Under the Radar

176: That's Great, Apple, But…


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Marco Arment.

00:00:05   And I'm David Smith.

00:00:06   Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:09   So we are now entering the fall months, at least if you're in the Northern Hemisphere.

00:00:15   If you're in the Southern Hemisphere, you can just imagine yourself on a cool, crisp night.

00:00:19   You get to the end of the day and you think, "You know what would be nice? I think it would be nice if maybe we could make a little fire.

00:00:23   Maybe a little campfire, a little fire pit out in our backyard."

00:00:26   And we can sit around and we can tell stories.

00:00:28   Well, that is what I'm going to do to start off our show.

00:00:31   And it's a story about something near and dear to all of our hearts.

00:00:35   It's the story of the App Store.

00:00:36   The name of the story is "That's Great Apple, But..."

00:00:41   So our story begins, like all great stories, in 2008.

00:00:44   I'm not sure why all the stories start in 2008, but that's when this one starts.

00:00:48   And the App Store is a simpler place.

00:00:51   It is a place where apps are either free or they're paid.

00:00:55   And at the time, there's not much in the way of advertising, because advertising for mobile platforms doesn't exist, because mobile platforms only just barely exist.

00:01:03   So an app is free or an app is paid.

00:01:05   And it is a simple time.

00:01:07   People understand that if you get an app and it's free, it's free.

00:01:11   And if you pay for something, you paid for it.

00:01:13   And this goes great for a while, but eventually app developers come together and say, "That's great, Apple, but wouldn't it be nice if I could get more money from my users periodically?"

00:01:24   "Through some kind of purchase mechanism inside of my application?"

00:01:29   And Apple says, "You know, sure, that does seem like a nice thing."

00:01:33   And especially because we have this concept of a paid app, that seems a perfect place for this.

00:01:38   And so we'll make this thing called "In-App Purchase" where now, rather than just paying for something upfront, you can also pay for things subsequently inside of the app.

00:01:46   And this is only available for paid applications, because a free app should be free.

00:01:52   And a paid app is where we pay for things.

00:01:55   Makes sense.

00:01:56   This goes on for a very short amount of time, and our developers get together and say, "That's great, Apple, but I make free apps."

00:02:06   "Wouldn't it be great if I could make money and have people pay for things inside of my free app?"

00:02:11   "That would be great."

00:02:12   And originally Apple had said, "Well, a free app should be free, and a paid app is where the paying should happen."

00:02:17   "But, okay, sure. Let's do In-App Purchase and free apps as well."

00:02:23   This is great.

00:02:24   And a whole variety of interesting things start to come out of this.

00:02:28   And the app store grows, and the app store develops, and things progress for several years.

00:02:32   And then Apple makes a ton of money from it all.

00:02:34   And everybody makes lots of money. It's tons of money.

00:02:37   In fact, people are making so much money that they start to think to themselves and they say, "This is great, Apple, but I've made this app."

00:02:45   "It's making all this money. Things are great."

00:02:47   "I kind of would like to be able to give this app, or sell this app, to someone else."

00:02:52   "I don't want to have to create a shell company and do some weird company transfer thing and get lawyers involved."

00:02:59   "Can't I just transfer this in a clean way within the app store? That would be wonderful."

00:03:05   And with a few caveats and issues along the way, Apple says, "Okay, sure, yes."

00:03:10   "You have the ability to transfer apps between developer accounts. We'll make that happen."

00:03:16   And I think you're being very kind with a few caveats there.

00:03:19   Sure. Marco, we're sitting by a fire. This is the happy version of this story.

00:03:26   Sorry, Uncle Dave. Keep going.

00:03:28   Just stop interrupting.

00:03:30   So everything is happy in Appland. We're making these apps. We're able to build them up into products that we can potentially even sell to other people.

00:03:37   Something that just keeps bugging us. We start to think about Review Stars.

00:03:44   Review Stars, they have been an issue for us the whole time since the app store first began.

00:03:50   People have been holding stars hostage. It's a really awkward thing, because every time I do an update, my star rating reverts back to zero.

00:04:00   And that kind of is awkward. I don't really want to have to be scared of submitting updates just because it's going to reset my rating and then people won't buy my app.

