There is an unfortunate climate of fear in the software community today. It is primarily in ephemeral video interviews and podcasts that we get any semblance of coherent criticism and even then it is reticent. Worse than the fact that this criticism is relegated to verbal discussions is that it is later renounced by the very same designers and developers when they are interviewed in the more permanent-seeming medium of the written word. In written interviews, these fair-weather critics go on to reverse their opinions and praise the products of modern minimalist UI design because it is more convenient not to risk questioning powerful industry leaders.
It was a sight for sore eyes when Marco Arment engaged his critical faculties toward, what is in his opinion, the "rapid decline of Apple’s software." He argued that Apple has "Lost the Functional High Ground," ignoring of course that they already lost the aesthetic-usability high ground. He explained, "I'm not looking forward to OS X 10.11 or iOS 9 — I’m afraid of the bugs they’ll bring and the basic functions they’ll render unreliable."
But after Arment's article made its rounds in the news cycle, he updated it with a label that reads "I regret having published this." He continued, "I should feel good about this, but I don't. I inadvertently caused a shitstorm of negativity, and it feels horrible." He asked with an existential tone, "Is that really what I want to be known for?" For him, "It’s not worth it." For measured critique to not be worth it, there must be some justification for why developers would hold their tongues.
Prominent UK developer Matt Wilcox wrote a similar article to Arment's entitled "Apple has a software problem." In his article he made sure every criticism was preceded by a compliment: "Apple are excellent at hardware, great at design, have a strong design sense and leadership. But they are seriously lagging behind the standards set in those particulars when it comes to software."
Wilcox's flattery is not accidental. It was essential that Wilcox mentioned his qualification as an Apple fanatic, because that is, of course, the pre-requisite for saying anything remotely unfavorable about Apple. In later commentary, Wilcox clarified, lest anyone misunderstand him: "I use, enjoy, and recommend Apple stuff…I'm an Apple guy through and through."
It only got worse, as Wilcox was manning the analytics watch for his site, he noticed a particular visitor to his site: "A little disconcerting to have posted an Apple crit and then spot someone in 'Cupertino' in the analytics for the page…"
It appeared to Wilcox that someone at Apple's Cupertino campus may have seen his criticism. But for him this was not to be taken as a positive sign that someone working at Apple might take note of his ostensibly legitimate complaints. Instead it was the opposite, it was "disconcerting." We must ask what about someone at Apple reading his criticism caused him to feel this fear?
Arment too let his fear be known: "I’m scared of having damaged my relationship with Apple." It is highly interesting that Arment of all people now regrets and fears having criticized Apple, considering that six years earlier, he was not so afraid of throwing punches at the company.
In a 2009 article entitled "Trust, Hostility and the Human Side of Apple," Arment described a WWDC developer session on the topic of publishing to the App Store in which the Apple presenter ended their talk 45 minutes early. What happened next astounded Arment:
The majority of the audience was clearly there for the Q&A. As people lined up at the microphones around the room, the presenter abruptly showed a simple slide with only "WWDC" in plain lettering, thanked us for coming, and bolted off the stage. The Apple engineers, usually staying around the stage for one-on-one questions, were gone. The lights came up instantly, and it was the only session that didn’t end in music. The audience was stunned.
Clarification: a source who was at the session informed me that,
The App Store session didn’t end 45 minutes early. It ended right on the dot at 45 minutes. It was tacitly understood in 2009 that sessions would have a Q&A period with audience mikes [sic]. Most other sessions had this period. So having one run their timing dead-accurate was weird. The presenters also abruptly disappeared so there wasn’t room for an informal Q&A either.
It was a giant middle finger to iPhone developers. And that’s the closing impression that Apple gave us for WWDC. Clearly, they had absolutely no interest in fielding even a single question from the topic that we have the most questions about…It’s hard to interpret it as anything else except blatant hostility.
In Arment's estimation at the time:
It’s hard to trust a huge corporation with thousands of employees. There’s no personal accountability and absolutely no transparency…As far as we can tell, from what Apple presents publicly, there’s absolutely no reason to trust them at all to do the right thing.
