I hope that the way Apple runs its App Store is finally coming to a head; certainly the tone of the discussion around Apple’s behavior has changed this summer, though who knows what will actually end up happening.

I also think it’s at least a somewhat subtle problem; so I’m writing down some notes on the different aspects I see of the situation, to try to better ground how I should think about it, before talking about possible improvements.


Here’s a list of factors that go into how I think about the situation.

Computer security is important and hard


Sandboxing is an useful tool for improving security

I feel like apps on my phone are less likely to be malicious than apps on a computer, and sandboxing has a lot to do with that.

By ‘sandboxing’ I don’t just mean that different apps can’t see each other’s stuff, but that they also don’t have access by default to system services (contacts, photo libraries, sending notifications, etc.).

A lot of important security issues are social and/or go beyond the device

E.g. being able to trust your payment system has real value: being able to trust that you’re not going to get malicious charges, that you’ll be able to cancel recurring subscriptions when you want, etc.

Apple likes money

I don’t blame them, I like money too! (Also, full disclosure, I actually do have some amount of Apple stock, so I have a personal interest in Apple getting money.)

Apple feels entitled to money

From the outside, it looks like Apple feels like they deserve a share of any transaction that involves one of their products somehow. Makes me glad the Apple Car never showed up, I feel like Apple would want to take 30% of my paycheck if I used one to drive to work…

Apple likes control

Or maybe: Apple is nervous about app developers. They want Apple-provided aspects of their platforms to be more important to users than non-Apple-provided aspects.

User experience is important but not primary to Apple

Witness their continued refusal to allow Amazon to sell books in the Kindle App, or to allow Netflix to provide any sort of in-app indication as to how you get the login credentials that the app requires.

Apple wants control over content, not just safety

As Apple’s guidelines formerly stated:

We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.

That wording isn’t there any more, but the general restrictions remain. And Apple has used this to reject apps taking a serious look at real-world situations, including apps that comment on Apple itself.

Letting Apple control its stack has been a good thing

Apple has repeatedly made huge advances in how we interact with computing; their control over the software and hardware (down to the chip level!) has been a huge part in that.

Apple holds half of a duopoly on one of the most important classes of device that has ever existed

Once you’re in a billion pockets, the calculus changes for how people might reasonably want to restrict your behavior.

Developers can’t count on the rules

Apple changes not just the rules but their interpretation of the rules without notice, to the extent that entire business models for developers can be invalidated without warning.

What To Do?

I have no idea what Apple will actually do, or how Congress and the courts will decide to change or interpret antitrust law. But I’m going to talk about what I, personally, would like to have happen.

I really like feeling that apps on my phone are safe to install and use. And in general I have a pretty strong default belief that it’s good for companies to be able to make useful stuff and earn money off of that, even quite a lot of money.

But, ultimately, what matters is what’s good for society, not what’s good for an individual company; smart phones are hugely important devices in billions of people’s lives, their operating system is controlled by a duopoly. So I’d be surprised if the outcome that’s best for society is to let the manufacturers of those phones and phone operating systems do whatever they want.


I’m a developer; I don’t work on iOS software, but I very much appreciate being able to use good third-party software, and I want my fellow developers to be able to have a good living making that software! Most of my time on devices is spent with third-party software rather than OS-provided software, and I want more of that rather than less.

Also, as somebody who cares about art in general and video games in particular, the way Apple censors and infantilizes games on its platform feels wrong to me at a fairly fundamental level.

Reading through my list of considerations with that in mind, I want to keep sandboxing, and in general I’m happy to have Apple make money in areas where they’re competing. But I want them to have to compete, instead of setting up rules that give them an unfair advantage. (Especially when those rules lead to a worse user experience or when the rules change capriciously!) And I don’t want content restrictions on what kinds of subjects games (or other apps) can cover.


So: break app review into two parts. Keep the part of app review that’s directly tied to on-device security (sandboxing in particular), keep the operating system constraints that back those up. But get rid of app review for content, and get rid of app review for payment. Yes, there are real user benefits to using Apple’s payment platform, and I personally would choose to use apps that go with Apple’s system, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal; so sometimes I pay for items in other ways on web pages, I can do it in apps too.

And, as part of this, allow users to download security-vetted apps from anywhere: other app stores, individual developers’ pages. Don’t put up a permissions dialogue with big scary language for this: just allow it, the goal here is to get a thriving app ecosystem.

And the other advantage of allowing multiple app stores is that, as far as I’m concerned, Apple can then put whatever additional restrictions it wants on apps through its own app store. And, honestly, I would like Apple to put more restrictions on what it allows in its app store! (Only once it’s allowed third-party app stores, to be clear.) Apple, please, have some self-respect as to what you allow in your app store: it’s full of scammy apps, of copycat apps, of apps that I’m sure many people at Apple aren’t proud of. So get rid of those, show the rest of us your vision for what a good third-party app is!

Apple will have to find a way to pay for the manual labor involved in security review, if there is any. And removing content restrictions while leaving in manual review can impose psychological costs on reviewers. I don’t want to go into details here but these both feel like tractable problems to me. And, of course, automate the security review as much as possible, and, as much as possible, enforce it via the OS rather than via review in the first place.


I’ve also heard people advocate for a “developer mode” that power users can put their devices in that loosens restrictions still further, even breaking down sandboxing. I’m mostly dubious of that as a solution to most of the issues I’ve talked about here, because I think something like that should be implemented in a way that scares users, which means that it won’t lead to thriving broad app markets. Though I’m more sympathetic to a developer mode for the iPad: I’d like for it to be a real development machine, and Apple hasn’t figured out how to do that within its current OS constraints.

But, seeing how home screen customization has taken off with the release of iOS 14, I’ve changed my mind: it’s important to let people do stuff with their devices that the OS developer didn’t intend. So yeah, let people use the devices that they bought as general purpose computer if that’s what they want!


But, for now, what I want is to allow widespread app distribution while keeping core security restrictions: that feels to me like a much healthier position to be in than our current state.

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