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Apple heads into developer conference under more scrutiny than ever

Apple needs a distraction, and it needs one fast.

The company will hold its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC 2021) on Monday, during one of the most difficult periods in Apple’s history for developer relations. While Apple appeared to emerge from the Epic v. Apple trial with a strong legal position, its reputation suffered. Evidence revealed that the company does not “treat every developer the same” — it cut special deals with large companies like Amazon and Hulu and made arbitrary, cutthroat decisions to keep competition at bay and users at bay.

Developers have known or suspected these things for years, and online reactions were initially muted. After all, this is the third year in a row that the shadow of antitrust regulation has hung over WWDC, and the company has largely escaped unscathed.

But Apple watchers noticed something else in the company’s testimony during the trial that even devout developers couldn’t ignore: Apple was constructing its case on the premise that Apple, not developers, was solely responsible for the iPhone’s success.

Some of those developers are now extremely dissatisfied. So it’s a good thing Apple has a new MacBook Pro ready for them, one that could shift the conversation at WWDC away from difficult issues like whether the App Store is fair.

By May 11th, developers had noted the tone of Apple’s testimony was clear.
Tweets by Marco Arment

On May 21st, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated unequivocally, “I view that we are creating the entire amount of commerce on the store,” Cook told Judge Rogers, when she questioned whether Apple deserved all of the credit for keeping users around. Later, Cook insisted that Apple would be paid regardless of what the court decided: “We would have to come up with an alternate way of collecting our commission,” he told the judge if alternative app payment mechanisms became a reality.

Apple has a history of rent-seeking behaviour: remember when it forced Hey, WordPress, and others to add in-app purchases to their free apps, despite the fact that many of them were too afraid to speak out? “These apps do not offer in-app purchases — and, as a result, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years,” the company explained to Hey developer Basecamp, as if paying rent was the only value Basecamp had ever brought to the iPhone. We are now learning that the entitled perspective extends all the way to the top.

Nick Heer put it well, in my opinion:

If you thought before that Apple was an overly controlling corporate giant that squeezed money at every possible opportunity, its executives’ testimony reinforced that. Even if you are comfortable with Apple’s business case, Tim Cook’s cold remarks must have shaken some of that confidence.

And when Apple issued what his fellow podcast hosts called a “self-serving puff piece” this past Wednesday, prominent iOS developer Marco Arment apparently decided he’d had enough. “[T]o bully and gaslight developers into thinking we need to kiss Apple’s feet for allowing us to add billions of dollars of value to their platform is not only greedy, stingy, and morally reprehensible, but deeply insulting,” writes Arment in a fiery new blog post titled “Developer relations” that’s sweeping through Apple’s dev community just days before the show.

“It isn’t the App Store that has enabled all of the commerce on iOS,” Arment contends, challenging Cook:

It’s the entire world of computing and modern society, created by a symbiotic ecosystem in which Apple played one part alongside many others. The world was already moving in this direction, and had Apple not played its part, someone else would’ve. The App Store is merely one platform’s forced distribution gateway, “facilitating” the commerce no more and no less than a web browser, an ISP or cellular carrier, a server-hosting company, or a credit-card processor.

This is where Apple would argue that the App Store is far more than that — it is designed to be a safe, curated, trustworthy experience where you can download apps without fear, which requires investment and a lot of work. During the trial, we learned that the head of Apple’s own FEAR (Fraud Engineering Algorithms and Risk) team thought Apple’s App Review programme was a joke, “more like the pretty lady who greets you with a lei at the Hawaiian airport than the drug sniffing dog.”

“Doesn’t anyone look at these apps? Is there no one keeping an eye on the store? This is insane!!!!” 2012, Phil Schiller

Internal emails also revealed that Apple’s own executives couldn’t believe some of what App Review let into the public sphere, despite the fact that obvious scams continue to thrive today. Apple now claims that its teams prevent billions of dollars in fraud and use a variety of automated tools to detect malicious apps, but it also admits that it only has 500 people reviewing the 1.8 million apps available on the App Store. (500 is a small number of people to moderate a platform run by the world’s most profitable company, which made an estimated $64 billion from the App Store alone last year.)

One of Epic’s main arguments during the trial was that the App Store is ridiculously profitable, with margins so high (78 percent) that they appear to be the “Apple tax” that Apple has long been accused of instituting. While Apple initially stated that it would refute that figure during the trial, the company instead repeatedly stated that it had no idea how much profit the App Store actually makes. The best it could do was lay out a laundry list of things that don’t count against its App Store budget and are presumably paid for out of goodwill, such as the $50 million it spends on WWDC each year.

This brings us to Monday’s developer conference and how Apple might be able to salvage this disaster. Like Arment, I don’t believe Apple will suddenly announce that developers can use whatever payment processors they want, or even direct their customers to ways to pay outside of Apple’s ecosystem. There is also little chance that Apple will reduce its cut. For one thing, the company has been very clear about its position on each of these throughout the trial, and it will not relent until the lawsuit is resolved (and even then, not until after rounds of appeals.)

Furthermore, Apple may not see the need for anything so drastic. While a number of prominent Apple developers and bloggers have gone on the offensive, and coverage of the trial has made Apple less of a media darling — “The Apple Tax is Rotten,” declared Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times — there are plenty of developers who are simply happy to have a business at all. According to Creative Strategies principal analyst Ben Bajarin, who surveyed over 380 software developers ahead of WWDC, smaller developers are generally satisfied with Apple as a whole, and more than 90 percent of developers surveyed thus far say they intend to continue developing for Apple’s platforms.

