As we await the launch of Apple’s latest WWDC keyboard and all the new software products it will reveal, let’s talk about metaphors. Especially the metaphors we use to talk about Apple’s ecosystem. For many years it has been a “fenced garden” – here is Joanna Stern on The Wall Street Journal make the case in a literally fenced garden – but I’m not sure it’s the best anymore.
It’s worth kicking around a few different ways to describe Apple’s ecosystem at the moment because of the nature of the main characters ̵
There is nothing harmful about Apple telling a story about itself and its products, but right now there are more counter-narratives than there have ever been. Apple faces antitrust control from governments around the world, from its epic lawsuits and from the vast majority of developers they address today.
Having some metaphors in your back pocket is a good starting point for creating your own story instead of accepting any of the above.
Metaphors work because they allow you to adopt the things you know and feel about one thing and apply them to another thing. They help you organize your thoughts and can inspire you to look at a device in a different way. Steve Jobs was a master of this mindset. Is a computer a bicycle for the mind, or is it a truck?
The answer is, of course, there are both and neither. Metaphors are never one on one – otherwise they would be definitions. (Page note: I invite you to consider whether “computer” is best thought of as one metaphor instead of one definition when you think about whether iPad is a computer.)
Then the “fenced garden.” It is first and foremost one garden – it is nurtured, beautiful and soothing. It’s very nice to be in Apple’s world. Most things work together in harmony, and it’s often hard to forget that there’s a big, big world of apps and services outside of these walls. You can very easily use an iPhone to do almost anything you want without downloading a third-party app. You are protected in some ways by these walls and – especially on the iPhone – your privacy is in some ways secured.
That’s a good metaphor! But the fate of all metaphors is to become a cliché. Through use and familiarity, they lose their emotional and explanatory power. When I call Apple a fenced garden, it’s likely you know exactly what I mean and have already had the rest of the discussion in your head. The metaphor has lost the ability to help us understand more than we think we know. So let’s keep the “fenced garden” around, but think of the other metaphors we can use.
One is the “Apple Tax”, cut at 30 percent (or 15 percent if you can smash it) of every digital transaction Apple makes on the iPhone. It’s in the center of Epic v. Apple lawsuits, another Supreme Court case facing Apple, Spotify’s complaint in the EU that has led to government action and more.
Many people hate taxes, but they are meant to pay for valuable shared infrastructure. But again, maybe Apple already covered the cost of selling iPhones, so Apple Tax is very high – or if you prefer another metaphor with legal overtones, it might be rent seekers. Something like calling Apple’s cut a “treasure” strikes me a little over the top; The 2021 equivalent of spelling Microsoft with $ instead of s.
During Epic v. Apple trial version, a new metaphor came into my head and I can not shake it. When I looked at the emails that Apple executives sent each other and read their testimony during the trial, I kept thinking that I had seen this kind of behavior and even some of the justifications before. And so here it is:
Apple is an operator.
I mean “operator” as in mobile network operator, as in Apple is Verizon or T-Mobile or (horror) AT&T. Here’s how the metaphor works: The most important thing for all carriers is to feed Angry God of ARPU (average revenue per user). This number must rise to please shareholders and payroll managers, and carriers have engaged in any number of shenanigans to make it happen.
Carriers have been forced to pre-install crapware on phones since the beginning of apps on phones, long before the iPhone. Examples are too many to count, but I’m talking about more than just pre-installed Candy Crush-style games. Users have always been encouraged by the design of the phone and the constraints that networks have set to do things that make operators more money.
Verizon created data buttons designed to be accidentally clicked so that you are charged. Sprint charged a daily fee to users who were wrong to access the web directly instead of using the WAP data portal. AT&T blocked known FaceTime from working on the network, unless users paid for more expensive data plans.
Each operator has required completely unnecessary navigation apps to be attached to the launcher. Verizon used to go even further, literally disabling GPS on smartphones on the network. That way, it can force users to use (and pay for) their own navigation app.
All of this is sinister behavior that goes far beyond Apple’s practices on the iPhone, but the exercise of control to make more money is the same.
Apple is using its absolute control of app distribution on iOS to pressure developers to add in-app purchases, creating more opportunities for the company to make a cut. And Apple freely posts alerts and ads for its own services on the iPhone while limiting what other apps are allowed to do. A message to sign up for an Apple card here. Apple Music offers there. Arcade, Fitness Plus, Apple News Plus, an offer to get a guarantee in the main settings app. It is much.
