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Designers and developers unionize against Apple

As the sole gateway to putting software onto iOS devices, Apple’s App Store created $38.5 billion in revenue in 2017–and just shy of $10 billion in profits for Apple. Now, many of the software designers and developers behind much of that success are pushing back against Apple.

A group of Apple developers called The Developers Union has just released an open letter to the company, taking issue with historically non-negotiable policies, like whether users are allowed to preview apps and how big of a cut Apple gets from apps’ revenue. “We believe that people who create great software should be able to make a living doing it,” the letter states. “So we created The Developers Union to advocate for sustainability in the App Store.”

Of the 474 apps currently aligned for the cause, you’ll probably recognize zero. Apps like Spotify, Lyft, Instagram, and Clash of Clans are nowhere to be seen. The founders are writers and developers who’ve achieved some success, but are far from the sorts of Silicon Valley billionaires you’d expect could pick a serious fight with Cupertino. The unofficial spokesperson of the group, Brent Simmons, has designed and developed several apps across platforms, though perhaps most famously, NetNewsWire, a major RSS reader of the mid-aughts.

This lack of big names seems to be part of the point. The average mom-and-pop developer finds App Store success to be a total crapshoot and has zero influence over Apple’s policies. A 2012 study found that 59% of apps don’t even break even. By banding together, The Developers Union would like to see Apple institute new policies. The first would be the option for any app to be downloadable as a free preview–a way to allow consumers to try before they buy. Apple allows free trials, but only on subscription apps. So an expensive app without a subscription faces a significant barrier, since consumers will be wary of putting down money and taking the plunge.

“We can’t run the what-if. What if the App Store had had trial versions all along? How would things be different? We can’t know,” says Simmons. “We believe it’s self-evident that people are reluctant to pay for apps in part because it’s a gamble . . . ”

Next on the docket will be revenue sharing. Just like Google, Apple takes 30% of sales on the average app and all related in-app purchases, and 15% on longer-term subscription apps (which are the services that generate big bucks for Apple). They want to be “advocating for a more reasonable revenue cut,” but they haven’t shared what that cut would look like.

The question remains, however, why target Apple when Google, too, has very similar app policies, and many developers build apps to be sold on both marketplaces. “It’s because we’re Apple fans!” says Simmons. “Android developers are certainly free to do the same thing we’re doing.”

In any case, if software is the new hardware, then Apple needs to cater to its designers and developers. The problem is, what leverage do these workers really have, even en masse? Will they attempt to generate bad PR for Apple, through stories like this one? Will they pull their apps from the store, only to be replaced by competitors?

“Though we wouldn’t rule out some kind of protest, we’re a long way from even thinking about that kind of thing,” says Simmons. “Instead, we believe that Apple might listen to a group of developers asking for something that would help them. Our hope is that it has more impact than Apple’s private conversations with developers. We can say: ‘Here’s a thing we’d like to see happen. All these developers are on board.’” We reached out to Apple for comment but didn’t hear back by press time.

So long as Apple controls the funnel onto its iPhones and iPads, it’s hard to imagine even thousands of small developers changing the company’s mind. Then again, so long as Apple controls that funnel, Apple will be the sole target of their cause.