Eight things Apple could do to prove it actually cares about App Store users


When you spend money in Apple’s App Store, the company generally takes a 30 percent cut — one that adds up to an estimated $19 billion per year. Apple’s currently in the fight of its life to prove to judges, government regulators, and its own developers that it deserves those dollars, but not everyone’s buying it anymore.

Over the past seven days alone, South Korea declared its disbelief on the global stage, passing a landmark bill that could keep Apple and Google from directly collecting their 30 percent cut, and may inspire other governments to do the same. Developers also expressed their rage at an Apple press release, where the company spun its agreement to settle a lawsuit for $100 million as a $100 million fund for developers — while quietly promising 30 million of those dollars to the lawyers and enacting no truly significant changes. The CEO of Hopscotch shared her story of how Apple’s App Store review team repeatedly gaslit her, insisting there was an issue with the well-liked kids coding app that didn’t actually exist.

On Wednesday, Apple made a slightly more significant concession for (big) developers, and as Nick Heer writes, the company seems to have momentarily dropped its smug tone. But we don’t need to get into complex developer negotiations to point out the head-bangingly obvious ways Apple is falling down on the job.

While the company claims the App Store is “curated by experts,” that it is “a safe and trusted place to discover and download apps,” and that it holds apps to “the highest standards for privacy, security, and content,” the company’s own emails paint a different picture. They show that Apple knew for years about the exact kind of egregious scams that bilk iPhone users out of millions of dollars, long before our report, and yet they keep failing to stop them from invading the App Store.

It bears repeating: Apple is the most valuable and profitable company in the world. The company currently makes $10,000 every second on average, $3,600 of which is profit, a large portion of which comes from the App Store itself. (The App Store alone has been a bigger business than the Mac or iPad since 2016, see #10 here.)

If Apple wanted to change this system, it could. But I expect Apple will only be dragged kicking and screaming into a world with a more functional App Store, because it seems incapable of taking the blindingly obvious steps that might better protect its users — again, despite being the most valuable and profitable company in the world.

Here are eight to start.

1. Hire an App Review team big enough to actually do the job

Apple has 500 app reviewers. Just 500 against the entire world; 500 human beings expected to process 100,000 apps per week with some help from automated tools.

Even if you were to give Apple the benefit of the doubt and assume that every one of them is a skilled, savvy surveyor sussing out scams in a snap, the math barely makes sense. Even though App Store reviewers typically work 10-hour days (#68), the sheer volume of apps means each reviewer would only get 15 minutes to evaluate each app — and only then if they worked without taking any breaks. (Documents also suggest they may work quite a bit of overtime.)

Emails from the Epic v. Apple trial suggest App Review isn’t necessarily that savvy either, with Apple head of fraud Eric Friedman calling the department “a wetware rate limiting service and nothing more” (#60), and suggesting its goal is simply to get apps through the pipe. Other documents from the trial seem to back up that idea, repeatedly showing how the App Review team continually pushed for a faster “SLA” (service level agreement, a guarantee that it would review apps in a certain period of time) and sometimes made mistakes when they were working too quickly (#65), letting bad apps into the store.

How big should Apple’s App Review team actually be? Hard to say, but Facebook says it has upwards of 15,000 content moderators, Google tells us it has over 20,000 reviewers across its many services, and even Twitter has 2,200 checkers, the company tells The Verge.

These other platforms admittedly have far more messages than Apple to review — but then again, none of them claim to offer “the highest standards for privacy, security and content” while testing entire programs that run on a pocket computer. Apple could likely do a better job with more reviewers.

And again, Apple is the most valuable and profitable company in the world, unlike, say, Twitter. It’s pretty easy to argue that the number of moderators should be higher.

2. Police its most profitable apps for fraud

This isn’t rocket science. Anyone can do it. I did it. You can too. Just look for the apps on the App Store that are making the most money, find ones with suspicious user reviews, and inspect them for stupidly high subscription prices — say, $9.99 every single week for a wallpaper app that just repackages wallpapers you can download for free online. Congrats, you’ve found a scam!

The head of Apple’s App Review program wrote in January 2018 that “We need to think about how to stop this from happening,” referencing an entire 32-page presentation about how to trick users into paying for recurring subscriptions using apps that harvest wallpaper, horoscopes, and ringtones off the internet for free. (#64) Yet we saw those same exact scams still running three years later. When I asked Apple whether it ever goes back to check its top grossing apps for fraud, the company wouldn’t give me a straight answer.

3. Automatic scam refunds

A dark thought crossed my mind while reporting on App Store scams: maybe Apple doesn’t stop them because it’s more profitable to look the other way. There’s no evidence of that, but you know what Apple could do to eliminate that ugly idea entirely? Universal automatic scam refunds.

When Apple retroactively removes scammy apps from the App Store — as it sometimes does when journalists and developers call them out — it should automatically give people back their money, and warn them to stop using those apps.

That clearly isn’t what Apple does today. The company told me it has to review fraud on a case-by-case basis (read: not automatically) even when I specifically pointed out that Apple VP Kyle Andreer told Congress under oath that it makes scammed customers whole again. Customers have the option to ask for refunds, but how would they even know to do that, or even stop getting scammed, if Apple doesn’t tell them about the fraud?

4. Stop auto-renewing subscriptions by default

People hate pop-up messages. You know what kind of pop-up messages I wouldn’t hate? Ones that ask me if I’d genuinely like to keep subscribing to an app or service before I get charged for another month. Every single time, I’d know the App Store was looking out for me, instead of looking out for the company that’s secretly hoping I’m the kind of customer who never bothers to check my credit card bill.

I don’t expect Apple to actually do this, because I expect it would be losing out on an immense amount of profit, and might drive some of the most lucrative developers away from the platform — the kind that were leaving because they thought Apple already made it too easy to quit their service. But it would immediately fix the problems of so many people who, when they realized they’d been scammed, went to the reviews section of the App Store to complain that they didn’t know how to cancel their subscription.

I think scam hunter Kosta Eleftheriou has it exactly right: “If Apple truly cared, they’d take the same stance with people’s money as they do with privacy,” the same stance that Apple CEO Steve Jobs himself articulated so clearly in 2010. “Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them,” Jobs said about privacy.

5. Stop selling ads atop App Store search results

While it’s hard for me to be entirely sympathetic with Epic Games’…


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