Nearly two years ago, Apple revealed its plans for a revamped App Store. It introduced ads within search results in the iOS portion of the store, rolled out more ways for developers to offer subscriptions, and sweetened the revenue deal for app makers who did offer subscriptions. The changes marked the most significant update to the App Store since it had opened for business, and it was part of an effort by Apple to show that the company was attuned to developers’ needs, even as the company raked in billions of dollars from their apps each year.
But as the iOS App Store approaches its tenth anniversary, some app developers are still arguing for better App Store policies, ones that they say will allow them to make a better living as independent app makers. Now a small group of developers, including one who recently made a feature-length film about the App Store and app culture, are forming a union to lobby for just that.
In an open letter to Apple that published this morning, a group identifying themselves as The Developers Union wrote that “it’s been difficult for developers to earn a living by writing software” built on Apple’s existing values. The group then asked Apple to allow free trials for apps, which would give customers “the chance to experience our work for themselves, before they have to commit to making a purchase.”
The grassroots effort is being lead by Jake Schumacher, the director of App: The Human Story; software developer Roger Ogden and product designer Loren Morris, who both worked for a timesheet app that was acquired last year; and Brent Simmons, a veteran developer who has made apps like NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, and Vesper, which he co-created with respected Apple blogger John Gruber. (“Brent’s been developing for Apple products since before any of us were born,” Schumacher quipped.)
The union, so far, is loosely-formed. There’s no official strategy in place for collective bargaining and no membership requirements (like dues). The union has goals of reaching a thousand members this week and hitting a mass of 20,000 signees by early June, when Apple will host its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California. But at launch, the four representatives will be the only names attached to the letter. Non-developers are welcome to join as well, they said.
“It’s a non-union union in a way,” Morris, the product designer, said when reached by phone. “I’m not super interested in creating a traditional union; I’m more interested in bringing the voice of indies back into the spotlight and this is a step in that direction.”
“We might eventually incorporate voting on certain things, but right now it’s really about the unification of developers,” Ogden added.
Free app trials have been a sticking point over the past several years for some iOS app developers, who believe that mobile apps–especially premium ones that cost more than a few bucks and aren’t games–should mimic the experience that people have had for years with desktop apps. It’s a particularly thorny issue for app makers who don’t make subscription apps, but who still want to give potential customers a free trial of their apps.
Apple has given developers some ability to offer free app trials, for time periods ranging from three days up to a whole year. But a free trial can only accompany a subscription app. This means that when opting to get the free trial, the customer has to authorize Apple to automatically charge them when a trial ends, developers say. The ideal situation, they say, would allow them to offer free trials for all apps, at lengths they determine, and without barriers that might make people shy away from trying their apps.
Apple has not responded to a request for comment on this story.
Another topic The Developers Union says it will attempt to tackle is revenue sharing. Apple’s longstanding policy gives App Store developers 70 percent of the money made from most apps, while Apple takes 30 percent. Back in 2016, Apple changed this split to 85/15 percent for developers who are able to maintain long-term subscription customers. Google soon followed suit, offering the same revenue split for subscription apps sold through the Google Play Store. But Microsoft is taking it a step further: later this year it will give 85 percent of any non-gaming app revenue to Windows developers if the app was purchased through the Microsoft Store; while 95 percent of the money will go to developers if the customer discovers the app through an external web page or app.
While the open letter says that the union plans to “advocate for a more reasonable revenue cut,” the members have not yet shared specifics beyond that.
Slice of the Pie
Making a living off of making apps is something that’s felt increasingly out of reach for independent developers. Some have described a kind of divergence that’s happening: Apple’s services business is booming, while some developers’ own businesses are floundering.
Apple, in recent years, has started sharing how much it pays out to developers. In January, it said that iOS developers were paid a total of $26.5 billion in 2017, a 30 percent jump from the year before. Since the inception of the App Store, developers have earned more than $86 billion dollars.
But that revenue is credited largely to in-app purchases and currencies–essentially, games. Ben Thompson, who writes the Stratechery blog and who has extensively analyzed the business of app stores, has identified these as “games with repetitive mechanics that can monetize existing users through in-app purchases,” and wrote back in 2013 that other apps, like premium productivity apps, are “a terrible match for app store economics.” Schumacher, Ogden, and Morris call the biggest money-making apps “the guys with the angry faces”–referring to the app icons for games that feature, well, men with angry faces.
Not all developers are thrilled by the union. Schumacher told me that one notable developer he reached out to said that, while he hopes the grassroots effort makes progress, he wasn’t inclined to join. “He said, ‘I make all my income from Apple. I don’t know if I should be throwing rocks,'” Schumacher told me.
And despite the issues they have with the App Store, even the union organizers themselves–with the exception of Simmons, who wasn’t available for an interview–acknowledged that developing for the App Store carries a kind of cache that other software stores don’t.
“Apple is getting a lot right, especially around security,” Schumacher said. This new group is just looking for a few more breadcrumbs, he said. And not the kind you buy in mobile games.