Apple picks fight with popular app developer Basecamp on eve of WWDC

Apple’s rejection of email app Hey could have major App Store implications

During a week that should be filled with leaks, spy shots, and excitement leading up to WWDC, Apple is instead making headlines for all the wrong reasons, being called “gangsters” and a “mafioso” after threatening one of its best-known developers.

It all started with an email app. On Monday, Basecamp launched a “potent reintroduction of email” in the form of Hey, a US$99-a-year cross-platform subscription service that promised privacy and ease of use with 100GB of storage and a personalised email address.

Even though it’s invitation-only until July 2020, Hey immediately picked up some buzz, with some 50,000 people waiting to get their Hey on, according to TechCrunch.

On Tuesday, Hey started making headlines for a different reason. Basecamp CTO David Heinemeier Hansson tweeted that the latest version of the iOS app had been rejected for violation of rule 3.1.1, which stipulates that “If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app ... you must use in-app purchase.”

In a nutshell, Hey doesn’t offer a way to subscribe to its service within its iOS app and Apple took issue with it.

Hansson escalated the complaint, but Apple is so far sticking to its guns. According to Protocol, Apple told Basecamp that since their app “allows customers to access content, subscription, or features they have purchased elsewhere,” users need to be able to purchase them via an in-app purchase.

Since that’s not available, Apple rejected the app. As to why it was allowed in the App Store in the first place, Apple simply said it shouldn’t have been. In fact, it threatened to pull Hey entirely if Basecamp didn’t submit an update to the existing iOS app.

Credit: Basecamp

Oddly, Apple offers numerous exceptions to this rule, including streaming apps (Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime) and productivity apps (Slack, Outlook), as well as a variety of “reader” apps, including “magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as classroom management apps.”

As ZDNet points out, email apps are in something of a grey area and “could arguably fall under cloud storage or approved services.” And Basecamp has proclaimed that Hey will never support third-party email apps due to its proprietary ”vertical integration,” which makes its designation even trickier.

Apple’s Hey rejection comes at a bad time. Not only is its biggest developer conference of the year set to kick off in less than a week, but also this week the European Union filed an antitrust investigation into whether Apple’s App Store rules “distort competition in markets where Apple is competing with other app developers.”

That’s not the issue with the Hey app, but it still puts Apple and the App Store in a less-than-flattering light.

And much like his commitment to changing email, Hansson isn’t going to back down due to Apple’s threats. Major tech voices have already chimed in to support Hey including editors at The Verge, John Gruber of Daring Fireball, and Stratechery’s Ben Thompson, and Hansson has vowed to “never in a million years” pay Apple a third of Hey’s revenues, so Tim Cook has to deal with a very public standoff while preparing to celebrate developers in just a few days.

A compromise will likely be reached, with Apple reclassifying Hey as a business app so it can circumvent the 3.1.1 rules, but the damage may already be done. As Hansson told Protocol: “That is obscene, and it’s criminal, and I will spend every dollar that we have or ever make to burn this down until we get to somewhere better.“