Craig Hockenberry of the Iconfactory expressed his own concern about the session:
Every developer’s fear is that Apple doesn’t want an open a dialog regarding the App Store. It scared the shit out of me when our questions weren’t answered at WWDC.
Arment understood then why the session went this way, and why still to this day close to nothing has been done to make the App Store more hospitable to developers—Apple has not perceived any incentive make it so: "Apple thinks this is good enough. And that’s the scariest part of all." For Arment, this was because,
it's working for them. They're making a killing taking their 30% commission…Who cares if the App Store discourages good developers from putting serious effort into it? Apple doesn't need to care. And it appears, for the higher-ups making the big decisions and resource allocations, that they don't.
According to an anonymous source: "Apple optimizes for one-hit wonders. Nail it in 1.0, get featured, then throw it away and build a new app."
In the words of analyst Ben Thompson of Stratechery, Apple has 'commoditized their complements':
Apple makes money on hardware. It's in their interest that said hardware be sold for as much of a premium as the market will bear. However, it’s equally in their interest that the complements to that hardware are sold as cheaply as possible, and are preferably free.
After years of operating under these conditions, consumers today perceive software to be worth effectively nothing. According to an anonymous developer, "if you're trying to sell to the mass market for more than $2.99, you might as well charge $1M."
Recent revelations show that the situation has gotten so bad that today there are only approximately 3000 apps profitable enough to support a median income of $50k for their developer. It is also important to note that not all apps are built by one developer, many work as a team. So it follows that there are many fewer than 3000 developers sustainably doing independent development.
According to reporting, "1.6 percent of developers earn more than the other 98.4 percent combined. And the bottom 47 percent of engineers earn less than $100 per month." Yet somehow, independent app development has often been described as a 'gold rush' despite it being quietly understood by developers, even as early as 2009, that this was hardly the case.
Arment pointed out of the App Store,
It’s extremely difficult for anyone with employees, or any individuals without other income, to afford to be here. Some people can make enough to cover full-time expenses, but most can’t. (Although I’d say the same thing about the entire App Store, really.)
It is clear that the recent influx of independent app developers into larger organizations and venture-backed startups coincides with independent development for the App Store being ever more exposed as an unprofitable venture. Developers who would otherwise be quite comfortable coding apps on their own now feel compelled to turn to large organizations in order to find gainful work.
Just Price Sustainably!
Some, like John Gruber and Milen Dzhumerov, have argued that others should follow in their footsteps and set their apps' pricing at a sustainable level. This strategy clearly does work for those with a significant following, which not all developers can boast.
There is a coherent rationale behind this call for self-determination on the part of developers. Michael Jurewitz points out that for many apps, the App Store operates on an inelastic demand curve, with implications that Jurewitz describes as follows:
lowering price is not the answer in all situations. In fact, lowering your price may actually be taking food off of your table. Depending on your app and your customers, an increase in price and a corresponding reduction in customers may actually make you money.
In Jurewitz' analysis: "falling prices, as much as we would like to attribute this to the market around us, has largely been a self-inflicted wound." For him, developers' inability to price sustainably has been self-imposed because they ignorantly followed the herd to their current low prices. Unfortunately, this is a quite superficial understanding of the situation.
Sustainable pricing might have worked had developers implemented it en masse back in 2009 or 2010. But today the advice of Gruber, Jurewitz and Dzhumerov is wishful thinking at best, terrible advice at worst. If the average developer raises their prices to relatively sustainable levels, it will only mean their app goes further into obscurity.
The reason for the obscurity of most independent apps is that Apple's rejections and consistent featuring of free and cheap apps have incentivized a race to the bottom that makes developing for the App Store an unsustainable venture. It is not only indie developers feeling this squeeze, large companies also feel they have to appease Apple. They recognize that if they do not get featured by Apple, they will get buried.
Craig Hockenberry and Ged Maheux of the Iconfactory recognized these issues as early as 2008. Unless apps get featured by Apple, then they have to rely on discovery. But Ged Maheux has pointed out that discovery is and has long been utterly broken.
Take the Iconfactory's app Twitteriffic. Maheux ran a test wherein he typed "Twitter" into the App Store search field. His app Twitteriffic was astoundingly listed as the 100th result. Sacha Grief experienced even worse results than Maheux: "The iOS App Store is so broken that I couldn’t find an app even when searching for its full name." All this after Apple acquired a company dedicated to search and discovery for the App Store.
