Injecting Yourself Into the Relationship

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

Why AnyList Won’t Be Supporting Sign In with Apple - AnyList Blog

One problem is that most Apple IDs are tied to an iCloud email address. So most accounts created via Sign in with Apple will use an iCloud email address. But many of those iCloud email addresses are unused and unchecked, because a customer’s “real” email account is their Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail account. If we try to contact a customer using their iCloud email address, they may never see our message. We used to run into this problem constantly with customer support, back when AnyList used the built-in iOS email compose interface for sending support requests. This interface often defaults to using an iCloud email account. So people would ask for help, we’d reply, and they’d contact us again later, angry that we never replied. Our reply was going to their iCloud email account, but they didn’t see it because they only ever looked at their Gmail account, in the Gmail app.

The article lists a bunch of issues from a consumer and developer perspective, and while some of the arguments are true of all third party sign in options, right now I want to address a common thread among numerous conversations in the Apple community recently: Apple sticking itself between the merchant and the customer.

Programming note: I'm trying to refer to companies distributing their software as “merchants” and not “developers” from now on. I think it's more accurate and it avoids an unconscious bias when we frame these money/relationship debates.

Whether it's the right thing for everyone involved is up for debate, but Apple does a lot to put themselves in between the merchant selling a good and the customer. This manifests here with Sign in with Apple where there can be issues with merchants talking to their customers, and it manifests in App Store purchases, where you don't pay the merchant for their services, you pay Apple and Apple distributes 70% of that money to the merchant. There is merit to each of these decisions, but as AnyList lays out, and Hey brought up weeks ago, there are definite downsides to merchants and consumers as well.

It's interesting when you look at this in context of the greater history of software. It used to be that if you wanted to sell software to consumers, you needed to strike a deal with CompUSA, Circuit City, or Best Buy to get them to carry your wares, because if you weren't there, then no one would buy your product. This gave these retailers too much power over what was sold, what customers were pushed to buy, and ultimately, what software was able to be built in the first place.

The internet, as it's one to do, changed everything.

No longer did you need to strike a deal with Best Buy to stock your software, you could sell it direct to consumers from your website. No longer did you have to hope that CompUSA would stock your box on an endcap so customers saw it, you could run ads online and get your own cusotmers. No longer did you need to pay an exorbitant fee to Circuit City for every copy of your product they sold, you got to keep a huge share of that. No longer did you have to hope that customers registered their software after they bought it so that you could have a freaking clue who your customers were.

The internet made it so that merchants, large and small, could make more money, have better customer relationships, and ultimately have more control over their own destiny.

The App Store has done tons of good for the world of software, and more people buy software today than ever before, and the App Store gets tons of credit for making that possible, but I think that ignoring the costs to merchant/customer relationships is unwise.

We're now moving closer to the big big retailer model we had 20 years ago. The rules are less restrictive, but merchants must still work out deals with Apple and make software the way Apple dictates it should be made. You still hope for Apple to feature your app to drive sales, and if you want to take on customer acquisition and payments yourself, there's a good chance Apple will balk and force you to run that through them.

I know the arguments for this, largely revolving around privacy, and I get all that. Hell, it's likely a good thing in the majority of cases! But what we have is a commerce system where it's harder for merchants to have direct relationships with their customers.

Yes, it's easier to trust your credit card information to Apple than a random company online, but tools from companies like NMI (shameless plug, this is where I work and design simple, secure payment acceptance methods) and Stripe make it so that merchants can take payments securely and easily in 2020. Refunds are also harder when using the App Store rather than your own payments platofrm with makes refunding customers simple.

Yes, it's good for Apple to be able to prevent merchants from spamming you with emails and unwanted communication, but the cost can also be making it harder for merchants to provide support to their customers when issues arise, or notify them of genuinely useful information about the product the customer purchased.

Ultimately, I think the App Store is a net good, and I'm not suggesting we should aboilish it or anything like that. Putting Apple between the merchant and the consumer has benefits, but it's disingenuous to ignore its costs. And while things todat are far better for merchants and developers than they were in the big box retail days, I think the "at least it's better than 20 years ago" argument is pretty weak. One can acknowledge the progress we've made all while suggesting things can still improve.