When you have to reset all iPhone settings, it becomes painfully clear that Apple apps have a different set of rules than everyone else when it comes to allowing alerts by default. pic.twitter.com/C75anymrJw
– Dieter Bohn (@backlon) January 23, 2021
I admit that it is not fair to say that Apple is as bad today as the operators were back in the day when it comes to pushing dollars out of users or developers. Nor is it fair to argue that Apple’s attempt at content with TV Plus is equivalent to AT & T’s staggering efforts to merge a TV network with a mobile network.
It’s not fair, but the melody sounds familiar because the parallels hit a chord. And the bitter harmony I hear is the suffocation of innovation to maximize profits.
Apple is forcing all apps that sell digital goods of any kind to use the payment system and pay the cut. The arguments for why Apple believes it is necessary are well known. But the effect of these (and other) rules is that new and innovative business models are simply not possible. Instead of paid upgrades, developers have to resort to subscriptions. The emerging market for paying creators directly on services like Twitter and Substack must account for Apple’s platform fees. Instead of gameplay apps, it’s … well, nothing.
Of all the rules in the Apple App Store, the most anti-governing rule for me is that prevents app manufacturers from even suggesting that there may be alternative ways to pay for things without using Apple’s in-app purchasing system.
Take Ring, the division of Amazon that sells smart home gadgets. Due to these anti-control rules, it does not allow you to sign up for a subscription in the iPhone app. Instead, you will be directed to an informative website. But Apple’s rules even extend to that website, hosted on Ring’s own website. It contains no information about how much a subscription costs, no links to sign up, or other actually useful information. To get around Apple’s rules, Call instead has a video and a chat bot that will eventually tell you how to subscribe.
Similarly, chatbots require some additional interactions before reaching a subscription page.
The ways Ring tells you how to subscribe to iOS, in other words, seems to be designed to get around automatic review and maybe even light human review. Incredible!
5 / pic.twitter.com/67CDpl4nsB
– Dieter Bohn (@backlon) June 5, 2021
The most revealing moment of Epic v. Apple The lawsuit may have come to an end when Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers grilled Apple CEO Tim Cook on his policy of refusing to allow apps to even acknowledge the existence of ways to pay for digital goods outside Apple’s ecosystem. Here is Adi Robertson on that exchange (my emphasis below):
“If they wanted to get a cheaper Battle Pass or V-Bucks, and they did not know they had that option, what’s the problem with Apple giving them that option?” she asked.
“If we allowed people to disconnect like that, we would essentially give up our total return on ours [intellectual property],Cook said straight out. Apple has repeatedly talked about the work they put into maintaining the App Store and the iOS platform, and companies like Epic have been accused of having a free ride.
Rogers did the opposite. “The gaming industry seems to be generating a disproportionate amount of money compared to the IP you give them and everyone else. In a way, it is almost as if they are subsidizing everyone else, “she said.
Cook objected that Apple’s many free apps attracted a larger audience than developers could get alone. “We need a return on our IP. We have 150,000 APIs that we create and maintain, and many developer tools, and customer service to handle all these transactions,” he said.
Cook later pointed out that by offering so many free apps in the App Store, it also brought in customers for the paid apps. “I see that we create the whole amount of trade in the store, and we do that by focusing on getting the largest audience there,” he testified.
Before the iPhone, carriers could (and did) point to any number of smartphones and rightly boast of the incredible things these phones enabled. Blackberry, Treo, Moto Q and more all did things that no one would have thought were possible just a few years before. But the carriers wanted to take the credit for them while at the same time making demands that squatted the phone’s capabilities. They used their monopoly on wireless customers to dictate phone design, software features and business models.
The result was a series of great phones that were still smaller than they could have been. I do not know if any of them could have become iPhones, but I know that it was not even possible because they did not have the influence to tell the carriers to leave them.
The big irony is that the only thing that broke the dam on innovation in mobile was the iPhone itself. Steve Jobs was able to tell Cingular (now AT&T) to just accept what he made, invisible – and that was an important reason why the iPhone was great.
And by continuing to prevent them from interfering, the iPhone launched a wave of mobile innovation that is still crashing today.
Given the opportunity again, I have no doubt that carriers would find ways to exercise control, feed the Angry God of ARPU, and thereby stifle innovation. But Apple effectively took that power from them – but kept it to itself. The question now is what Apple intends to do with that power.