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Despite onerous and inconsistent App Store rules, developers still go to Apple first over Google Play

Google Play Store
Google Play Store (Image credit: Android Central)

Apple is facing another heated public debate over its App Store policies, after it was seen holding Basecamp's new Hey email app in limbo as it effectively attempts to extort the company into adding an in-app subscription that would flow through Apple's payment system and send the company a percentage of the transaction. Unlike many of these situations, Basecamp isn't just folding under — the company is reiterating that Apple's brazen attempt to strong-arm it into submitting to Apple's payment structure at a 30% fee is outrageous.

It's easy for your first reaction to be that the worst part about this is whole thing is holding an app from being distributed in the App Store because it doesn't manage its subscription service through Apple and pay the company a cut of it. But the real issue here is different, and far more impactful: Apple doesn't apply its rules evenly or consistently.

Apple has onerous stated policies for the App Store — but it's the inconstent enforcement that's worse.

Apple has a stated policy of not allowing apps to run subscriptions through their own payment channels that subvert Apple's payment infrastructure. The problem is that enforcement is messy. There are, of course, exceptions to these rules — explicit and otherwise. Apple lets some companies skip this payment requirement, and others simply fly under the radar because they're small and never get caught in the massive catalogue of apps.

Apple accepted the Hey app into the store, from a very well-known developer, only to then hold it from receiving future updates and threaten to remove it from the App Store if the developer doesn't comply with Apple's policies. That's really bad, but these types of situations happen regularly, and developers just deal with it.

Accepting an app, then extorting it and threatening to pull it from the store is downright cruel.

Basecamp could naturally do what Spotify does: charge more through the iOS app to cover Apple's fee. Charge $99 per year for the subscription outside of the App Store, and charge $130 when someone signs up through the app. It satisfies Apple's need to have a subscription in the app, and the company's revenue per user doesn't go down. Of course this is a terrible user experience for the customer, who will undoubtedly take their anger out on the developer, not Apple, when they find out they're paying 30% more. And it can easily be argued that conversions from fee to paid users will be lower because of the sticker shock.

In a completely unsurprising development, it was also announced this week that the European Commission is investigating Apple over anticompetitive behavior in the App Store. But that sentence could've been written anytime in the past 10 years — the EC loves these sorts of investigations, and there's been more than enough fuel available in Apple's policies to support them any time a governing body wished to start up a new probe.

Source: Joe Maring / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring / Android Central)

The whole situation is messy, frustrating and really doesn't paint Apple in the greatest light. Developers are regularly put off by Apple's onerous and strong-handed App Store policies, to say nothing of the outright cost of doing business even when Apple is following its rules perfectly. So, why don't they just leave? Even though developers butt heads with Apple constantly over the company's policies and policing in the App Store, the response is always to stay and fight Apple — or cave to its demands — rather than shift investment to Google Play. And the equation is pretty simple: it's a better use of resources to massage your business model to fit Apple's demands and eventually get into the App Store where users consistently buy apps and spend more money on subscriptions than Android.

No matter how much developers hate Apple's policies, they have to stay there for the money.

It isn't Stockholm syndrome, it's economics. Subscription revenue through the App Store is reported to be over three times what it is on Google Play. And the top developers are making at least 60% more on the App Store overall than on Google Play. If you want to make money, you invest in iOS — even with Apple's frustrating policies.

Considering that this continues to be the situation even after plenty of high-profile instances of Apple hurting developers, it's clear that Google isn't exactly on the precipice of grabbing a ton of developers to make Android apps first and foremost. There's still a large disparity in the quality of apps between iOS and Android, and in the case of smaller developers there's a very real possibility that an app will be iOS first, if not iOS-only. Sure all of the big names will be on Android, because you just can't walk away from a market that large. But typically it's the big free apps, games with in-app purchases, apps for shopping, and apps that from institutions like financial institutions with non-app business models.

Android is now big enough that it gets most apps, but there's still a clear gulf between the platforms.

