Open Letter to Apple - Why Is Your App Store Censoring The Apps of Small Organizations?

For everyone out there who thinks Apple has made a mistake, please, take a minute and sign this petition started by another app builder just like Minsh.

Dear Tim,

I’m writing to you because Apple has made an astronomic miskate and only you can do something about it.

First of all, no, I’m not a disgruntled customer. I’ve been using and advocating for your products since my very first Macintosh in the late 80’s. I mean gosh, right now, I’ve got my iPhone charging on my desk and am writing this letter on my MacBookAir! If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Why, O why do you only allow large and rich organizations to publish mobile apps on your App Store?

But, please, tell me why, O why, do you only allow large and rich organizations to publish mobile apps on your App Store? Why are you stifling the voices of small organizations and NGOs by censoring their apps? I believe you made a colossal mistake and that makes me mad. Really mad.

What Small Organizations Used to Do

Building a simple mobile app is not like building a simple website. It takes skilled engineers, a lot of code, time, and money. By the way, I know what I’m talking about; I’m an engineer with a PhD degree in Computer Science, coding since before Google and working on mobile apps for the past 5 years. What I know best is chat applications. From my personal experience, I’d say it costs anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 US$ to build a mobile chat app from scratch.

Whether it is for security, privacy, or other legitimate reasons, many small and medium businesses, NGOs, churches, and modest groups of all backgrounds and purposes have been keen on getting their own private chat apps. And they’ve been able to, thanks to “app builders”, or companies providing “app templates” out of which new custom apps can be built.

An app builder is just like a baker using the same cake mould to bake multiple cakes, but each time with different recipes, icing, and toppings. Yup, all cakes have the same shape, but they taste completely different and are sold to different consumers.

You see, for app builders, reusing the same app template with minor changes and customizations makes apps much faster and hence, less costly to build. Consequently, those apps can be made affordable for any organization, big or small, with prices starting at a few dozen dollars per month only.

And just like the cakes, although such apps are based on the same template, each of them is unique. They each are customized for different organizations with different target users, in different use cases, for different reasons.

App builders have made it possible for anyone to afford one's own mobile app. It's called democratization.

Face it, Tim: app builders with their app templates have made it possible for anyone to afford one’s own mobile app, just like online tools such as Wordpress have made it possible for anyone to get their own website. This is not “spamming”. It’s called democratization.

What You Did

A few months back, you announced that you would enforce new guidelines to prevent spam and clone apps on the App Store. At that time, nobody was quite sure of what you were referring to, nor how you would enforce this. To my knowledge, Apple has always been particularly strict when reviewing new apps submitted for distribution on its App Store. Your armies of reviewers made sure no buggy nor spammy apps could reach your massive audience through your sole and exclusive distribution channel. Anyways.

You utterly and unequivocally annihilated the prospect of getting a custom mobile app for any SMB.

A bit later, in September 2017, you implemented these guidelines by systematically rejecting any new app created from a template. Let me repeat this, it needs to sink in: you started rejecting any new app created from a template. Any. New. App.

This hit all app builders like a bomb. And most importantly, with this decision, you utterly and unequivocally anihilated the prospect of getting a custom mobile app for any SMB.

I mean, sure, there must have been some useless spammy apps on your App Store, which deserved to be removed for good (although one could argue that your consumers are smart enough to do that by themselves, without Big Brother deciding for them which app deserves their attention, thank you very much).

But what about all the other legitimate, useful templated apps? Templates are not bad, they’re just a different approach to building an app. Isn’t it a bit radical to target all of them? Shouldn’t you be more concerned about whether an app has a unique audience, purpose and most importantly, whether it provides content of quality, rather than looking at the way it was built?

I Don’t Think So

Heck, I’m getting angry. Promised my therapist I wouldn’t do that. Let me calm down and try to take your side for a minute. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I agree: apps published by an app builder, and based on a same template should be banned, because I quote: “they have the same feature set as many of the other apps we (the app builder) have submitted to the App Store“ (App Store Guideline 4.3).

If you truly believe that, why stop there? Why not go all-in? Should it not apply to all the other apps out there that share the exact same set of features, even though they were not built from the same template? Should all restaurant apps be banned because they all present a menu and a button to book a table? Should Telegram, WeChat and Facebook Messenger be banned because they have the same feature set as their elder brother WhatsApp?

I don’t think so.

Should all websites based on a same template be banned?

Again, I am angry and biased. So let me take a different perspective. Let me draw a parallel with the Open Internet (which by the way, your very own Cynthia Hogan publicly defended against the attack of the US FCC): should we apply the same rule to the Internet too? Should all websites based on a same template be banned? And what about forums (I’m thinking mostly about them since I’m working on chat applications). Every single discussion in a forum is unique, involves different people and takes place in a different context. Should all forums be closed regardless, since they have the same feature set?

I don’t think so.

This one is personal: I read in an article on Techcrunch published on Dec.8, 2017 that you apparently gave most large app builders a delay until Jan 1st, 2018 to adjust to your new guidelines. Hum. Hello? Sorry Sir, I know my company is not that big, but my first rejected app due to your Guidelines 4.2.6 and 4.3 was back in September 2017. Can I please get my four months delay to adjust too?

I don’t think so.

Even if I set my own feeling aside and discard the way my company was treated, this is just the tip of the iceberg: again in the same article, I learn that you have a partnership which allows IBM to build templated apps for their enterprise clients. Can you please tell me if you’re planning to enforce your new ban on IBM too as of Jan.1, 2018?

I don’t think so.

I just give up. You want to ban templated apps? Fine. It’s your App Store after all. I can still publish my apps on the other iOS App Stores out there, can’t I? Oh wait. That’s right. No I can’t. There are no other iOS App Stores out there. Dear Tim, can you at least please lift your monopoly and allow other companies to build their own uncensored iOS App Stores?

I don’t think so.

How can you keep a straight face and censor templated apps while advocating for net neutrality at the same time?

Last, but not least I already mentioned Net Neutrality. This very interesting Apple Insider article from Dec.15, 2017 explains that you publicly oppose US FCC’s move against net neutrality. It also quotes the letter Apple’s U.S. Vice President for Public Policy wrote to the FCC in August 2017: “An open internet ensures that hundreds of millions of consumers get the experience they want, over the broadband connections they choose […] What consumers do with those tools is up to them — not Apple, and not broadband providers“.

I don’t think so.

Seriously, how can you keep a straight face and censor templated apps while advocating for net neutrality at the same time? I have not witnessed such hypocrisy in a long, long time.

To conclude, Tim, you’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake. Maybe you were having a bad hair day, I don’t really know, maybe you were just thinking about something else, but you pulled these guidelines out of your hat and hurt a lot of people with it.

Or maybe this is part of your bigger plan. Maybe you were perfectly aware of what was going to happen, and hoping and succeeding in getting only mild and O too respectful objections from a handful of consumers.

Of course, there was little to no reaction! Most SMBs have not even realized what’s hit them yet! One requires some knowledge of how apps are built and distributed to really envision the consequences of your act.

Simply, slowly, people one day will wake up wanting to build their own app to realize that the app builder they had heard about has closed shop 1 month, 3 months, 6 months ago, and started working on something else. And there will be nothing they can do about it, because it will be too late. What a clever move.

But I’m writing to you because I truly believe it is not too late. You can still take a step back and find a smarter way to clean up your App Store without punishing small organizations. Everyone hould have the right to build their own mobile app, just like they have the right to build their own website.

Sign the Petition

For everyone out there who thinks Apple has made a mistake, please, take a minute and sign this petition started by another app builder, just like Minsh.