alexandr bormotin ntmu8vCwQE0 unsplash

New App Store Review Guidelines show Apple has problems adapting to the new age

Alongside anticompetitive practices.

Apple recently updated its App Store Review Guidelines. The new guidelines finally allow game streaming services to exist on your iPhone and iPad, albeit with a catch.

They also make way for one-to-one experiences (digital fitness and tutoring classes) to persist without giving Apple the 30% fee. And finally, one rule also allows free apps representing a paid web-based tool to be exempt from Apple’s in-app purchases.

The company has made these additions in the review guidelines only after it faced increased scrutiny from app developers that had been first affected by the lack of these new rules. For example, Google and Microsoft (mostly Microsoft) condemned Apple for rejecting its xCloud and Stadia game streaming apps. The problem wasn’t that Apple rejected those apps. It was that Apple was demanding silly fixes in order to approve them.

Similarly, Apple’s second rule addition to its review guidelines — allowing one-to-one experiences without taking a cut — may be a result of Facebook’s criticism of Apple when it rejected a Facebook app update for mentioning that Apple takes a 30% cut from purchases within its new paid online events feature.

Google Stadia Controller
Google Stadia controller.

Lastly, — and this is a big one — the new review guidelines also add a rule that lets free apps exist that need to direct users to a paid online service without having to pay Apple the 30% cut. This rule may be relating to the Hey email app controversy that occurred earlier this year.

Apple rejected Hey when the developers submitted an update for review. Hey is an email app that works on a subscription. However, at the time, the app circumvented Apple’s 30% cut by redirecting its users to their website for payment. This tripped Apple up and they removed it from the store until the Cupertino company itself set conditions for the app to be approved again.

So, do these new rules provide justice to the ordeal all these app developers and companies had to go through? More importantly, do these rules fix every problem that developers are experiencing with Apple?

There are a lot of different answers to these questions, and it’s not possible to understand if Apple is downright wrong without a formal investigation. It could well be that Apple maybe indulging in anti-competitive practices or it may be right.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to agree we all love a little bit of drama from time to time.

Hey email app
Hey email app which gained extensive media attention, but not for the right reasons. Source: Hey

Having said that, Apple’s updates to its App Store review guidelines have cleared off only a few troubles that the concerned app developers had to originally face. The new rule where game streaming apps are now allowed has a major catch, for instance. You can stream games, but game streaming companies will have to submit each game within its own app with streaming capabilities for Apple to review individually.

Game streaming companies are further allowed to create “catalog” apps that enlist each game within a single app. But the games listings should link out to individual games submitted to the App Store. This makes it infinitely difficult for the whole idea of cloud gaming to persist in the iOS app ecosystem. Because even though Apple is technically allowing it, end-users will have to download dozens of apps from the App Store to stream their favorite games. This will end up being terrible user experience and no game streaming service provider would want that.

This is Apple saying, “OK, we’re allowing you in but you aren’t welcome here.”

Similarly, with the exemption of one-to-one experiences within apps from Apple’s 30% in-app cut, it seems Apple is doing whatever it deems fit. It could have allowed one-to-few or one-to-many experiences as well. However, the company isn’t ready to give up even a little bit when it comes to earning revenue. But first…

Why Apple is right

Let’s talk about game streaming apps. Even though game streaming services offer a way for users to access their favorite games in one place, you cannot deny the fact that the concept is new. At the other end, Apple is trying to maintain its reputation for offering the best user experience to its users. And maybe that’s one of the reasons Apple is demanding streamable games to be submitted individually to the App Store for review, just like any other game.

It’s because not everyone thinks about the end-users after all. If Apple allows one game streaming app to feature games that are unchecked by Apple, it will have to allow others too. Then, what’s stopping developers from misusing this medium of game distribution and offering abysmal experiences masquerading as games. Therefore, in such cases, moderation becomes necessary.

However, I’m not outright stating that Apple is creating roadblocks for such apps because of the aforementioned reasons. I’m saying that it’s possible Apple may think that way.

Microsoft is one of the major companies that has vocally stood up against Apple, in the past, and also recently. Commenting on Apple’s new App Store Review Guidelines, Microsoft says:

“This remains a bad experience for customers. Gamers want to jump directly into a game from their curated catalog within one app just like they do with movies or songs, and not be forced to download over 100 apps to play individual games from the cloud. We’re committed to putting gamers at the center of everything we do, and providing a great experience is core to that mission.”

Microsoft’s concerns are correctly placed. Although it itself isn’t a proponent of good user experience, it also seems to be missing the point Apple is trying to make here. The Cupertino company is trying to make it indirectly clear that it views every game within the App Store as just another app. This complicates stuff. While the rest of the industry seems to understand the concept of gaming as a creative endeavor, Apple understands it as a functional utility of whose outcome is users’ entertainment.

Microsoft xCloud Game Streaming Service
Microsoft’s xCloud gaming streaming service. Source: Microsoft

It is because of this discretion that Apple does not hold into account apps like Netflix that stream movies and TV Shows and subsequently doesn’t demand each movie to be individually reviewed. Movies are not something Apple has hosted in the App Store before even Netflix existed. And Apple won’t do it now, too. By contrast, games have existed since the advent of the App Store.

