An App Store fix proposal that will make everybody happy

How to make Apple, Brussels, Washington, Microsoft, Spotify, Netflix and everybody happy with one simple (and existing) solution.

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First, a preface:

  1. Apple has every right to establish the rules of the App Store, and to change them over time, but the process is slow and frustrating for some developers.

  2. I think 99% of the users are better served with the current model of only one app store. I think the other 1% would appreciate the ability and actually end up using alternative payments and having some sort of alternative app stores.

  3. The good thing, is that Apple already has the solution.

What are “App app stores”

Apple does not allow for alternative app stores, but it allows for what I call “app app stores”. These are apps that “host” other apps inside the same icon. The best example would be WeChat Mini Programs or the new Snapchat Minis. But there are several more like Safari and every other web browser.

You see, the difference between a first-party feature of an app (say the payments in WeChat) and a third-party one (booking a Didi cab from WeChat) is thin. There’s really no legal, contractual or UX difference. — It doesn’t really matter if Tencent or Didi coded that feature. It’s there. You want to use the Didi app better? Ok. Apple allows both, users love both.

Videogame app stores

Enter Microsoft with xCloud, Google Stadia and Facebook Gaming. Apple rejects all three because of guideline 4.2.7 (a):

The app must only connect to a user-owned host device that is a personal computer or dedicated game console owned by the user, and both the host device and client must be connected on a local and LAN-based network.

Apple says those apps are “remote desktop clients” (they are), but the only key difference is “user-owned host” between them and other existing apps. It really shouldn’t matter if they own the host or they rent it by paying a monthly fee. If I can play my Steam games running in my PC with Valve’s Steam Link app, I should be able to play my xCloud games running in a PC that I rent from Microsoft.

A simple change to the rule would fix that issue:

The app must only connect to a user-owned or user-rented host device (…)

Any iPhone owner could now:

  • Play xCloud/Stadia games that aren’t available as iPhone games, thus selling more iPhones, iPads and MFi controllers. — They won’t have their own icon or listing in the App Store… just like some WeChat Mini Programs!

  • … or buy them as a standalone app at the App Store if there’s an iPhone version — just like WeChat Mini Programs!

Both options make Apple money, users happy, and developers can keep at it. This change wouldn’t allow companies to directly sell videogames that will run on the iPhone. Only remotely-executed, cloud-enabled videogames that live inside that app.

Now onto the Epic marketing campaign and lawsuit

Even if you don’t agree that Epic has some good points about ownership of the devices, it only matters if regulators (not the courts) agree with them. I think they will.

So, Apple has a simple choice: do nothing and wait for Brussels or D.C. to use the red pen in the App Store guidelines, possibly making a well-intended mess in the process and worsening the rules for everybody; or adjust another minor guideline: 3.1.3 (a) (b), that states:

3.1.3(a) “Reader” Apps: Apps may allow a user to access previously purchased content or content subscriptions (specifically: magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as classroom management apps), provided that you agree not to directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase, and your general communications about other purchasing methods are not designed to discourage use of in-app purchase.

3.1.3(b) Multiplatform Services: Apps that operate across multiple platforms may allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired in your app on other platforms or your web site, including consumable items in multiplatform games, provided those items are also available as in-app purchases within the app. You must not directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase, and your general communications about other purchasing methods must not discourage use of in-app purchase.

Key words: “previously purchased content”.

This rule prevents Netflix or Disney to direct iPhone users from their apps to their websites to create a new subscription, avoiding the 30% cut. They only can offer to sign into an already established account. That’s all fine and dandy.

But what will happen when Disney releases the new Mulan movie for $30? how will that look like to an iPad user?

  • Disney can’t link from the Disney+ app for the user to buy the movie, because it’s not “previously purchased content”, like the Disney+ subscription is.

  • Disney does offer IAPs, so it could give Apple a 30% cut of the Mulan ticket, even if the users subscribed to Disney+ from outside the App Store.

The second option is a bit confusing and not ideal. And that 30% cut doesn’t help in the eyes of regulators. Apple could slightly modify the “Reader apps” 3.1.3 (a) guideline, as follows:

3.1.3(a) “Reader” Apps: Apps may allow a user to access previously purchased content, content subscriptions, or modify the content included in the subscription (…)

This would allow for the Mulan example to be a nifty payment flow, whether the user buys the Disney+ content through the App Store or Disney website. It’s not confusing, and most importantly, it won’t apply to videogames IAPs. Only to “Reader” apps. It will also ease other issues like e-book rentals, newspaper subscriptions that don’t look good to antitrust regulators, but the user experience will be better.

The change doesn’t solve the Epic Games case directly. It only makes the App Store proposition stronger and more fair from the standpoint of regulators. It would leave Epic alone in its position and without the support or other parties like Microsoft, Netflix or Spotify, making Epic’s case weaker.


Thank you for reading Please consider forwarding this email to your contacts. — Alex