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It’s time to rethink the App Store

The App Store is a problem.

As bought into the Apple ecosystem as I am - to be clear, its devices and operating systems are by far the best I've ever used - the way it polices its software ecosystem has become a barrier to innovation.

I don't really care about Fortnight, and I'm on the fence about whether allowing effectively another App Store inside an App Store is a good idea. But removing a developer's ability to publish anything on a platform, regardless of whether it breaks the rules or not, seems like a big problem to me. And the rules around payments are worse.

If your app uses in-app payments of any kind, Apple takes a 30% cut. These payments can only be for virtual goods: you'll notice that if you take a Lyft ride or order a pizza, you'll be redirected to either enter your credit card or use Apple Pay for payment. (Apple takes a 0.15% cut of Apple Pay payments, regardless of the card you use.) The trick is that you can't use this latter method of payment if you could have used in-app payments: if you ask for a credit card for a digital good, but still allow the user to pay in-app, Apple still wants its 30%.

This is unequivocally digital rent-seeking. There's literally no reason for Apple to do this, except to bolster the estimated $50B it made last year from the App store. It's one major reason why it's the most valuable company in the world, with a $2.13 trillion market cap as of Friday.

It's a gatekeeper rather than a driver of innovation. As Francisco Tolmasky pointed out, Apple's App Store rules wouldn't have allowed for the invention of the web browser. There are likely many other inventions that would have been amazing on mobile and tablet devices that will never see the light of day because they fall afoul of some rule or other.

Similarly, it's been disheartening to see these rules start to bleed over into macOS. That OS contains a technology - literally called Gatekeeper - that prevents apps from running unless they're associated with an authorized developer ID. By default, the latest version will only open apps that have been notarized by Apple, which involves some extra software-driven checks in XCode. The only way to run an app that doesn't at least have a developer ID is to open up system preferences and reassure Gatekeeper that it's all going to be okay, on an individual basis - but macOS deliberately doesn't make it clear that you can do this.

Getting a developer ID costs a flat $99 a year. This heavily excludes developers from less wealthy regions of the world, as well as open source projects. And I strongly suspect that the rules will tighten up again - either formally or through interface changes - in the next version of macOS.

These are our devices; we bought them. We should be able to run the software we want on them. Anything else is heavily disempowering at best, and a barrier to trade and innovation at worst. And developers like Epic are experiencing firsthand where the chips fall.