Apple has done next to nothing when it comes to meaningful curation to help expose high-quality independent apps. This despite many reasonable requests being proffered by Maheux and others: interactive reviews, trial periods and paid upgrades.
For developers today, there is actually disincentive to providing support for their apps in order to make them dependable. Every time a developer release bug fixes in an app update, prior reviews are wiped and the reviews are left blank for the new version. Instead the best option for developers is to create 'free' viral apps with casino-like in-app purchases. Ideally, these trivial entertainment apps get featured and hit the "Top Free" list only to become abandonware shortly after. If they opt for a sustainable paid model, they have little chance for exposure.
This phenomenon has been explained well by Jared Sinclair. For Sinclair's app Unread, "Half of the lifetime sales of Unread were generated in the first five days." Even after being featured by Apple, a feat in itself, "It would take another 170 days (24 weeks) to generate that same amount again." Sinclair was among the lucky few to get featured by Apple, but he concluded that Apple's exposure was largely worthless because it lasts such a short time. The only way he was able to get meaningful exposure was through "positive, prominent reviews from influential writers" which also only helped him during his launch. In the end, he was only able to bring a take-home pay of "$21,000, or $1,750/month." And that was a privileged position to be in considering the odds against him.
Differentiating on Quality
Michael Jurewitz tells developers, "We would all be far better off if we strove to compete on quality, not price." But developers like Sinclair know better:
The lesson to be learned from Unread is that even if you keep your costs low and your quality high, the immense scale of the App Store — 100 million credit cards — is deceptive…The reality is that App Store sales patterns rarely support such a developer.
Even if Jurewitz is right in theory, today developers have few points of differentiation from which to justify sustainable pricing. Apple strove to commoditize design by lowering the bar so much that it has become a non-issue for developers. This is harmful not just for designers, but the developers themselves. In flattening iOS 7 and Yosemite, Apple has now created disincentives for developers to differentiate their apps visually. As such, there is now almost zero ability for software firms to market effectively with visual design branding.
The solution has to come from pressure on Apple. The question is whether any developers are willing to provide that pressure and criticism.
Criticism is rare today indeed, as noted by developer David Barnard, the creator of Launch Center Pro, who pointed out, "Developers don’t even publicly share all the crazy rejections for fear of reprisal from Apple. They micromanage the App Store" in App Review, a process in which apps are vetted for publishing.
In his the 2014 Panic Annual Report, Founder Cabel Sasser explained a struggle in which he tried to keep his frustrations with Apple's App Review under wraps so as not to cause Apple any bad PR:
There’s a little more history here than I’m letting on. We had a very long, very torturous situation with Status Board almost being pulled that we’ve never written up out of sensitivity to our relationship with Apple. I only mention it here because it proves that it is possible to fix these awkward rejection situations without Apple suffering negative PR in the public eye — we did that "offline". But it took an absolutely massive amount of mental energy and time to work through — positively Sisyphean. I would never want to do it again — I’ve run out of patience, I guess. I can say for certain that the "bad PR" version of the app dispute process is monumentally more effective. Which is a shame.
This is the biggest problem we’ve been grappling with all year: we simply don’t make enough money from our iOS apps. We’re building apps that are, if I may say so, world-class and desktop-quality. They are packed with features, they look stunning, we offer excellent support for them, and development is constant. I’m deeply proud of our iOS apps. But…they’re hard to justify working on.
If there’s one failing that I feel they’ve currently got it’s that it’s almost like they see developers as an infinitely renewable resource. They care that developers on the whole appear successful, but I don’t think they would particularly lose any sleep if Shifty Jelly went out of business, or even if someone as big as Panic went out of business…If something bad happens to Panic, you can’t do that. These guys have been on the Apple platform for how long now and this is how you’re treating them? All they [Apple] need to know is that developers will keep turning up. And they will. It is literally like if we went out of business today and stopped making apps, then someone else would turn up.
