inessential by Brent Simmons

June 2020

Work at Universe

When I was looking for a job, I talked with the folks at Universe a few times. I love what they’re doing — an iOS app that helps people make websites — and I really enjoyed talking with the team. Such a great bunch.

The good news is: they’re still hiring. They have a bunch of jobs, even — iOS, Swift backend, database, product design, marketing, and support. Check ’em out!

PS Here are their key values.

WWDC 2020 and NetNewsWire

I love seeing so much attention paid to the Mac this year!

I’ve applied for a Developer Transition Kit for NetNewsWire. My thinking: since NetNewsWire is open source, other developers can, and do, look at the code to help them write Mac apps. The sooner we have NetNewsWire updated, the sooner it’s available as an example for other developers.

Other thoughts…

The new Mac operating system, Big Sur, big number 11, Onze-y-baby, has some appearance and behavior changes which of course we’ll adopt. One of NetNewsWire’s values has always been to stick pretty close to Apple’s design for the platform. We do that because, well, we figure users of a given platform actually like the platform design, and that’s why they picked it. (It also tends to mean less work, which is a good thing.)

We’ll not be switching to Catalyst. It appears to be much-improved, but standards for a good Mac app are high, and I’m skeptical that Catalyst is all the way there yet.

Instead, our plan is to converge our UI code over time by using SwiftUI. This way we can go view-by-view. (It’s worth noting that we already do share some UI code: the article view is mostly shared, for instance, even without using SwiftUI or Catalyst.)

I’m looking forward to the rest of the week. I especially want to hear more about the new outline view in SwiftUI. 🐣🐥

The App Store Doesn’t Make Apps Safe

Another misconception about the App Store is that it makes apps secure and safe. It doesn’t.

There are things that do make apps safe. No matter how an iOS app is distributed, it runs in a sandbox. An app requires permission from the user to do things like access the address book or microphone. This is just how iOS works: it has nothing to do with the App Store.

The App Store review process probably does run some kind of automated check on the app to make sure it’s not using private APIs and doesn’t contain some kind of malware. However, this could be run as part of a notarization process — this doesn’t have to be tied to the App Store. (Mac apps outside of the Mac App Store go through a notarization process.)

Otherwise, App Store review is looking for basic functionality and making sure the app follows the guidelines.

As far as checking that an app doesn’t crash on launch — thanks? I guess? As for following the guidelines: the guidelines are about protecting Apple’s interests and not about consumers.

I would like to say that the App Store filters out bad behavior, but I don’t think it does. We’ve all seen various scam apps, and we’ve seen otherwise well-behaved apps do things like abuse the push notifications system.

It probably catches some egregious scams that we never hear about. I’ll apply the benefit of the doubt. But it didn’t catch that, for instance, Path was uploading the user’s address book. The community outside Apple catches these things, and Apple changes how iOS works so that these things can’t happen without user permission.

And, at the same time, the App Store is a magnet for scam apps. Even in a world where side-loading is possible, scam apps would stick to the App Store because that’s their best shot at getting users to stumble across them.

My grandmother

People have asked if I’d want my grandmother to download iOS apps outside the App Store. The answer is yes. That was how she downloaded her Mac apps, after all. (She was an avid Mac user.)

I’d feel secure knowing that the apps, just by virtue of being iOS apps, are sandboxed and have to ask for permissions. (I’m also imagining a Mac-like notarization step, for additional security. I think this is reasonable.)

In other words: Apple has done a very good job with iOS app security and safety. The fact that we think this has something to do with the App Store is a trick, though.

(I’m not arguing for getting rid of the App Store, by the way. I’m arguing for allowing an alternative.)

The iOS App Store Brings Users Only Because It’s the Only Choice

One might argue that developers should love the App Store because it brings the users.

AppleInsider writes about the App Store, Hey app, and David Heinemeier Hansson:

Like any other product or service, Hey has to persuade people that they have a problem it can solve, and that it’s worth paying for. You can’t persuade people of anything, though, if they don’t know about it. And then if you do persuade them, you can’t profit without a way to get your product into their hands.

His first argument against the App Store on Apple’s cut got Hansson and Hey a lot more notice than it might have. But it’s the App Store that gets his product to people. It’s the App Store that means if he persuades people it’s worth it, they can instantly have it on their iOS device.

This is a misconception that many people have — they think the App Store brings some kind of exceptional distribution and marketing that developers wouldn’t have on their own.

It’s just not true. It lacks even a grain of truth.

Setting up distribution of an app is easy and cheap. I do it for NetNewsWire for Mac with no additional costs beyond what I already pay to host this blog. This was true in 2005 as much as now — distribution is not some exceptional value the App Store provides.

And then there’s marketing. Sure, being featured used to mean something to revenue, but it hasn’t meant that much beyond just ego points in years. To be on the App Store is to be lost within an enormous sea of floating junk. No matter how well you do at your app description and screenshots — even if you get some kind of feature — your app will not be found by many people.

Build it (and upload it to the App Store) and they will not come.

Instead, you have to do marketing on your own, on the web and on social media, outside of the App Store. Just like always. The App Store brings nothing to the table.

So while it’s true to say that all of an iOS app’s users come via the App Store, it’s only true because there’s no other option.

If I could distribute my iOS app outside of the App Store, I would. I’d switch in a heartbeat. Even though it’s free and money isn’t my issue. It would make my work as an app maker easier.

I can’t reconcile in my mind the tension between Apple as the think different company, the pirates, the rebels, the company at the intersection of tech and liberal arts — and Apple the company that runs this legalistic, nitpicky, greedy, inhuman, happy-face Kafka App Store.

One Advantage of the App Store That’s Gone

The best part of the App Store, years ago, from this developer’s point of view, was that it was easy to charge money for an app. No need to set up a system — just choose the price, and Apple takes care of everything. So easy!

But these days, in almost all cases, you’d be ill-advised to charge up front for your app. You need a trial version and in-app purchasing (IAP) and maybe a subscription.

Here’s the thing: this is a massive pain in the ass to implement, test, and support — Apple does not make it easy. It could, I think, make certain common patterns basically turn-key (like trial versions + IAP), but it hasn’t.

This means that, for many developers, the very best thing about the App Store — the thing that actually helped their business — is gone.

And it’s not just gone — it’s probably actually more difficult doing this stuff via the App Store than doing the same things (trial, IAP, subscription) using non-Apple systems such as Stripe.

(And, as a bonus, Stripe isn’t going to review your app’s business model and tell you no.)