Why it matters: Encrypted email provider ProtonMail says that Apple forced it to monetize its app, which was on the App Store for more than two years without in-app purchases. It also claims that when it tried to inform its customers of the sudden change, Apple blocked it from posting app updates and threatened to remove it from the store.
Apple has been facing a lot of heat lately regarding its walled garden policies. This week the stove got turned up another notch. Not only did a former App Store exec accuse the company of using its rules as “weapons” against competitors, but a developer also claims that it was forced to add in-app purchases to its app when it had been free for years.
ProtonMail’s CEO Andy Yen says that his company is not the only one to suffer Apple’s “strong-armed” tactics, but others have been afraid to speak out about it.
“There’s a lot of fear in the space right now; people are completely petrified to say anything,” Yen told The Verge on Thursday. “For the first two years we were in the App Store, that was fine, no issues there. But a common practice we see … as you start getting significant uptake in uploads and downloads … then as any good Mafia extortion goes, they come to shake you down for some money.”
That shakedown came in 2018, according to Yen. Up until that point, the app was completely free. It wasn’t a situation like what is going on between Apple and Epic right now, he insists. Unlike Fortnite, the app never had any in-app purchase whatsoever.
“Out of the blue, one day they said you have to add in-app purchase to stay in the App Store. They stumbled upon something in the app that mentioned there were paid plans, they went to the website and saw there was a subscription you could purchase, and then turned around and demanded we add IAP. There’s nothing you can say to that. They are judge, jury, and executioner on their platform, and you can take it or leave it. You can’t get any sort of fair hearing to determine whether it’s justifiable or not justifiable, anything they say goes. We simply complied in order to save our business.”
Yen says the company was forced to raise its prices since the 30-percent commission that Apple takes completely ate away ProtonMail’s profit margins.
Apple responded, saying that free companion apps to paid online services are no longer required to have in-app purchases as of September 11, 2020. As long as paid upgrades are not offered through the app and it has no notifications to customers about an external subscription service, everything is fine.
When Yen was told of this, he said that he would definitely try taking out in-app purchases from ProtonMail, but not before first testing the policy using the company’s upcoming ProtonDrive app. He says he does not trust Apple’s rules enough, and how it enforces them, to risk the already-establish email app, which Apple previously leveraged with update blocking and threats of removal to force the in-app purchases in the first place.
It is worth mentioning that ProtonMail is one of the founding members of the Coalition for App Fairness. It, along with various partners, including Microsoft, Epic Games, Spotify, and others, are looking to level the competitive playing field regarding in-app purchases, fees, and anti-competitive policies. Apple has been the Coalition’s primary target, but it has criticized Google as well.