GioCities

blogs by Gio

⚖ How Apple destroyed mobile freeware

Posted by Gio in politics

I have a memory from when I was very young of my dad doing the finances. He would sit in his office with a computer on one side and an old-fashioned adding machine on the desk. While he worked on the spreadsheet on the computer, he would use the adding machine for quick calculations.

Adding machine

A year or two ago I had a very similar experience. I walked upstairs to the office and there he was, at the same desk, spreadsheet on one side and calculator on the other. Except it was 2020, and he had long ago replaced the adding machine with an iPad. There was really one noticeable difference between the iPad and the old adding machine: the iPad was awful at the job. My dad was using some random calculator app that was an awkwardly scaled iPhone app with an ugly flashing banner add at the bottom.

So of course I said “Hang on, why are you using that ugly thing? This has got to be the worst calculator ever, just use the built-in one.” Except, as I found out, there isn’t a built-in calculator app for the iPad. If you want a calculator for your iPad, you’ve got to rely on the App Store. And boy, does the app store not deliver. I must have spent twenty minutes looking for a good calculator app, but every single one was either loaded with ads or cost money1.

Now, there’s plenty of software that’s worth money, but a simple calculator isn’t. Simple math operations are kinda the baseline for computers. And, it turns out, in an even halfway-functional software market, people will be climbing over each other trying to make the best calculator program and release it for free.

So why isn’t that happening here? “Adding things” isn’t an exotic use case; it’s not like nobody has thought of it before. And the iPad isn’t some new market; it’s a mature space that talented people have been developing for going on more than ten years now.

No, the culprit here isn’t developers or users, it’s Apple.

Apple's Interference

The only way to install programs on your iPhone is through the App Store2. Distribution is a “service” Apple provides members of its development platform, and one it can revoke at any time for any reason. So, if you want to write software people can use, there’s just one company who can “allow” that. (In order to use Apple’s development software, you also have to do your work on Apple hardware using a licensed copy of Apple’s OS X.) Currently, the “privilege” of belonging to the Apple Developer Program costs a whopping $100/yr for individuals, or up to $300/yr for enterprises.

This is where the problem lies. Unlike with other development, developers are losing money out of the gate. As opposed to the negligible cost of hosting software yourself (or distributing it for free on platforms like GitHub), cost becomes a very real factor for Apple developers. Developers must be extracting at least $100/yr from their customers, or they’re losing a lot of money. This dynamic — caused entirely by Apple’s policy — essentially removes the possibility for quality freeware altogether. That means no decent calculator.

And extracting $100/yr with your calculator app isn’t easy. One of the “features” of the Apple Developer Program is, in their words, allowing you to “keep 70% of your sales proceeds.” So, even if you do make $100 in a year, Apple is keeping 30% of that.3 Unless you’re confident you’ll be able to get hundreds of purchases a year, you need to charge your users a subscription fee or make the app a pretty expensive one-time purchase.

Apple likes this system so much they’re extending it to all their platforms, including home computers. With the (relatively) new code signing requirements and notarization for desktop apps, Apple wants to monopolize their desktop applications, too. (This move caused all sorts of problems, and continues to haunt the Mac ecosystem, but I won’t get into examples of that here. They’re easy to find.)

The Consequences

So, developers are forced by Apple to constantly be making Apple money. It’s easy to see why Apple likes this, but it creates huge problems for the user. Even companies who pride themselves on “buy once, own forever” software for the PC, like Clip Studio Paint, are forced into making Mac and iPad versions of their software recurring subscriptions.

Whether Apple “is a monopoly” or not, I don’t know. I do know that these polices are actively harming users by preventing them access to better software. I’ve only given the calculator example here, but this dynamic — and all its harmful effects — is present throughout the entire Apple ecosystem.4 “In healthy, competitive markets”, the economist will tell you, “firms succeed by satisfying customers, not abusing them.” And Apple has chosen and consistently defended these policies that operate at the expense of the user.

When I see someone forced to use an awful buggy calculator, my first thought is “this can’t be the best way.” I know — as a computer scientist, as a programmer, as a developer, as a person who sometimes calculates things — that this obviously isn’t how things should be. But it’s how they’re forced to be: not naturally, but due to one company’s putting a finger on the scale and skimming off the top.

I insisted on keeping that old adding machine. We still have it to this day. It still works, and you can even still buy thermal paper for its little printer. I have a much newer iPad. I probably won’t keep that.


Postscript

What do you mean there’s no good calculator for the iPad? I have a calculator I use regularly that costs money and/or shows intrusive ads all the time! Are you saying that just because all the calculators for the iPad are worse than calculators on comparable platforms that they’re all ‘bad’?” Yes.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are other shady ways “free” apps try to profit off their userbase. Very often this involves selling personal data and behaviour analytics, but these more complicated forms of monetization don’t map well to simple tools like calculators, which is one of the reasons the calculator makes a good example.


  1. At the time. 

  2. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Apple developers — and developers only — can “sideload” programs on their own device using their ID, but this can’t be used to distribute programs. There are also enterprise programs, i.e. apps for employees of the company only — but this requires a special, expensive license with Apple. No matter who you are, Apple tightly controls what you can and can’t do with your phone. 

  3. There is a currently unfolding story about action Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, is taking action to protest the 30% cut. You can find plenty of good reading about that, but the story is breaking. 

  4. Oh, and let’s not pretend there’s level competition even within the Apple ecosystem, either. There’s an incredible amount of preferential treatment given to big names, and all kinds of backroom dealmaking. Facebook and YouTube both fly in the face of some of the most serious App Store “guidelines”, and shamelessly violate rules that would get small players kicked out on the spot. 

Comments