Former Apple App Store Approvals Chief Bemoans Anti-Competitive Practices

Are Apple’s app practices anti-competitive? Phillip Shoemaker, the former head of App Store approvals, is concerned about the current competition between Apple and other developers. He argued that Apple should update its guidelines to give users a better experience, but noted that the app review process is rather complicated. 

Shoemaker was the head of App Store approvals between 2009 and 2016, and he helped to craft Apple’s in-app purchase system. In 2009, his team decided that Apple would receive a 30% cut of every digital good or service sold within an iOS app. Furthermore, apps were not allowed to include buttons or links that would direct customers to other places where they could purchase items. Shoemaker argued that they adopted this policy because they believed that if “they bring you the customer, then they are entitled to their share of the purchase.”

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Shoemaker noted that this current system is problematic. The 30% “Apple tax” has forced many companies to decide to either lose money or increase prices. Neither of these options are good for third-party developers. Apple has also become a direct competitor for many companies, like Spotify. Why would Spotify want to pay an additional 30% to their competitor? A class action lawsuit was even recently filed, because many Apple customers believe that the “Apple Tax” has unfairly driven prices up.

To top it all off, Apple’s app review process can be difficult. One of our editors recently submitted an app to be approved by Google and Apple. The Apple review process took longer, required more initial hurdles, and the app was at first rejected with little explanation. The app was eventually approved, but not without many hours of additional work that was not needed for the Google Play app. Shoemaker noted that the app approval process can be a bit erratic, even today. in 2009, a handful of app reviewers would personally review 30-100 apps each day. Although Apple has hired more reviewers, there is still room for human error. 

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If someone introduces an app that includes features that may compete with any of Apple’s many services, this process will take even longer. Shoemaker noted there was a “...fear that somebody would come along, a Facebook, a Google, whomever and wipe off and remove all of our items.” Users are also not allowed to set third-party apps as their default app. The review process certainly does not encourage innovation or competition.

What is the solution to this issue? Shoemaker argued that Apple needs to give “ competitors the ability to communicate what the user needs to do, and allow a simple external link.” iPhone and iPad users can only install apps through the App Store. Shoemaker noted that this gives Apple an incredible amount of power over consumers. External links may be difficult to monitor, but they give third-party apps more freedom. He insists that this system would be better for Apple, third-party apps, and consumers. It will be interesting to see whether Apple takes his advice to heart.