The small, new, fun, independent apps still aren't coming to Android. Apps that need a yearly subscription to survive, and premium tools with lots of pricey in-app purchases, generally aren't coming here. And of course, Google isn't free from criticism on Play Store policies, either. Google may have a more relaxed set of requirements for being in Google Play, but it still takes a 30% cut of transactions as well — something Fortnite creator Epic Games will constantly complain about.

Credit to Basecamp's co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson, who not backing down, saying "There is never in a million years a way that I am paying Apple a third of our revenues." We'll see how that eventually plays out — Basecamp has also launched Hey on the Play Store. I wish that more developers had the ability to be able to tell Apple its policies are overbearing, and shift resources to Android; it just doesn't seem to be happening.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

20 Comments
  • Its also smart marketing. These apple only apps get more reporting than equivalent apps in both app stores. You've got the a) thirsty Android users and b) smug Apple users talking about these apps more than any others. Half of these are weather apps or email apps of which there is approximately 9 million options out there. But the idea of exclusivity makes the ones that are only available for certain users get more attention than the others. Paying $99/year for an email app is insanity when there are a zillion free ones that do the job well enough. Exclusivity makes that seem somewhat palitible to certain users.
  • I don't like that Apple users get the app first before Android and that Android users sometimes have to wait months to get the app if they make they app for Android. I like to have choices and so we shouldn't be forced to use an Apple device to use an app. We should be able to chose what device to use the app on. Since Apple limits iOS to just the iPhone, we don't have choices with iOS like we do with Android. Naturally, since iOS is only on the iPhone, developers chose to develop for it. With Android their are so many devices with different screen sizes and versions of Android installed.
  • And that's why developers choose to develop for iOS first, because it's easier for developers as they have fewer devices to code for along unlike with Android with all the fragmentation and headache for developers to code for so many devices with the vast majority of Android devices running outdated versions of Android so developers feel that it's worth bending over backwards to Apple's sometimes unfair App Store policies and this is just one of a number of reasons why I'm going back to iPhone. And this is why the App Store is far more secure than the Play Store will ever be and I fully support the way Apple runs the Play Store because Apple fills me with confidence that as a soon to be iOS user again after more than 2 years, I'll be protected from malicious apps and malware unlike on Android.
  • iphoners can keep those small, new, not fun when buggy, independent, fart, apps. When an app first comes to iOS, then Android, it will most likely already have some traction and not some fly by night app that god knows what theyll do to your data. At least most bugs have been fixed, and less half baked by developers that have gained some positive reputation.
  • It's for reasons like this that I, as a developer, am not interested in developing apps for iOS. I don't understand why some developers fall over themselves to be abused by Apple's draconian and/or arbitrary policies. If my entire company and source of income are subject to the whims of Apple app reviewers, that seems like a really uncomfortable place to be.
  • And good luck with surviving because iOS is a far more lucrative platform and a superior one for developers, Android always has been and always be be a money losing platform that's what smart developers develope for iOS first or only exclusively iOS.
  • Jon, maybe you can help us out here. When developing an Android app, do you really have to create a version for every different Android phone, like Beno says?
  • It's easier to develop for iOS on a technical level because you have a much narrower range of devices to contend with. That's why developers generally bend over backwards to adhere to Apple's App Store policies.
  • This old argument again. It was only "true" back when Apple released a single iPhone per year that was basically a carbon copy of the iPhone the previous year. However, starting with the iPhone 6, Apple was forced to respond to all the overseas sales that they were losing to Android. They have since gone from issuing one - maybe two - dual core 1 GB RAM devices a year to issuing several iPhones a year with 6 cores, and the iPhones coming out this year will have 8 cores and 6 GB RAM. They have been steadily increasing the screen sizes too. Which means that developing apps for the iPhone 12 devices that are going to have 6.5' screens, the iPhone SE with its 4.7' screen and iPhones released 3 years ago that only had 4 core processors and 2 GB of RAM is increasingly similar to developing for Android. Except that all the developers who claimed to have SO MANY PROBLEMS developing for all the variances in screen sizes and performance back then - does Apple even HAVE a standard screen size for iPads anymore? - are doing it with no problems, or at least no complaints now. And oh yeah the media articles that claimed that fragmentation was going to be the death of Android a few years back have gone silent now that Apple releases as many as 4 different iPhone models a year.