00:04:08   It's awful. So this is great, Apple. But could we do something about this? Could we make it so that our Review Stars don't reset all the time?

00:04:16   And Apple says, "Well, it's tricky because part of why we want to do that is because we want the rating to reflect the current state of the application."

00:04:28   And so if we don't let the rating ever reset, it could be a little awkward. But I think you're right.

00:04:33   I think it's better overall for people to not be shy about issuing updates because they're worried it's going to review the rating. So we'll get rid of that.

00:04:41   Now things could progress. Things develop. The app store is a rich and vibrant ecosystem. And it is on ever-increasingly impressive devices.

00:04:51   And these devices have increasingly impressive and more capabilities. And one of these things that they get is a magical technology called Touch ID, which does away with the need to enter in our Apple ID password every time we want to buy something.

00:05:09   And if at first this was not necessarily the intention of this technology, but it's something that Apple does. And we say, "This is great, Apple. But can we use this for in-app purchases, too?

00:05:18   Can we use this everywhere that someone's going to change money?" And Apple says, "Absolutely. We're going to make Touch ID just used for purchasing anywhere you want."

00:05:26   And so this is great. It makes it so seamless and flawless that people can just instantaneously be buying our stuff. And what could go wrong?

00:05:35   Now, one thing that has always kind of sat in the back of our minds as app developers is, "Well, we like making money. And money is great. We like this in-app purchase thing. It's great.

00:05:46   It's in all of our apps now, whether it makes sense or not, it's in there. But you know what would be even better than in-app purchase?

00:05:54   Rather than just asking them to give us money once, wouldn't it be great if we could get money multiple times?

00:06:00   So in-app purchase is great, Apple. But can't we do subscriptions? Can't we have them just keep giving us money forever?

00:06:06   That seems way better than a one-time purchase. Who wouldn't want to keep giving us money forever?

00:06:11   We're app developers. We deserve this. And so Apple says, "Okay, yes. We're going to do subscriptions. But at first, we're only going to do it for content apps.

00:06:20   And then, okay, well, we'll expand it a little bit and we'll do it for apps that have network components or kind of this ongoing physical, tangible cost.

00:06:29   And then eventually, we say, "This is great, Apple, but what we really want is to be able to offer, ask for subscriptions for anything we want."

00:06:38   And eventually, Apple gives in to this and says, "Sure. Go ahead. You can have subscriptions in anything you want for basically any reason you want.

00:06:47   Just ask people for money and they will give it to you forever. Wonderful."

00:06:51   Things progress, things get great. And then the last thing that we think about is, you know, it is kind of hard, though, Apple, for people to find my app.

00:07:01   I really wish there was a way that I could take some of this money that I'm getting all the time from all my in-app purchases, my subscriptions, with my app that has all these great star rankings.

00:07:10   I wish I could put my app in front of people, whether or not it necessarily makes sense or not. I want to be able to give you money and you give me exposure.

00:07:18   And so we say it to Apple one last time, "This is great, Apple, but couldn't you give us a way to do this?"

00:07:24   And they say, "Yes. We will do search ads and we will provide a mechanism by which you can give us money and we will put your app in front of users.

00:07:33   And you can use this to promote engagement. You can do all kinds of things where you can buy keywords related to other people's applications.

00:07:42   You can put your app in front of someone who you're trying to compete with. This is a really useful way for us to kind of expand our reach in the App Store.

00:07:50   And this is largely where we find ourselves now. So we've brought ourselves back from the years of 2008 to 2019 and all of these ways that Apple has enhanced and improved the App Store.

00:08:03   And like all good stories that one tells sitting by a fire on a crisp autumn night, this story has a bit of a moral.

00:08:12   And the unfortunate moral for this particular story is that all of these things that Apple has done for us over the years in aggregate and in isolation are all positive for the platform.

00:08:26   And I think there are certainly caveats and tricky things with that, but overall they're pretty good.

00:08:31   And the awkward moral of these kinds of things is that any time Apple has given us anything, inevitably people find a way to use it to make terrible things and abuse it to make scams to rip people off.

00:08:43   And that is the moral of our story.