Indie developers have high hopes that they will be one of the lucky ones to get featured by Apple. Many take inspiration from roaring successes like William Wilkinson's Manual. Wilkinson wanted "people to see that even an idiot like me can make it work, you can do it too." Wilkinson spent two months building the app to great fanfare with a launch price of $1.99. His total revenue in the first 100 days was $125K.
Wilkinson's hit is hardly instructive. It is the rare exception to the rule. One prominent developer I spoke to who wishes to remain anonymous put the situation into perspective:
Fresh developers creating new, great apps will always try to buy the App Store lottery ticket. Most will fail but some win and propel the next team to try as well. Wilkinson's indie success is a possibility but it's so rare. New developers are still allured because they say 'why not us too?'
Turning to Android
Arment has his doubts about whether Apple can continue to act so shamelessly towards developers:
I think that Apple has squeezed too hard in a number of areas and it’s costing them all this good will…I don’t think everyone’s going to Android but…that should be worrying to Apple. Because where it goes from there is dangerous territory. It could amplify. Someone could make a really awesome app for Android first and then what? Then Apple’s in a really bad spot.
If developers are suffering this much from the draconian review process that Apple is running, then why are they so afraid to assert themselves? What if the "bad PR" Sasser is afraid of did not become a nightmare, but rather a wake up call for Apple to see the value that developers bring to the table? Why are developers running around with their hands tied behind their backs in order to appease Apple, a company that developers themselves admit has left them out to dry?
Coincidentally, Russell Ivanovic is a case in point for what could happen if you defy Apple and launch on Android first. Ivanovic had initially been very lucky to have been assigned an Apple Developer Relations representative who gave him exclusive promotional opportunities. Few developers get assigned these representatives. Among the benefits Ivanovic received was the privilege to have Shifty Jelly's apps preloaded on iPads in Apple stores in Australia, a major marketing boost.
Things went south In 2012, when Ivanovic launched a new version of the Pocket Casts app on the Android Play Store first, rather than Apple's App Store. The launch was a real success, and he publicly shared the good news. Before he knew it, his Apple Developer Relations representative stopped all contact. The representative would not even answer his emails. Ivanovic had been completely shut out.
In Apple's App Store Review Guidelines, reported to be written by Senior Vice President Phil Schiller, there is a clause that states: "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps." Perhaps Ivanovic should have known better than to publicly promote his Android-first launch. This was tantamount to badmouthing Apple in the press.
Why Stay Silent?
Since Arment's critiques in 2009, not a whole lot has changed in App Store policy. For Arment though, a lot has changed. He has achieved a remarkably successful (and remarkably rare) career in independent app development. Now he has something to lose by criticizing Apple.
Arment's less successful peers believe they too have something to lose. At least so long as they hope to one day be in his position. (Cue John Steinbeck). There seems to be a pervasive belief among developers in trickle-down economics. For Cabel Sasser, this meant not wanting to cause "bad PR" for Apple. For Marco Arment, it was "regretting" posting his criticism. For Craig Hockenberry, it came in his aforementioned open letter to Tim Cook. In response to show-stopping bugs, Hockenberry explained:
A bigger concern than my own productivity is how these quality issues affect Apple’s reputation…Because a lot of regular folks look to us for guidance with Apple products, our dissatisfaction is amplified as it trickles down. When we’re not happy, Apple loses leverage.
The passage is particularly humorous because within it, Hockenberry uses the very phrase "trickles down." Perhaps it was a Freudian slip. Regardless, whether or not the App Store operates on trickle-down economics is less important than whether app developers believe it does.
The dearth of criticism should thus be unsurprising. This silence of developers, journalists and analysts can only be expected given that they believe their livelihoods are in Apple's hands. Paradoxically, the defenses of the company are predictable. Identification with one's captors is no rare occurrence.
According to Ian Parker of The New Yorker, "Apple has made missteps, but the company’s great design secret may be avoiding insult." It seems curious that they are able to avoid criticism and instead create a "reality distortion field," in a way that so few other companies have been able to.