  • Apple releases 3 or 4 iPhones per year, with the OS being the same on every one, and each new model will have an SOC that's better than the one that was in the models of the previous year, with screen sizes that remain almost the same. On Android you have tons of devices releasing every week, with varying screen sizes, perfomance that ranges from budget devices to flagships and different OEM skins. If you can't tell the difference between those two realities, I don't know what to tell you...
  • The fact is developers are willing to put up with Apple's strict App Store rules because iOS is where the money is and the App Store is better than the Play Store but not as much as before but the app disparity is still evident especially when it comes to exclusives which still come to iOS first not just because iOS is a more lucrative platform but also that it's easier for developers as a whole due to developers not having to code for a billion different phones like on Android. Looking forward to the salty Android fanboys commenting on here and no I don't agree with what Apple's doing in this instance but it's fun looking at all the salty Android fanboys who wish that these apps were on the Play Store lol.
  • So you agree with greed, and iOS devs are desperate for money. Got it!
    😉
  • I'm not saying I agree with greed far from it, but there's nothing wrong with having iOS exclusives either as it can attract users who know it's only available for iOS. Apple can get away with their sometimes unfair polices on the App Store because they have the clout and on the Android side only Samsung would be able to get away with doing what Apple does with the App Store.
  • Good article, but I disagree on some points: "There's still a large disparity in the quality of apps between iOS and Android" Sorry, but I just don't agree. I use both Android and iOS everyday and apps are pretty much on par nowadays in terms of features and design. You may not like the Android design style (Material Theming), but that's more of personal preference. "in the case of smaller developers there's a very real possibility that an app will be iOS first, if not iOS-only."
    "The small, new, fun, independent apps still aren't coming to Android." The PlayStore alone has a million more apps than the App Store, most of them from small developers. Granted a lot of them aren't good, but it's not like the App Store doesn't have a quite few stinkers itself. And that's just on PlayStore, not counting third-party app stores, which brings to my last pont: "at least 60% more on the App Store overall than on Google Play" I won't argue with the numbers, but it's important to remember Android revenue doesn't just come from the Play Store, but also from third-party appstores, especially in China (the biggest mobile market), where Google Play doesn't even exist. An example would be mobile gaming where Android, as a whole, made just as much money as iOS in 2019, with the expectation being that it will surpass it starting this year: https://twitter.com/fjeronimo/status/1217787395371745280?s=21 All that being said, I do unsderstand why someone would develop for iOS first. The number of devices is MUCH smaller and there is only one version of iOS, Apple's, there are no OEM "skins" to worry about. And, if you're starting a service a service that's more US-focused, you can reach 50% of the people "immediately" with just the iOS app, but that's just not the case for rest of the world.
  • Subzero PT - I have to agree, especially about the so-called app disparity. I have multiple iPhones and try to keep the same or similar apps on both. I don't see the emperor's new clothes, er, I mean this app disparity. Most my apps are identical, save for Filmic Pro, and that's a conscious choice by the dev.
  • The UK is the same as the US in that regard where Apple is number 1 so leave the UK as well as the US out of "the rest of the world".
  • First off, the bulk of the difference between the App Store and Google Play is that one company operates in China and the other doesn't. Several independent analyses have shown that the total amount of Android revenue - Google Play, Amazon, Samsung and the Chinese app stores - exceeds the App Store. Yeah, I have never bought the excuses for not developing on Android. Not when - for example - several car companies gladly embraced CarPlay but didn't do the same for Android because of "image" and only reluctantly embraced Android Auto because customers demanded it and they were losing sales. One car company explicitly said "we don't want to put that Android screen in our cars." Not developing for Android was a badge of honor for a ton of developers. It wasn't just that iOS was where the