00:08:46   And the reason I tell this story is there's a current situation in the App Store that I just think it drew my eye because of how all of these things that Apple has done to improve our lives over the years makes it possible for people to do the scam.

00:09:01   There's a great summary of the scam that Becky Hansmeyer wrote on her blog, which was like, "How to Flip an App for a Profit."

00:09:07   And the way this scam works is you find an app that was once successful or has at least been in the App Store for a long time, ranks reasonably well for search, you buy it from someone for who knows how much, you use the app transfer mechanism.

00:09:22   When you do the transfer, you keep their review stars. Then you change the app so that it is full of in-app purchases and ideally subscriptions, lots of subscriptions for kind of absurd amounts of money where it's like, "I'm going to charge you $5 a week for this app that, I don't know, is a bubble level or contains backgrounds that you can set as your wallpaper or something like that."

00:09:47   It fills with those. I'm going to buy tons and tons of search ads, like just all the money with search ads, and I'm going to try and just pour money into that so that I get a relatively high number of people downloading the app.

00:09:59   The app is free so people get it right away. Then they're lambasted with all of these things to try and get subscriptions.

00:10:06   If they have a touch ID phone, you can do all kinds of really fun tricks where because you make it so that they can't easily get out of the app, you just keep showing them the subscription prompt.

00:10:16   So what do they have to do? Well, they want to go to the home button to get out of the app. If you press the home button with your thumb and you have a touch ID phone, well, you just bought the subscription, whether or not you realize that or not.

00:10:26   This is the scam that is currently in the app store. I don't know how broad this is. I've seen it myself several times with competitors for me. This is an app that this is a situation that Becky ran into.

00:10:36   It's just kind of sad to me that it is made possible by all of these technologies and all of these things that Apple did for our benefit that we asked for, and then someone will find a way to make it terrible.

00:10:49   I think thinking about that has made me tremendously sympathetic to Apple and sympathetic for how difficult a position they find themselves in because we will ask for things that will make us better and that for the ethical moral developer are tools for good for making more sustainable businesses,

00:11:09   for making things more and better relationships with our customers that make a better user experience, like in many ways are so good. And then you combine them all together into a way that someone will always find a way to make it into something awful.

00:11:23   I mean, this is a combination of a bunch of different factors and problems and design flaws that make this particular scam possible and make it effective. And this scam, I feel like they could totally neutralize this scam or mostly neutralize this scam by a few minor changes.

00:11:41   Like, for instance, I think you should probably consider resetting the app summary rating when it changes ownership and also if it adds, removes, or changes what in-app purchases are available.

00:11:53   That seems like kind of an easy way to nip this in the bud. But the reality is that scams like this are always going to exist and are always going to be possible and are always going to be exploited.

00:12:03   And it's kind of a game of whack-a-mole that Apple has to play because what Apple has created is a way for people to make lots of money really easily from anywhere in the world.

00:12:12   So, of course, you're going to have a huge attack surface there for scams and fraud. And Apple has also inserted themselves by doing app review, by requiring all iOS software to run through app review and to be in the app store and not having side loading or anything.

00:12:31   Apple has placed themselves in the role of gatekeepers and police of the app store. And it is their responsibility, therefore, to try to avoid situations like this being possible.

00:12:43   When one is possible, it's their responsibility to crack down on it, to filter out as much as possible during app review, and to whatever degree it is not possible for that, to be actively policing the app store for this kind of stuff, for these kind of scams and turning them down.

00:12:59   And also, it's their responsibility to try to design the UI and the purchase flows and things like that in the first place to be more resilient to fraud attempts, to be easier for customers, to spot fraud and deal with it and avoid it.

00:13:16   And some of those things Apple is doing a good job on. Some of them they're not. And I feel like one of the reasons we keep getting these scams, you know, this is one of many app store scams and I think the ones since subscription billings have been available to all apps, I think they've gotten worse.

00:13:37   And it's tricky because Apple makes a lot of money from these. So there's also a cynical angle of anything that causes people to feed more money into the app store kind of against their will.

00:13:47   Yeah, some percentage of those will call Apple and get refunds, but I bet it's not most. Even if it's just some, that's still a ton of money going through the app store that customers didn't intend.