“There are still pain points, and everyone wants Apple to do better,” he says, “but there is this demographic that recognises Apple provides them value, allows them to do what they want to do by being a small indie developer.” While many survey respondents expressed dissatisfaction with Apple’s app review process and a lack of clear communication, and the “vast majority” agreed that Apple could do more to combat scams, even the most vocal developers plan to stay. “You listen to these very vocal developers who are dissatisfied… if a viable alternative existed for them, they would switch, but Apple’s platform and ecosystem is just such a good ecosystem for them. They will not switch to Android or Windows because they will not make the same amount of money,” Bajarin says. There is no other option.

“Where will developers go?”

When I ask prominent developer Steve Troughton-Smith what Apple needs to do this year to win developers over, he says, “the realistic [answer] is ‘nothing’ — where are developers going to go?” If they want to make money on mobile, they have to stick with the App Store, and there aren’t many other options.” According to him, the majority of developers “don’t know or care about the trial, and they’re happy to build apps within the sandbox that don’t try to push the boundaries or run into existential issues — which is perfectly fine.”

“But I believe we’ve lost a decade of fringe innovation as a result of Apple’s nannying, and it’s becoming more difficult to ignore as Apple is now reaching into apps and attempting to dictate their business models,” he adds, citing Apple’s forced in-app purchases as one example.

Jason Snell, an Apple columnist and podcaster, agrees that Apple “denigrated their developers” during the trial, but he doesn’t expect them to fix it at WWDC: “Short of changing long-held App Store policies, such as allowing linking to web sites for alternate payment methods,” he says, “I’m not sure what they can do other than power through their next round of OS updates and hope developers get caught up in what’s new and forget what Apple said about the role of third-party developers on the stand.”

But I’m betting Apple has another plan to divert our attention away from developer concerns, one that has previously worked for the company — a shiny new piece of hardware that will get the company’s “pros” excited to work on what’s next.

A hint at AR glasses, or just someone who likes what they see on this Mac?
Perhaps it will be a sneak peek at Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses. That would undoubtedly dominate the headlines and be the talk of the show for the rest of the week and beyond. While the rumour mill isn’t expecting a product until 2022 at the earliest, Tim Cook has been touting the potential of augmented reality for years, describing it as “profound,” “huge,” a “core technology,” “as big an idea as the smartphone,” and most recently, “critically important” to Apple’s future. The company’s own WWDC teaser image above definitely makes me think of augmented reality.

But it’s a safer bet that, for the third time since Steve Jobs’ death, Apple will use WWDC to remind its “pro” users that it knows how to build a Mac that combines power and flexibility. “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” said Apple executive Phil Schiller at WWDC 2013, introducing the radically redesigned cylindrical Mac Pro with a quote designed to distract from the company’s actual criticism that year.

phil schiller mac pro

Phil Schiller, announcing the 2013 Mac Pro.

He also claimed that the 2013 Mac Pro was “without a doubt the future of the pro desktop,” and while that proved to be so embarrassingly wrong that Apple had to publicly admit that the 2013 Mac was a mistake, the company pulled the same move at WWDC 2019 with its new, improved, and actually-upgradable cheese grater Mac Pro to demonstrate — once again — that it is listening to its most vocal audience.

Apple will have a new opportunity in 2021. Apple killed off the beloved MacBook Pro with Retina Display five years ago, exchanging its pro-friendly SD card slot, full-size HDMI and USB ports, and deep, familiar keyboard for a new machine with a gimmicky Touch Bar and a set of USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 ports that required dongles to plug in practically anything. Developers were also disappointed by the lack of RAM. I wrote at the time, “Apple’s new MacBook Pro isn’t for professionals.” “The MacBook Pro is a lie,” says my colleague Vlad.

The new MacBook Pro’s most serious flaw was its ultra-thin “butterfly keyboard,” a design so prone to dust that it prompted a public apology from Apple, multiple recall / repair programmes, and a certified class-action lawsuit. We dubbed it “one of the worst buttons ever made,” and we breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally phased out in the 2019 MacBook Pro.

Apple is well aware that its most vocal detractors adore a high-end Mac.

However, 2019’s MacBook Pro mostly just fixed 2016’s flaws — and in terms of pros, 2020’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Apple’s new M1 chip falls short. It is essentially an M1 MacBook Air with an additional fan, the same two ports, and the same maximum RAM of 16GB.

Apple can demonstrate that it is listening again at WWDC 2021, and according to Bloomberg, it will: we expect to see a new 16-inch MacBook Pro that reintroduces the SD card slot and HDMI port, heralds the return of Apple’s beloved trip-friendly MagSafe connector, trades the annoying Touch Bar for physical function keys, and supports up to 64GB of RAM. They’re also expected to have twice as many high-performance CPU cores and at least twice as many GPU cores as the Apple M1 chips, which managed to upend our perception of laptop performance late last year.

For the first time in many years, it appears that Apple is giving its professional users exactly what they’ve asked for in a new laptop, and many of those pros are the same developers attending WWDC and building for iOS. A flashy distraction won’t help Apple win at trial or keep Amy Klobuchar at bay, but it might help change the tone of developer conversations this week at WWDC.

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