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WWDC 2021: Apple’s big developer conference tries to get past setbacks

For more than a decade has Apple (AAPL) app developers have been subject to strict payment restrictions, strict app approval processes and large 30% commissions on in-app transactions, all with the promise of reaching a large and growing audience of iPhone and iPad owners.
But Apple’s latest worldwide developer conference, which focuses primarily on software updates, launched Monday after months of tensions – and a high-profile trial – over the restrictions that the App Store is forcing developers to comply with. Antitrust regulators and lawmakers in several countries, including the United States, are now investigating how the company operates the App Store. And app makers talk, too.
Monday, minutes before WWDC starts, Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has often sparred with Apple, announced that the social network would not take a cut from content creators on its platform for at least the next 18 months. In the process, he took a beating at Apple.
“To help more creators earn a living on our platforms, we’re keeping paid online events, fan subscriptions, badges and our upcoming independent news products free for creators until 2023,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “And when we introduce a revenue share, it will be less than the 30% that Apple and others take.”

Zuckerberg also said that Facebook will launch a “payout interface” to help creators see how much money they are losing on fees from companies like Apple and Google.

Days earlier, Marco Arment, a prominent Apple developer behind the podcast app Overcast and founder of the online bookmarking service Instapaper, slammed the company’s management in a blog post for trying to raise money from developers, even though Apple makes huge profits from its hardware sales.

“But for bullying and gaslight developers to think we should kiss Apple’s feet to allow us to add billions of dollars of value to their platform is not only greedy, stingy and morally reprehensible, but deeply insulting,” he said.

Criticism struck by the underlying power dynamics between Apple and its developer community: developers rely on Apple to reach users, but Apple depends on developers to create apps that help attract users.

As Arment said, “Without our apps, the iPhone has little value for most of its customers today.”

Rising tension

The commissions that Apple charges that developers offering in-app purchases have long been controversial and under control, but these tensions recently came to a head when Epic Games, the maker of the popular video game Fortnite, faced Apple in federal court.
Epic accuses Apple of exercising monopolistic control over its iOS “walled garden” operating system, claiming that app makers are forced to impose burdensome restrictions if they want access to hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users. Apple claims that there are several other places that users can buy apps, and that its commission helps the company make its devices better and more secure. A verdict in the trial, which ended on May 24, is expected in the coming months.

Epic’s lawsuit brought many of the issues developers have with Apple to the forefront, and those tensions are still boiling in the wake of this week’s WWDC.

David Baszucki, CEO of Roblox, another gaming platform mentioned several times during the Apple Epic trial, expressed support for lowering the app commissions in an interview with Axios published on the eve of WWDC.

“It is fair to say that we will give so much money back to developers,” said Baszucki, noting that his company has “good relations” with Apple and other app store operators. “If these store fees were to change, we would predominantly give back to the creative community.”

A mockup of Facebook's new payout interface, where it estimates how much Apple's and Google's fees cost developers.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company announced its support for developers several times during the Epic test – including the $ 50 million it said they spend on putting on WWDC.

“We are turning the place upside down for developers,” said CEO Tim Cook at the booth. But he also acknowledged that Apple makes decisions “in the interest of the user” and “sometimes there is a conflict between what the developer might want and what the user might want.”

When it unveiled new software features for users and developers on Monday, Apple reminded them of the benefits of its ecosystem. The App Store now has 600 million weekly visitors from 175 countries and regions, the company said, adding that it has paid more than $ 230 billion to developers since the App Store launched in 2008.

In what is perceived as a possible response to accusations that its iOS ecosystem is closed and restrictive, Apple announced that it will make one of its popular products, the video calling service FaceTime, available to users of competing platforms Android and Windows.

“Apple at WWDC is tight-lipped about convincing software developers to double their platform while … charging its 30% fee,” Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush, told CNN Business.

A showdown over privacy?

While Apple is targeting developers at this week’s event, it also doubles privacy with the potential to aggravate some developers and businesses.

Apple and Epic Games save in concluding arguments over Fortnite

During keynote Monday, Apple announced several new controls for users. These include “Email Protection”, which allows users to hide their IP addresses and location from businesses, and “Hide My Email”, which generates a random email address to sign up for new sites so businesses do not have users’ real email addresses. Another feature, called “app privacy report”, shows users every time an app accesses their phone’s location, contacts, camera or microphone as well as all the third-party websites with which the app shares their data.

Apple previously rolled out an App Tracking Transparency feature, which requires iPhone apps to ask users for permission to track their behavior and sell their personal data. Facebook, which earns almost all of its revenue from advertising, warned investors in August that Apple’s software changes could hurt its business and has been particularly vocal against it.
Recent changes in confidentiality are likely to “cause further concern among these companies’ reliance on user data for tracking, advertising and revenue generation,” CCS Insight chief analyst Ben Wood said in an email after Monday’s main event.

But Apple is sticking to its weapons and betting on superior confidentiality and security features making its devices worth paying for, developing and paying commissions on.

“We do not think you should have to strike a balance between great features and privacy,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, during the keynote. “We believe you deserve both.”

Clare Duffy contributed to this report.

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