00:13:58   And Apple gets 30% of all that. So Apple is really making a lot of money from these mistakes. And they also have a strong monetary incentive to keep the purchase flow smooth and easy and as few steps as possible because they don't want people to be road blocked when they're trying to spend money.

00:14:17   Because again, not only is it a bad experience, but again, Apple makes money from all this. So there's a lot of different facts here that like Apple has a pretty strong cynical financial incentive to not slow this down too much.

00:14:29   But obviously they have the responsibility as the app store gatekeepers and police to clamp down on obvious scams.

00:14:37   And throughout the last few years, or maybe even longer, as many of these scams have become visible in the app store where you'll have like, I think a more common scam is, which is kind of part of this, is like an app that prompts you for subscription for a feature that, you know, it's like a weather app and it's like, "Oh, subscription, free trial, just start now, free trial."

00:15:01   And a little tiny somewhere on the screen there is like, you know, "We'll renew at $12.99 a week." Or something. And it's like, you know, some price, almost always per week, because I believe that's the shortest subscription interval Apple will let you do.

00:15:14   That if you were just skimming it for the price, you might, you would never assume it would be a weekly interval. And the price, of course, was, you know, small.

00:15:23   And so they would make it some price that you would assume would be the price per month or per year, and it was actually per week, so you're spending, you know, four and a quarter times more than you might have thought or more.

00:15:32   And then they auto renew really quickly after that week, and you get billed, and, you know, whatever percentage of those, you know, will not get refunded, the app developer just gets to keep.

00:15:42   And it's this kind of exorbitant price for a fairly simple thing. You know, and as you mentioned, Dave, the Touch ID sensor being like, the home, being in the home button kind of makes people accidentally buy things by Touch ID when they're trying to just hit the home button to get out of the app.

00:15:55   Like, there's a whole mess of issues here. And some of them are design flaws. Like the purchase sheet, I think, you know, and you wrote a nice blog post about this a few months back.

00:16:04   The in-app purchase subscription confirmation sheet is a terrible design. It is not clear at all. You know, the whole purchase sheet since whatever it was that that design was introduced a few years back, it looks kind of like a store receipt.

00:16:19   You know, all this like tiny all caps black text against a white background, and it looks pretty, I guess, but it's a terrible conveyance of clear information the way it's designed.

00:16:30   And, you know, again, I think this is design over function here. But, you know, it's a, it doesn't clearly tell people like, hey, you're about to spend, you know, X dollars per week or per month on this thing.

00:16:46   I would like to see things like the sheet showing you what your annual price will be. No matter what the subscription term is, I'd like the sheet to say, you know, whatever the price they want to show, fine. But then like below that, say, you know, three hundred forty nine dollars a year.

00:17:02   Right. Like whatever, whatever it be like, you know, tell people what their annual price will be. Like give them some kind of normalized or at least monthly. Give them some kind of like normalized time interval that always shows so they can have some better idea of what it is.

00:17:14   I would also suggest that app review should be extra critical and take an extra strong look at anything that has a one week interval. Because, you know, I mean, if it were to me, I would eliminate one week subscription pricing because that that would really hurt this kind of scam big time.

00:17:31   And there aren't that many uses for it. I think like, what is it? The New York Times? Is there anything else that builds per week? Like it's it's not it's not a very common interval. Usually when it is being used, being used kind of scamily, you know.

00:17:44   So anyway, I'd get rid of the one week interval, but that's just me. But anyway, like they the biggest I think, you know, the biggest way Apple's falling down on this is not that some of this stuff gets past app review.

00:17:56   It's not that they haven't done a couple little tweaks to the share share to the purchase sheet or to the way reviews or some are kept between certain changes. That's all minor stuff.

00:18:05   To me, the big thing here, the big failure is that Apple doesn't seem to be policing the app store like they don't like. It seems like almost every time there's some kind of big scam, you can just go to like the top paid chart or the top grossing chart, whatever it is.

00:18:20   And you can see all these apps clear as day. They're not hard to find. And if these are all the things that are top grossing or if there's some clear trend in the top grossing chart, so often it seems like it takes blog posts from the community to bring this to Apple's attention.