cool kids hung out and getting an app on the App Store was a badge of honor that you could put on your resumes. No, developing for Android was actually "bad." There were tons of articles about how devs simply wouldn't do it even if it cost them money. All of the "problems" about piracy, fragmentation etc. was just stuff they threw out there to justify it. Of course, developing for Android is harder than developing for iOS. No one claims otherwise. But do these people remember how difficult it was to make money as an independent developer before Apple and Android came along in the first place? What it was like trying to make money as an independent Windows or macOS developer? Do the terms "freeware" and "shareware" mean anything to them? Devs would write code, upload it to the Internet and HOPE that someone would find it, download it, use it and send them money. And that it would get popular enough as freeware/shareware for them to raise the funds to make it into a full commercial release. That was how independent developers - folks who didn't have the money or clout to get their applications burned on a CD or DVD and physically sold in stores - made money back in the day before Apple - and Google - came along. OR they would create their own websites and host their code there. (Github didn't exist until 2008!) So when you compare how hard being an independent developer used to be in the few short years before mobile apps blew up - and oh yeah how a ton of early mobile apps were basically just freeware and shareware that was repurposed for mobile devices - to how hard it allegedly is now (you think people weren't pirating freeware and shareware back in the day, including people who were grabbing them and using them as Trojans!?!) ... yeah. Excuses. They aren't developing for Android because they don't want to. And it is a self-fulfilling/self-propagating thing. The best apps never get to Android. Result? App Store makes more money. Result? People who want the best apps buy iPhones. Result? App makers make apps for people who buy iPhones to get the best apps. After 10-11 years it is entrenched. But had these app makers showed the same enthusiasm for making Android apps that they have for, say, macOS apps (seriously, macOS has like 15% market share and is practically nonexistent in large parts of the globe) the development would have been a lot more even-handed. Granted, there were things that Google could have done to address the app gap. They could have gotten more serious about supporting cross-platform development tools (ironically it is Microsoft that did the most in this area, including buying Xamarin in their hopes of getting SOME of the iOS developers to convert their apps to UWP). They wasted a lot of times on initiatives that didn't catch on, like trying to promote cross-platform web apps. Why they didn't promote the C/C++ NDK more and do so in a way that allowed the tons of C++ and C# based apps - this includes iOS Objective C stuff - to simply be cross compiled needs to be explained. They should have come out with Google Play Pass like 10 years ago, and on their own instead of in response to Apple Arcade. Some of the things that they are only now doing with ChromeOS and Stadia addresses some major excuses for the "we won't develop for Android" crowd and should have been done years ago. But again, compare all of Google's shortcomings in this area to literally needing to spend almost $2000 on a MacBook Pro merely for the privilege of developing for iOS/iPadOS when you can develop Android apps on a $400 Chromebook or even $250 refurbished laptop running Ubuntu? Remember: the same folks who where scraping by with the "come to our self-hosted website and download our software and if you like it send us $10 on Paypal! ... and oh yeah if you steal it and sell your own version of it on a larger better promoted website we have no real recourse" and were living for the shot in the arm that would come from being listed on CNET.com's download site (remember their Super Bowl ad? That's how huge it was!) in 2010 - back when the iPhone was still an AT&T exclusive - were dismissing Android as too hard to make money on in 2013. They didn't develop for Android then - and still don't now - because a lack of interest and the herd mentality.
  • Bore off @CentusGuy with your lies as always. Nobody cares what you think, the fact is the App Store males more money than every Android app store combined but hey nice try at inflating the Android revenue which doesn't even come close to Apple. There's a reason why developers choose iOS over Android to develop for first, it's easier to develop for with fewer devices to code for which on the Android side is a headache for developers with Having so many devices to code their apps for due to the fragmentation of so many devices in which most of them run outdated versions of Android, Android has been and always will be a money losing platform for OEMs and developers and that's why they will always develop for iOS first or iOS only. I'm talking facts not dogma. Android fanboy.
  • $99/yr for an email client? LoL Apple's just getting in on the cheekiness of it all
  • If Android folks spent money....