week ago it introduced a new email service called Hey. Because email is the kind of service you expect to be accessible on all your devices, Basecamp made six native clients for Hey, including one for Apple’s iOS. I installed it on my phone and used it without any issue during the time I was reviewing Hey.

But then Basecamp submitted its first bug fix release for Hey, and Apple rejected it. The issue: Hey did not let users sign up for the product within the app. Apple presented this purely as a customer experience issue — account creation is a necessary part of an email app — but it was also a revenue issue. Apple keeps 30 percent of revenue from signups like these, and Basecamp did not want to give it to them. Eventually Apple said it had been a mistake to let Hey into the App Store to begin with.

If we lived in a world with more than two mobile phone operating systems, it seems unlikely that Apple would be able to take 30 percent of an email app’s revenue just for hosting it in an app store. Instead the fees might resemble those in the more competitive payments industry, which hover in the low single-digit percentages. But more than 1.5 billion iOS devices are in use, and many of the customers who would potentially pay for Hey at $99 a year are users of those devices and expect to find Hey there. Amid a flurry of interest lately in Apple’s anticompetitive behavior from regulators here and in the European Union, Apple’s obstinance in the Hey case drew outsized attention. What once might have been dismissed as a lone, cranky developer seemed symbolic of a larger injustice.

It started to look, in other words, like something closer to a human rights issue.

The Basecamp developers are — and I say this with fondness — loudmouths, and they have seemed to relish in highlighting the various logical gaps and inconsistencies in the App Store’s policies and their enforcement. Look close enough at any system of law or content moderation and it can start to feel arbitrary, but Apple’s has proven to be particularly vulnerable to criticisms. What Apple has prevented Hey from doing, for example, it has allowed the much larger Netflix to do, because Netflix has been designated a “Reader” app, exempting it from offering sign-up within the app. Maybe there’s a good, principled reason for holding email apps to one standard and video streaming apps to another. Or maybe Apple is just playing favorites.

In any case, users of the App Store don’t get to vote, and neither does Hey.

What Hey could do, though, was embrace Apple’s pretzel logic and concoct the strangest app imaginable, a dadaist take on email whose sole real purpose was to highlight the absurdity of software development in the modern era. And that’s just what it did. Here’s Nilay Patel writing:

Basecamp isn’t done with the fight. The company has submitted a new version of Hey that meets the strict letter of Apple’s rules but clearly defies their spirit: the company will now offer iOS users a free temporary Hey email account with a randomized address, just so the app is functional when it is first opened. These burner accounts will expire after 14 days. Hey is also now able to work with enterprise customers, as Apple initially took issue with the app’s consumer focus.

Hey has not adopted Apple’s own in-app payment system or allowed users to sign up for its full, paid service through the iOS app. Instead, users will still need to subscribe by going directly to Hey’s website.

Surprisingly, it worked — at least for now. Hey is in the App Store as negotiations continue. And whether out of fear of antitrust regulation or a desire not to see this week’s Worldwide Developer Conference overshadowed by a developer dispute, the historically obstinate Apple has even shown sides of yielding. Nick Statt had the surprising news:

Apple today announced two major changes to how it handles App Store disputes with third-party developers. The first is that Apple will now allow developers to appeal a specific violation of an App Store guideline, and that there will also be a separate process for challenging the guideline itself. Additionally, Apple says it will no longer delay app updates intended to fix bugs and other core functions over App Store disputes.

“Additionally, two changes are coming to the app review process and will be implemented this summer. First, developers will not only be able to appeal decisions about whether an app violates a given guideline of the App Store Review Guidelines, but will also have a mechanism to challenge the guideline itself,” reads a press release from Apple published this afternoon. “Second, for apps that are already on the App Store, bug fixes will no longer be delayed over guideline violations except for those related to legal issues. Developers will instead be able to address the issue in their next submission.”

Buried hundreds of words into a long press release about improvements to the developer experience, “a mechanism to challenge the guideline” doesn’t exactly leap off the page. At the moment, no other details are available. But these changes suggest that Apple is taking an important question — who has the right to conduct business? — more seriously than it has before, and might begin to answer it in a more rigorous and principled way.

At the moment, this “mechanism” sounds less ambitious than what Facebook is attempting with its Oversight Board, an independent group that later this year will begin hearing appeals from people who believe their posts have been removed in error. Facebook has spent more than two years developing the board, funded it with $130 million, and it still isn’t operating quite yet.

But the basic idea is the same. If our entire working and personal lives are to be mediated by the policies of four or five for-profit corporations, those policies will have to shift from a mindset of customer service to one of justice. I find it heartening that Apple is moving down this path, even if took Basecamp dragging them there.