Many of us are wondering what’s wrong with this year, and can be forgiven for feeling apocalyptic. Should we really be so surprised, though, as the only difficulty in forecasting its events has been in deciding when, not whether, they’d happen.
That’s perhaps most obvious with the pandemic. What was unpredictable was the way in which so many countries are ignoring their own public health data and experts and removing barriers to the spread of infection, only to discover that doing so results in rapid rises in infection rates. Most experts had feared second and subsequent waves of Covid-19, but few realised that political decisions would be driven by the calendar or economics. Those who were shocked by the terrible tolls suffered in Iran and northern Italy just a few months ago seem content to see their own friends, relatives and colleagues go through similar experiences around them.
So much of our response has fundamentally been selfish. Instead of society being increasingly united to face the challenges which this pandemic has brought, we have expected governments to solve all the problems, then watched aghast as so many have merely pursued their own self-interest. Those whose chances of serious illness and death are least have blithely ignored the effects on their elders (and others) of the disease they have been so wilfully spreading.
Then in the midst of all this, instead of being better united, those who should be leading and supporting – the police in particular – have murdered our Black colleagues in front of our eyes. Black lives do matter, and I find it completely unacceptable that any sector in society should ever need to be reminded of that fact.
There was an obvious danger: public reaction to this murder would bring demonstrations. Instead of the police and government acting to avoid confrontation and mitigate risks to the health of those taking part, they not only responded brutally, but put many people at risk of infection, so worsening the health crisis. This even spilled over to similar tactics in the UK, I’m ashamed to admit. Police showed that they not only thought that Black lives don’t matter, but the health of the public at large was of no concern to them.
It’s against this background of growing intolerance and confrontation, at a time that we most need respect for others and unity, that Apple is about to open its first remote WWDC. These are the few days in the year when Apple talks publicly to its developers, and aims to enthuse them for its new OS and hardware releases. With strong rumours of the launch of ARM-based Macs, Apple may have set itself a tough task, and has just made that many times harder.
Over the last few years, Apple has generated rich revenue from selling third-party software through its App Stores. That for macOS is something of a mixed blessing, and is no stranger to controversy. In some product categories, it is almost impossible to compete without selling through the App Store, but there are also plenty of successful developers whose products are still sold independently of Apple. For iOS, the situation is very different, because of Apple’s choice of the ‘walled garden’ to protect the security of iOS and iPadOS devices: there is no independent market. Any iPhone or iPad app which is rejected by Apple’s store is dead and buried.
When Basecamp launched its subscription email service, Hey, it naturally wanted to provide free apps to its subscribers. Although it can do so independently of Apple for macOS, it has no such option for the huge iOS market. After Hey’s iOS client had initially been approved (in error, claims Apple), when an update was submitted that was rejected because it apparently broke the rules in not offering in-app purchase for the full Hey mail service.
At this stage, Apple had several options with which to settle the matter amicably, without damaging either its or Basecamp’s business model, or losing face. Instead, as the dispute escalated to SVP level, Apple explicitly revealed it motives: because Basecamp wasn’t providing a share of its revenue to Apple, and its app only worked with the paid-for mail service, Apple wasn’t prepared to deliver that app free through its App Store. As Apple’s letter revealed “These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years.”
Just as with the brutal assaults on demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests, Apple had poured petrol onto what should have been a small and controllable fire. Few commercial developers or commentators haven’t joined in condemning Apple’s decision. Many loyal developers have opened up their old wounds from past problems with Apple’s edicts over what is acceptable in its App Stores, and many have justifiably called for Apple’s monopoly to be challenged, as is indeed happening in European courts.
Apple has no time left to rectify this situation before the opening of WWDC. It should be thankful that, this year, it isn’t being held before a ‘live’ audience of developers. It’s probable that, far from the enthusiastic cries of hyped-up techies, Apple would have faced catcalls and frank hostility. And if there’s one thing that hurts Apple through and through it’s loss of face.
For many of us, the cat is now officially out of the bag. What we still fondly liked to think of as a collaborative enterprise in which third-parties made Apple’s hardware products so successful has been revealed: all Apple really wants is to extract royalties to bolster its service revenues. Over the next few days, many of those virtually attending WWDC will not so much be wondering how to adapt their products to all the coming changes, but re-evaluating whether they want to continue developing for Apple’s platforms, no matter which processors they use.
What has distinguished this year isn’t the pandemic, police murders, or Apple’s intransigence, but the complete intolerance which we are showing to one another. Together we stood in 2019, and divided we’re now falling in 2020. If we fail to encourage others and to help them to flourish, that bullying behaviour will be downfall. No one, not even the mighty Apple, is immune.