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The App Store Improvements process makes no sense

May 1 2022 by Jeff Johnson
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A week ago it was reported that a number of developers were receiving an email from Apple:

App Store Improvement Notice

This app has not been updated in a significant amount of time and is scheduled to be removed from sale in 30 days. No action is required for the app to remain available to users who have already downloaded the app.

You can keep this app available for new users to discover and download from the App Store by submitting an update for review within 30 days.

If no update is submitted within 30 days, the app will be removed from sale

This understandably caused much controversy and uproar the past week. Michael Tsai covered it extensively as usual. Finally on Friday evening, Apple dropped a public announcement titled "Clarifying criteria & new timing extension for App Store Improvements process", as well as a developer support article on App Store Improvements. They're too long to quote fully here, but they discuss the importance of privacy and security, as well as compatibility with newer hardware and software, all of which does make sense. What I want to discuss in this blog post is the crucial part that makes no sense, namely, the criteria Apple is using to force apps to update:

As part of the App Store Improvements process, developers of apps that have not been updated within the last three years and fail to meet a minimal download threshold — meaning the app has not been downloaded at all or extremely few times during a rolling 12 month period — receive an email notifying them that their app has been identified for possible removal from the App Store.

If Apple had said all apps that have not been updated within the last three years must update, that would have made sense. There would be major complaints, of course, but at least it would have made sense. Alternatively and separately, if Apple has said all apps that fail to meet a minimal download threshold would be removed, that would again cause complaints but would nonetheless make some sense. The combination of these two criteria, though, is just… bizarre.

One enormous problem with Apple's publicly stated criteria is that they directly contradict what Apple has said previously in response to accusations of antitrust:

At its core, the App Store is a safe, secure platform where users can have faith in the apps they discover and the transactions they make. And developers, from first-time engineers to larger companies, can rest assured that everyone is playing by the same set of rules.

If older apps with fewer downloads are forced to update or be removed, while older apps with more downloads are exempt from updating or the threat of removal, then clearly everyone is not playing by the same rules!

Another problem is that Apple didn't specify the minimal download threshold. We know that "has not been downloaded at all" means zero, but what does "extremely few times" mean exactly? It's not clear that the apps already threatened with removal have failed to meet the minimal download threshold, according to the common understanding of the word "few". Disillusioned indie developers might suspect that in Apple's eyes, all of us have extremely few downloads. After all, we're just tiny fish in the App Store ocean. My own App Store apps are all downloaded extremely few times a year in comparison to the biggest apps such as TikTok. Indie developers have often felt that Apple makes life more difficult for us particularly, while giving special treatment to bigger developers. Proof of this differential treatment, and a number of secret deals, came to light during the Epic trial. So what if Apple's stated criteria, vague about numbers, is inherently indie-hostile?

Besides the minimal download threshold number, we'd like to know how many apps are affected by Apple's criteria — apps that haven't but updated in 3 years and haven't been downloaded enough — as well as how many apps are not affected by Apple's criteria, by which I mean specifically apps that haven't been updated in 3 years but have met the minimal download threshold. Are there any developers in the latter group? If not, then Apple's announcement feels very much like a cynical ploy to downplay the controversy and how it affects indie devs. On the other hand, if the number of older apps with significant downloads is high, that raises important questions about user privacy, and why those apps are exempt from updating.

Apple introduced App privacy labels to the App Store in late 2020. When a developer submits a new app or an app update to the App Store, they're required to fill out a form specify what data the app collects from users. However, if an app hasn't been updated since App privacy labels were introduced, the developer is not required to fill out the form. When you look at an older app in the App Store, under the App Privacy section you'll see this:

No Details Provided

The developer will be required to provide privacy details when they submit their next app update.

A lot of public support for Apple's policy of forced updates is due to the app privacy label requirement. Yet the truly insane part of Apple's newly stated policy is that the most-used older apps are exempt! The new policy is basically the exact opposite of what users would want. If an app has been downloaded zero times in the past 12 months, then who cares what its privacy policy is? You can't violate user privacy if you don't have any users. But for some bizarre reason, if an app has enough users to exceed the download threshold, then Apple's App Store "Improvement" process doesn't help these users at all. No privacy details for them. Like I said, this makes no sense.

Let's talk about the apps with zero or extremely few yearly downloads, as "few" is normally understood. It's understandable that Apple might want to clear these apps out of the store. Although they take up no physical "shelf space" and barely use any resources, they still might congest the App Store search results. The mystery, though is why Apple wants developers to update these apps rather than simply removing them. How does updating an app with zero downloads help anything or anyone? Theoretically, according to Apple's rules, a developer could keep an app in the App Store forever with zero downloads as long as the developer updates the app at least once every three years. How does this make any sense? Is updating the app supposed to somehow make it more attractive to users, despite the fact that the app failed to achieve any traction when it was "younger"?

Moreover, Apple doesn't require developers to make these apps "better", the requirement is just to update the app with the latest SDK. So the app update might consist of the same old source code recompiled with a newer version of the Xcode developer tools, and no other changes. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; in this case, it's updating the app every three years expecting more downloads.

I suppose that Apple could hope that these low download developers don't submit app updates and simply let Apple remove their apps. But that part isn't under Apple's control, it's under the control of the developers. It's a strange thing for Apple to leave to chance if Apple is concerned with the quality of the App Store and the App Store search results.

Finally I should mention that the scam artists who plague the crap store have no trouble submitting regular pointless updates with uninformative release notes such as "Bug fix" in order to avoid Apple's threat of removal. Somehow these scam app updates keep getting approved, and the scammers themselves don't get removed even when some of their apps are caught, so they live to see another day, and Apple allows them try and try again to scam users. Maybe Apple should focus its "App Store Improvements" efforts in this critical area?

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