Some might explain this fear away as standard corporate procedure. Developers in relationships with Apple are argued to have been required to sign NDAs in order to test prerelease software. Indeed, some developers felt pressure to take down blog posts critical of iOS 7 because they did not want to go against their contractual obligation to secrecy. On the other hand, there are plenty of public screenshots and walkthroughs available during any of Apple's releases and journalists and public commentators have made hardly a squeak when it comes to criticism of Apple, particularly relating to design. Non-disclosure agreements cannot be the explanation.
James Allworth, a former Strategist for Apple currently with the Harvard Business Review who partners on the Stratechery Podcast with Ben Thompson, sheds light on how Apple has gone about avoiding insult, and it has been anything but a passive strategy. He explains: "I'm generally pro-Apple. I love what they do, I'm completely invested in their ecosystem, I loved working there previously."
You are surely noticing a pattern here where would-be critics are preemptively apologizing for admitting publicly that Apple is imperfect. Allworth was brave enough to continue at this point: "at the same time, it [Apple] shouldn’t be above criticism. But anytime you think about wanting to write something like this [anything critical] you just pause before pulling the trigger."
In his days at Apple, Allworth recalls having been a member of a mailing list led by Apple's Chief Evangelist at the time, Guy Kawasaki. It was on this mailing list that a brigade of devout Apple employees and fanatics would go about promoting Apple's interests by destroying the opposition. Allworth described what was expected of him when Kawasaki would rouse the mailing list:
I was one of the ones that used to send emails to journalists that said anything other than kind things about Apple. Like they used to post negative articles about Apple and a whole horde of Apple proponents would bear down upon this poor unsuspecting soul.
For journalists and critics today, Allworth admits, "If you write something that is anti-Apple there's a tension you feel." Ben Thompson agreed, saying "I think anyone who has even some level of prominence knows this." In Allworth's current, more balanced view, when he writes pieces critical of Apple for Harvard Business Review:
It's easier for me, because my livelihood's not connected to it, but I remember people were digging into my past, they were trying to make the case that I was anti-Apple, it got personal super quick. You can't help but think twice when stuff like that happens.
Thompson and Allworth have been responsible for a significant contribution of incisive and measured criticism, particularly when it comes to app development sustainability. They have engaged in criticism despite the palpable tension involved.
Ben Thompson has informed me of some clarifications to this section: Allworth was a customer of Apple’s at the time that Guy Kawasaki’s mailing list was sent out, not a strategist. This was, it turns out, during the '90s. A large part of their discussion was about fans, not only Apple proper.
How about former Apple employees? Why have they been largely silent when it comes to Apple? John Gruber explained on his podcast "The Talk Show":
Part of the reason that very few former Apple engineers and managers talk about Apple after they leave is because so many of them go back. One of the ways you could ruin that would be to blab about the company.
Dan Lyons, an industry critic, pointed out the following after reading Arment's "Functional High Ground" criticism:
The main thing to know about passionate Apple bloggers and podcasters like Marco Arment is that Rule Number 1 is that you never say anything bad about Apple. That’s why today the world of Apple lovers has been shaken to the core — because Marco Arment has violated the prime directive, and declared that Apple’s software, well, kind of blows.
Gruber, the very same pundit who admitted that former Apple employees were reluctant to criticize the company, wrote a response to Lyons. The post was entitled "Huge Sensationalist Says Something Ignorant," in which Gruber argues that because some Apple developers and journalists are slightly "critical" (in Gruber's own estimation) of particular elements of Apple releases, that Lyons' assertion is false.
The issue with this line of thinking is that it is ignorant of the difference between criticism and apologetics. Very often apologetics will look similar to criticism. It is in the intent of such feedback that one can spot the difference between the two useful tools. The aim of apologetics is a continuance or defense of a system as it stands. The aim of criticism is a questioning of the merits of that system. An ideological apologist may well admit to imperfections in their results, but their analysis must ultimately be a defense of their original position. In this way, one cannot be on a "Critical Path" or "Hypercritical" of their own corporate ideology. We need an open and honest dialogue in which the input of both apologists and critics is heard and not derided as "sensationalism."
There is a crucial point here that the lack of criticism has failed to expose. It is not just that Apple has been unsupportive of, and in the words of some developers, "hostile" to independent development. What is missing from the community's analysis (or perhaps they just do not care) is that when independent development is unsustainable, design itself must inevitably suffer too.