00:18:34   It honestly seems like nobody's watching those lists inside of the company who has the power to change anything about it. And that I think is weird.

00:18:40   Shouldn't Apple be watching their own store after app review, after the fact? Shouldn't people be monitoring, "Hey, what apps are making a lot of money all of a sudden? And is there anything fishy about them?"

00:18:53   And it seems over time, it just seems over and over again that they're not checking, that they're not actually watching.

00:18:59   Yeah, and I think there's an element. It's like if you imagine policing as the metaphor for what they should be doing here, it's the difference between having a checkpoint on the way into a neighborhood where you're going into a neighborhood and say they had a security gate on the outside.

00:19:19   And there's someone there who kind of checks your credentials, maybe searches your car, makes sure everything's good to go, and then lets you in. And if that's the only level of security that you have in your neighborhood, that's not that great in the sense that versus having a policeman who, say, strolls up and down the street every now and then and just makes sure that everything's okay.

00:19:39   That's literally why there are police patrols. Police don't just come when you call them. They're also driving around and walking around all the time. There's a reason for that.

00:19:51   There's that sense that—and I think, too, what I would love to see that is mostly because I understand how difficult of a thing this is because there is so much of it that is hard to—where is the line between something that is a scam and something that is just expensive?

00:20:09   There's a certain amount of judgment that has to go into that, and so I understand that that's awkward. But at the same time, there comes a point in most of these apps where it becomes clear that this has crossed that line, but they're not necessarily looking at it or looking for it.

00:20:29   And I appreciate that that's difficult, but hopefully this is something that I want ultimately, too. I would be sad if Apple became reluctant to give us new tools and opportunities inside of the App Store because of the fear of how they can be abused,

00:20:51   which I'm sure is a big part of why many of these improvements and things that have come over the years are, from our perspective, in some ways, slow and very methodical, and we wish they had happened sooner.

00:21:01   Because I imagine Apple is very aware that this is how it's going to go, and I would hope in some ways, though, that the way to deal with that isn't necessarily to not create the tool. It's to have active enforcement on the other side to tamp down issues before they reach out into customers in the first place.

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00:22:56   Yeah, I think like, I understand why it's hard for Apple to do things like police, whether something is exorbitantly expensive.

00:23:04   Right, like, 'cause again, you know, who knows what that means? Different people have different opinions, and it puts Apple in a weird position to try to judge things that are so subjective.

00:23:13   I think what instead they need to focus on then is making it easier for users to make that decision with the full information that we should have.

00:23:20   And that's why I think things like design tweaks to the purchase sheet are going to be way more effective than anything App Review could possibly do.

00:23:29   I think the challenge here is that this is two different parts of the company, right?

00:23:32   This is like, you know, design of purchasing is probably a totally different organization in the company than the App Review and App Store policy side.

00:23:42   And maybe they haven't been able to coordinate on this, or maybe they aren't able to for some reason.

00:23:46   But to me, there's so much low-hanging fruit to try to avoid App Store scams in the design of the purchase flow that they just seem to not be doing.

00:23:58   Yeah, 'cause I think, ultimately I think the things that come to mind is that in two ways, whether or not something's a scam is ultimately in how the end customer feels about the transaction.

00:24:13   Which is an awkward definition in some ways because they could just have misunderstood, they thought they were getting something and they didn't and now they feel scammed.

00:24:20   Oh yeah, people have accused me of running scams since day one of the App Store.

00:24:24   Sure, and that's awkward and that's unfortunate. And that's ultimately why I think Apple is hard for them to necessarily be in that place.

00:24:30   So the biggest things that I think that Apple can do though, yeah, it's like on the, there's the upfront side of making it clear that if someone is parting with money, they are doing it with as much information, with as much clarity, with as much sort of, I think maybe intentionality is probably the best word for it.

00:24:50   That they are doing it on purpose, they know what they're getting, they're not going to be surprised by a charge in the future, they're not going to be surprised that they just spent $300 a year on a step counting app.

00:25:01   Like, they're going into it intentionally and if someone wants to spend huge amounts of money on kind of a silly utility, like, more power to them. Like, that's great.

