The Pros and Cons of Apple’s iOS App Store

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If you use apps on your iPhone or iPad, other than those included in iOS, you get them from Apple’s App Store. Since Apple’s App Store is the only way to install apps on iOS devices (unlike with macOS where you can obtain apps from the Mac App Store or from developers) you have to use Apple to provide these apps. The App Store has lots of advantages, but also some negatives, and has been controversial lately. In this article, I’ll look at what’s good about the App Store and what needs work.

Why the App Store?

When the iPhone was launched in 2007, there was no provision for third-party developers to create apps. Steve Jobs initially told developers that they could create "web apps," which were essentially HTML pages wrapped in app packages, but amidst the disappointment of developers, Apple quickly changed tack and offered an SDK (software development kit) in February, 2008. The company launched the iOS App Store in July, 2008, to coincide with the release of the iPhone 3G.

The App Store quickly took off, and it was third-party apps that helped fuel the popularity of the iPhone; Apple ran a marketing campaign around the slogan "There’s an app for that" starting in 2009. The presence of apps like Facebook, eBay, AIM, and others meant that iOS was a "serious" platform.

The App Store is practical for users

When Apple launched the App Store, the company was able to sell apps using existing accounts that millions of users had created for the iTunes Store. This meant that users didn’t need to create new accounts, and that they could trust Apple to manage their payment information. Having one point of payment for a variety of apps, and being able to pay with a credit card, PayPal, or with gift cards, meant that the App Store was essentially frictionless. A few taps, and you’d have an app on your phone (and later your tablet) in a few seconds, or a few minutes for large apps. The App Store also ensures that users get timely updates to their app when new versions are available.

In 2011, Apple started offering subscriptions for apps, and, while subscriptions allow users to obtain regular content, or make recurring payments for apps they use, there is increasing discontent as more and more apps are subscription based rather than sold outright. It’s easy to manage subscriptions for iOS apps, as well as for services that Apple or other companies sell. You can subscribe to Apple Music, Spotify, or Netflix through the App Store, benefiting from centralized payments, and turn off subscriptions when you want.

But not everything is user friendly

The iOS App Store introduced new models for software distribution. On other platforms, users had long been able to download demo versions of apps, so they could try them out before buying. Since the App Store doesn’t offer demos, the only solutions are either to offer free apps with in-app purchases to "unlock" features, or to sell apps on a subscription basis. When a user installs a subscription app, they get a trial period – usually seven or fourteen days – after which time a subscription will begin.

Since Apple does not allow paid upgrades to new major versions of apps – on either the Mac App Store or the iOS App Store – developers have turned to subscriptions to ensure that they have regular income. For some apps, where you get regularly renewed content, this makes sense, but for others, such as productivity apps, the idea of paying rent to use an app doesn’t make sense to everyone. And increased dependence on subscriptions is leading some people to have "subscription fatigue," as they look at how many apps and services they tithe, and add up these amounts.

Apple as sole gatekeeper

Apple is the only arbiter of which apps can run on your iPhone or iPad, and this is both good and bad. Apple reviews apps before providing them in the store, ensuring that they are safe, can’t access data that they shouldn’t, and don’t contain pornography or excessive violence (though one can argue that many violent games don’t get filtered). But they also decide, in many cases, whether apps are "good enough" to be on the store.

While Apple encourages young people to learn to "code," plenty of novice coders have told how they worked on apps only to find them refused by the App Store review team, because they were not interesting enough. Apple also refuses apps that offer similar features to their own apps. For example, Facebook’s Gaming app has been refused five times to date, perhaps because it is too similar to Apple Arcade, Apple’s subscription gaming service.

There is no option to "sideload" apps, or install them through another manner (except in small numbers for testing), and many users want the ability to have apps that Apple doesn’t approve for their store. For this reason, some users "jailbreak" their iOS devices, and use an alternate app store, such as Cydia, to install apps.

App Store controversies

This week, Basecamp launched a new email service called Hey. They have both a Mac app – available directly from the developer – and an iOS app, as well as apps for other platforms. Version 1.0 of the iOS app was approved, but when the company tried to release an update with bug fixes, that version was refused. Apple has said that since the app does not allow users to subscribe to the service, it cannot be in the App Store.

Apple states that apps that offer paid services have to offer those services within iOS apps, which means that Apple collects 30% of the in-app purchase, but Basecamp is balking at this, calling Apple "gangsters" for demanding a cut of their sales.

At issue here is the inconsistency of Apple’s application of their rules, but also some tone-deaf statements from Apple regarding software. In a letter to Basecamp, an unnamed Apple employee (the letter was most likely written by senior Apple executives) suggested that the company had benefited from the App Store while providing no compensation to Apple:

We understand that Basecamp has developed a number of apps and many subsequent versions for the App Store for many years, and that the App Store has distributed millions of these apps to iOS users. These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years.

Other developers have started speaking out using the hashtag AppStoreAntitrust on Twitter, telling how their apps were refused, and some have even expressed dismay at having to give up on apps they were developing, or not even try to develop certain apps, because of the uncertainty of whether they’d be approved. One example is this Twitter thread from the long-time Mac app developer Rogue Amoeba, telling how they had apps refused, and eventually gave up selling on the iOS App Store, and, with the exception of one app, on the Mac App Store as well.

In addition, the European Commission has launched an antitrust investigation into Apple’s use of the App Store and Apple Pay.

This controversy comes at a bad time for Apple. With the Worldwide Developer Conference starting on Monday, June 22, and this issue getting a lot of attention in the news (even an opinion piece in the New York Times), Apple has to decide whether they will be more flexible or whether they will stick to their position. Interestingly, the fact that the WWDC will be virtual this year means that Apple won’t have to face thousands of developers who could be very vocal as Apple executives on stage tout the benefits of their App Stores in Monday’s keynote.

For now, there’s no choice: if you use an iOS device and want apps, you must use Apple’s App Store. That may change in the future, as governments determine whether Apple is abusing their dominant position in the marketplace. You can still get lots of great apps on the iOS App Store, but you’re certainly missing out on some innovative apps because of Apple’s strict control over its walled garden.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →