Apple Will 'Help' Some Developers Put A Single Link To Their Website In Their Apps


Because developers of reader apps do not offer in-app digital goods and services for purchase, Apple agreed with the JFTC to let developers of these apps share a single link to their website to help users set up and manage their account. While in-app purchases through the App Store commerce system remain the safest and most trusted payment methods for users, Apple will also help developers of reader apps protect users when they link them to an external website to make purchases.

Apple’s resistance to change any App Stores rules of its own accord means that you have to read any of these announcements with extreme care and caution. The details matter.

In this case, I am perturbed by the fact that there are lot of words, a lot of paragraphs, surrounding what should be a straightforward policy change: allowing developers to link out to their website on the sign-up screen.

A couple of the limits are made transparent in the copy; this revised rule applies to reader apps only and developers are allowed a ‘single’ link only.

Setting aside Apple’s self-serving and/or contradictory rules around what counts as a reader app, what the heck does a single link mean in a digital world? It’s a hilarious concept. If I style a link with a big font, placed on a rectangle of prominent background colour, is that a single link … or is that a button? What if the single link takes up 90% of the screen, in a huge font? If I put a static link at the bottom of the screen like a footer, and the link doesn’t move or disappear when the user navigates to a new page, is that still a single link? I mean it’s still the same link, it is just permanently visible.

That’s one whole ordeal. The second part I zone in on — in my pessimistically critical reading — is ‘help’. What constitutes help? Of course, I fully expect Apple to lay out rules around the design and behaviour of the destination websites, possibly including limits on what payment methods can be used and the language used in the sign-up form. Furthermore, because this policy is not coming into effect until next year, it seems like this ‘help’ is going to include some kind of technical component too. Maybe Apple will have a special new API or something that ensures the link out to the website doesn’t change after the fact, or must link to a specifically (pre-approved) registered domain. Apple could ‘help’ by requiring use of a sandboxed web view that somehow doesn’t have access to a user’s standard AutoFill information.

Thirdly, all these developers obviously want the ability to link out to the web in order to encourage their customers to use payment methods other than Apple’s In-App Purchase. Apple’s press release implies that motivation but the actual wording isn’t so direct: it says the link is to enable users to “set up and manage their account”.

You’d hope Apple would comply to the Japanese law in good faith, but I’m certainly not ruling out something more sinister. I don’t think the implementation of ‘help’ will be onerous, but perhaps just inconvenient enough to make some percentage of developers not bother.

Ultimately, these rules should have a positive impact on user experience and a very small negative impact on Apple’s financials. Apple’s revenue from reader apps is already small, because those are the exact category of apps already allowed to circumvent In-App Purchase altogether. That being said, this Japanese settlement is not going to fundamentally resolve any of the other impending lawsuits; Spotify benefits from these new rules but will want more and will keep pushing, Epic is just going to be more furious that they don’t benefit at all, and there are plenty more EU and US investigations to come.