00:25:10   But they need to be doing it intentionally and not just accidentally or because they were tricked or because it's like the thing that I see a lot now is like the free trial button is just to continue, which then starts the, which starts a trial which, like there's lots of things that can just become very intentionally misleading or at least, or even are benignly misleading.

00:25:32   And then on the flip side, I think there's an element of making it so that getting a refund from a customer has always been one of these things in the App Store.

00:25:42   It's like it's incredibly awkward that you go to this, like, if you want to get one, you go to reportaproblem.apple.com, which I think still has like an Aqua UI to it.

00:25:53   It's this very old kind of weird web form that you go through and like, select the thing that you had a problem with and request a thing and it goes to a person and that person can then, like may or may not process a refund.

00:26:05   It's like, I don't understand why this is this where it's like, any purchase seems like within like, within like a day or two should probably be refundable, like, just make it refundable.

00:26:16   And if it isn't, like, I don't know, it's like, that's the way many things in life work where you can buy something and if you don't like it, you can take it back.

00:26:25   And it takes the wind out of a lot of this kind of scam because if you make it easy for people to request their money back because they feel scammed, then the person ultimately doesn't end up with the money.

00:26:34   It takes sort of the financial incentive out of a lot of this because the money just never goes to anybody, so in which case if they're spending huge amounts of money on search ads and they're not actually able to sort of recoup that by scamming people, then they won't be doing it.

00:26:49   This is one of these things that there are many difficult things with refunds because what if someone uses a huge amount, you know, they're buying something that has a financial cost or uses a resource and they go and they use it and they use all this resource and then they ask for the money back.

00:27:04   And it's like, sure. I get that that's awkward. Just take that into account when you're building your system and if you make a perfect refund window of a day or two, it's entirely possible as a developer to plan around that, to expect that this is going to happen, and to not end up in a terrible place as a result.

00:27:25   Yeah, and didn't Windows Mobile or Android even do that? I think one of the other platforms did. I believe Android has a, I think it's a 24-hour return refund policy on any purchase, which I think perfectly seems very reasonable.

00:27:39   Yeah, and this is another thing, going back to UI or process things, one of the reasons why subscription scams were so popular in the first place is that it has been so historically difficult to find out how and where in the UI to cancel a subscription.

00:27:56   It's really hard. They've made a few little gains here and there that make it a little bit easier now, but that's been hard. You mentioned refunds. I'm hearing from people now that, I'll occasionally get an email from somebody saying, "Hey, I bought Premium, but it wasn't what I wanted," or whatever, "Can I have a refund?"

00:28:11   And every time I have to tell them, "I'm sorry, I can't issue you a refund, but here's where you can get one from Apple," and I listen to the iMore article that tells you about App Store refunds.

00:28:19   But then a lot of times people are emailing me saying, "I already asked Apple, and they told me to contact you for the refund."

00:28:27   So I'm like, "Oh, no, what is Apple support telling people?" Whatever Apple support is telling people, it's wrong.

00:28:33   Or they're asking me to cancel their subscription, which I can't do. I literally have no power to cancel somebody's subscription. They have to do it through the Apple interfaces.

00:28:43   And people don't know that, but yeah, it's just like all this stuff, like this could be solved by better UI, better tools, more clear explanations, better support on Apple's side.

00:28:53   And I hope they start taking this more seriously than they have, because it just seems like they have not been trying as hard as they could in these areas.

00:29:02   And they need to be better policing the App Store after the fact, watching for scams, and actually having whoever's responsible for watching for scams have some input into the UI design of the purchase flow and the managing subscriptions interface.

00:29:18   Yeah, and I think too, because I would love for them to continue to feel empowered and capable of improving the App Store and making it better, and not being so worried that when they give us these great tools that we're going to immediately turn around to them and abuse them.

00:29:33   Because I understand that's really awkward, and I'm very sympathetic for that. But I think appropriate enforcement, appropriate design would open up their ability to just improve the App Store and continue to make it a better and better place, which is ultimately what I want, and what I think, hopefully, what Apple wants too.

00:29:47   Thanks for listening, everybody, and we'll talk to you in two weeks.

00:29:50   Bye.

00:29:51   [BLANK_AUDIO]