free the app store

I think this was the week I finally stopped defending Apple.

I grew up with a Mac in the house, in the darkest days of Apple's history, though at the time, it was hard to describe myself as a fan. For one thing, I was seven. But it was the pre-Jobs, pre-iMac nadir of Apple's corporate existence, when the only thing that made the Macintosh Performa in my parents' study stand out was the fact that it couldn't play the games that my friends could on their computers.

Even the iMac wasn't enough to win me round as a teen. Games were again a large part of the reason: shortly after the iMac was released, I managed to finagle a PC for my bedroom, and while schoolwork did occur, so too did Unreal Tournament, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 and Neverwinter Nights.

The big change was the day I got my first iPod, for my fourteenth birthday. By the time I was eighteen, leaving home for university, I was bringing with me a Mac and an iPhone; my 21st birthday present was an iPad. I was fully in. 

So I may not have the full folk memory of Apple as an underdog, but I still saw most of the company's rise first hand. I remember defending Apple, convincing people to make the switch, arguing that the iPhone was more than a gimmick, that the fact that the iPod was small enough to fit in a pocket was more than pointless aesthetics, that the absence of a CD drive on a MacBook Pro was forward looking.

Fast forward to today, and Apple is the largest company in the world. It doesn't need defenders, but for a long time, I've still felt some of that instinctive push.

One of the things I like about Apple, as a customer and a reporter, is that it's generally possible to understand what it's doing. Compared to Google, for instance, which is a multi-headed hydra that makes decisions effectively at random based on which department is currently ascendant, or Facebook, where a paranoid prince changes policy on a sixpence, Apple is… normal. 

A small cluster of senior decision-makers with a unified vision and outlook create plans and execute them. 

Even if I don't agree with those plans, I can generally understand them. And so I often find myself explaining the company's bad decisions, relieved that, at least, I can. They tended to stem from simple, clear goals: limit the ability of users to accidentally fuck up their devices, for instance, or boost battery life.

Often, those simple clear goals had side effects. For a long time, the anatomy of an Apple furore was that the company simply did not consider something others valued as reason not to improve its products. Removable batteries were an inefficiency, so they were… removed. The ability to easily switch to a different photo management software has no bearing on how good iPhoto is to use, and so it simply is not something Apple targeted.

Sometimes, those things that were steamrollered really did have value. Other times, Apple was right to ignore them. But the company was always aiming for a goal which was clearly visible, and even if you could debate the trade-offs it made, it was hard to argue malice.

Now, I'm not so sure.

The fight between Apple and Epic has exposed something nasty, I think. For the uninitiated, Epic, the developers of Fortnite, unilaterally sought to bypass Apple's 30% cut of money spent on iPhones; Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store, and is now threatening to destroy Epic's business on the Mac entirely if it doesn't back down.

Epic launched into this affray two-footed, and so I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for them. They're big folk, they can take it.

And Apple's response, while clearly written in the contracts Epic signed to get on the App Store, is equally clearly disproportionate, and an attempt to wield its corporate power to bully a smaller company out of fighting it head on.

But the problem for me is that I simply can't come up with a nice explanation for how they got here.

The rules Epic broke require companies to use App Store payments – and thus pay a 30% cut – if they're selling digital goods. For a long time, I had convinced myself that there was one of those good Apple-y reasons for it: after all, if you open the App Store up to other payment methods, you open it up to fraud, financial scams, and insecure systems.

Except the App Store is already open to other payment methods. If Apple cares about user security, why can I send my card number to Uber in a second? If Apple cares about avoiding fraud, why are there endless scammy apps on the store – which pay 30% of their scammy take to Apple itself. If Apple cares about not confusing users, why does it force an app like Comixology to offer zero guidance as to how to… buy… comics?

The answer, of course, is that the simple goal that Apple's decision makers have in this instance is "make more money from the App Store".

It shouldn't be revelatory that a private company wants to make money. But it feels… deflating, to look at a company where "make money" has always felt like step two of the plan – where step one was "make something people will hand us money for" – and realise that it's now the entire plan.

Time and again over the last six months, Apple has revealed that it truly believes that it is entitled to a cut of all commerce that occurs on an iPhone. It has said as much to developers, as it rejects their apps while noting that they made a lot of money without paying anything to Apple.

I don't think that Apple is entitled to that. I don't think that Apple is entitled to anything other than the money – the vast amount of money – that I have paid it to buy an iPhone in the first place. If it wants to make more money after that, it can try and sell me more products. But if I want to ignore it, I'm going to.

There's a more fundamental change, as well, that I've come to. I no longer think the App Store should be the only way to install software on the iPhone. I wish the company could be a trusted gatekeeper, vetting the millions of apps that are available for download, keeping users safe and facilitating a vibrant ecosystem. But it isn't, and it won't, and it can't be. 

And so the only way to keep Apple honest is to fundamentally introduce competition within its own market. If Apple runs the App Store the way it should, users will be kept safe by never having to leave it to download software. But if it tries to use that safety to extract ever greater rents, each user should be free to decide when they want to dip their toe in the wider ocean, and leave the kiddy pool behind.