Allowing game streaming services within the App Store will pose serious challenges for Apple. And by extension, it will also result in an abysmal user-experience if it ever allows games to be streamed within a single app without reviewing them. Apple doesn’t want that. It will have to work harder to uphold quality and in turn, become more aggressive, which is a quality Apple wouldn’t want itself to be defined by. Apple doesn’t want an App Store within an App Store.

Why Apple is wrong

Anticompetitive practices aside, Apple’s image seems to be in deep trouble and the reason is not what you think. The real reason is that Apple may be losing its grip on staying relevant. It evidently is facing trouble adapting to new trends. And since it’s a behemoth with a $2 Trillion market cap under its name, the rest of the industry is usually swept up along with it.

The latest game streaming app issues are also the result of Apple’s inability to adapt to new trends. Maybe it’s about the current leadership, Apple is stuck with the ways of the past and doesn’t want to move on. It launched its App Store alongside the iPad ten years ago. Since then, there have been only minor changes to how it distributes apps and games.

Apple event
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Steve Jobs Theater during an event to announce new products Monday, March 25, 2019, in Cupertino, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Plus, Apple is also struggling with its Apple TV+ subscription service and its iCloud cloud service. And the problems there, too, relate to how Apple prefers to do things — that is, the old way.

Look, the Cupertino giant has been running on the path of simplicity for too long. It was first inducted into the company by Steve Jobs. But post-Steve Jobs Apple has been struggling to keep his vision going. Apple has, from the very beginning, been creating hardware that looks unabashedly simple and singular.

And it has successfully been able to keep up the same image for a long time, even though the hardware complexities inside its devices continue to increase with the addition of new sensors, chips, and silicon. The Apple Watch’s Digital Crown explains it perfectly. It appears to be a simple roller from the outside that you can use to interact with the watch’s interface. However, it’s quite difficult to calibrate the Digital Crown’s rotations to the resulting changes within the interface. So much so, that Apple may be planning to kill the Digital Crown altogether in future Apple Watch models.

However, the internal hardware is something Apple can abstract from end-users by designing an external shell. What doesn’t stay hidden, is the software. There is no outer chassis and inner components within any piece of software that you can differentiate between. And while Apple has been successful to keep its hardware design simple, its software has been lacking a lot. Apple has been trying to suppress the complexities that come with the inevitable maturity of software; instead, it seems to be losing its grip.

We’ve had the same home screen design on iOS for years, for instance. It took Apple 14 generations of iOS to add widgets and a list view to the home screen while Android has pretty much boasted these since its initial days. My point is, it seems Apple is tending towards avoiding complex stuff and is bad at it.

That said, I don’t think Apple won’t ever allow game streaming services to properly exist on iPhones and iPads. If history is evident, it will take some time for Apple to ready itself for the idea of game streaming services.

There’s also a possibility, albeit a strong one, that Apple is merely doing all this for financial gains and putting its own services above others. It makes sense as Apple may not have allowed xCloud into the App Store because it wants to promote its own Apple Arcade gaming subscription service. Now, while xCloud and Stadia are keen on offering games to stream, at the same time, they are also game subscription services that Apple may not want to let into the ecosystem among fears that those may tank Apple Arcade’s numbers.

Apple Cash

Lastly, there’s the Hey email app incident. Apple’s actions against the app have been quite reckless. First, it rejected one of its updates when it realized it redirects users to the app’s own external paid service. Later, Apple set its own terms which Hey’s developers had to abide by if they wanted the app to be approved. They did. If they hadn’t, Apple would’ve completely removed the app from the App Store. Note that all this happened before WWDC 2020 that was held in June. Back then, Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines did not have any formal rule in it that stated apps like Hey weren’t allowed.

It’s only now, within the new review guidelines that Apple has added the rule for such apps to exist. As per the new rule, Hey — which is a representative app to a paid online service — is allowed in its original form. All-in-all, Apple made Hey app’s developers go through this entire ordeal just to allow the app at last. And it could be that Apple realized its mistake. But the more sensible conclusion is that Apple behaved recklessly. The company did not seem to know how to defend its App Store revenue stream at the time.

As far as we know, moreover, Apple hasn’t issued a formal apology nor has it attempted to pay for the damages it caused the whole time Hey was off the App Store.

Final Thoughts

Look, Apple has evolved over time to become one of the largest companies in the world. That’s not a simple feat to achieve. And one of the reasons it has been able to reach so far is its strict business practices. However, the company has yet to decide its limits.

Upholding a steady quality of user experience is also quite difficult. Even the smallest of things matter. When it comes to game streaming apps, Apple is correct with its decision to review each game individually. It just has to find a better way to review them (maybe ask app developers to create a review system specifically for Apple within their own apps) without leaving people with any choice than to download 300+ separate apps for the games they want to stream. It’s about time for Apple to see games as games and not as apps.

Apple has to get its stuff in order. And the only way to do that is to properly adapt to the new era of mobile computing, where game streaming apps exist. Maybe new leadership is what Apple requires to take the leap. Maybe.