Apple Rules*, Flat vs. Threaded Discussions

Issue 11 of my newsletter – subscribe here

I spotted this ad on the tube recently, and it made me think about Apple’s unappreciated dominance over the lives of hundreds of millions of people:

600 free prints a year – what a deal! Clearly there must be a catch, and sure enough, there is a tiny asterisk next to “App!” I wasn’t able to see it from my side of the carriage, but there’s an even-tinier line of text right at the bottom of the ad that doubtless discloses just how much you’ll have to pay to get those 600 “free” prints.

This kind of chicanery is prohibited by Apple on its App Store. There are very strict rules about disclosure of payments, and in particular, of the auto-renewing subscriptions that so many developers (including my company) are so fond of, since it’s kind of the only way we can people to actually, you know, pay for a service these days.

How strict? Well, there is a very specific set of wording you must use to describe how subscriptions auto-renew. The text labels on the subscription buttons must be over a certain size. Prices must be the biggest element of text, so you can’t just say “FREE!*” as the tube ad does:

In the purchase flow, the amount that will be billed must be the most prominent pricing element in the layout. For example, an annual subscription should clearly display the total amount that will be billed upon purchase. While you may also present a breakdown price that the annual amount is equivalent to or a savings when compared to weekly or monthly subscriptions, these additional elements should be displayed in a subordinate position and size to the annual price. This ensures that users are not misled.

It’s all very consumer-friendly, so I honestly don’t have a big problem with the intent of Apple’s rules. But just consider what’s happening here – Apple dictates the precise way in which you design key parts of your app. That’s unusual, to say the least. It’d be like the London Underground dictating that you couldn’t design adverts with asterisks and tiny disclaimer text. Maybe they should? But maybe not.

If you don’t agree with Apple’s rules, well, you don’t need to be on their platform, right? It’s not like you have to make iOS apps, after all. Why, you can just… completely ignore the majority of the smartphone app revenue in the US and UK!

So that’s a big problem. Apple may not command the lion’s share of smartphone users as Google does, but in many markets, iOS users spend far more money on apps than Android users.

A bigger problem is that Apple breaks its own rules by not disclosing pricing and subscription terms; by using push notifications for marketing (third parties apps are prohibited from doing so); by immediately cutting off trial subscriptions rather than letting them run for their whole term; and so on. It matters because Apple is now competing directly against many of the companies whose apps it hosts and rules over, from Apple Music to Apple Arcade to Apple TV+ and Apple News.

Apple would claim it tries to be reasonable when reviewing third party apps, and I don’t doubt the motives of their review team. However, the mere chance that your app update could be rejected, or worse yet, removed, whether for good reasons or just out of a misunderstanding? It’s literally terrifying for people whose livelihoods depend on Apple’s whims – like me.

All of this has introduced a chilling effect on third party app developers. I’ve seen many otherwise outspoken developers genuinely scared of voicing even mild criticism of Apple on private forums and chat rooms, let alone on Twitter or podcasts. They really think they could be blacklisted for criticising Apple, and while I am 100% certain that isn’t the case – because I and others have been far more critical in public and have never experienced any blowback – I understand their fear.

Now, as far as benevolent dictators go, you could do much worse than Apple. I’ve always had pleasant dealings with them in person. But no company should have that kind of complete and terrible power over tens of thousands of companies and hundreds of millions of users. We don’t allow it in the “real” world and so we shouldn’t allow it in the digital world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the merits of flat versus threaded discussions online. Flat discussions are like those on Metafilter and other old-school forums where each reply follows directly from the one above it, while threaded discussions are like what you see on Reddit where replies can be in response to other specific replies, creating multiple “threads” branches off from one another.

For a long time, I believed flat discussions were generally superior to threaded ones. They helped promote coherent debate rather than encouraging groups of users to spin off on wild tangents, never to be seen again. In other words, Metafilter good, Reddit bad.

But I’ll confess – I’m spending a lot more time on Reddit than Metafilter these days (although I’m making a concerted effort to change!) That imbalance is partly because Reddit, having far more users than Metafilter, can cater towards more specific interests. There’s just no way I can get all the latest news about Edinburgh or Apple on Metafilter, that’s not what the site was designed for.

There’s another reason, though: I don’t think that flat discussions, as typically implemented by forums like Discourse or Metafilter, are working well for communities where there is serious disagreement about how discussions should unfold.

I’m being really unspecific here because I don’t just mean “communities with political disagreements”, I mean “communities where some people like making jokey comments and others dislike them” and also “…where some like tangents and others hate them.”

Flat discussions makes problems stick out more because everyone is forced to read them. In flat discussions, it’s possible for one or two people to completely dominate a discussion, or for irrelevant, misinformed, or extreme opinions to derail a conversation because it’s just impossible to ignore them; you’re literally posting right underneath them. In threaded forums, these sidetracks would end up downvoted and quarantined in their own threads.

Metafilter and other “flat” forums are trying to preserve a unitary community where we hope that just by talking enough, people can come to an agreement about how to run a conversation. Reddit assumes that’s impossible.

Watching

🎞️ Dr. Strangeglove. Fantastically funny and tightly-written masterpiece.

Reading

📖 Ways of Seeing by John Berger. A classic, which means you’ve probably heard most of its arguments in other books by now, but still very much worth reading. It doesn’t waste your time.

📖 The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal. Don’t be put off by the misleading “Lady Astronaut” tagline – it’s impeccably researched but packed with smart, interesting characters. A bit like Stephen Baxter crossed with someone who understand human emotions.

Visiting

🏛️ Michael Rakowitz at the Whitechapel Gallery. Funny and political and smart, an artist for millennials.

🏛️ Manga at The British Museum. A workmanlike exhibition that’s nonetheless essential if you have any interest in Manga whatsoever.

🏛️ AI: More than Human at the Barbican. Very much for the layperson who doesn’t mind watching a bunch of Google and Deepmind marketing materials that are wholly unquestioned. There was one video, made and filmed by Deepmind, about the work they’re doing with Moorfield Eye Hospital – but nothing about the many controversies about their use of patient data.

It is an occupational hazard of curating an exhibition about AI that you quickly run out of good stuff to display. Sure enough, two thirds of the way through, the exhibition devolved into a grab bag of “future stuff” that had nothing to do with AI. Must try harder!

Actually, one more thing – there was a machine-generated poem installation at the Barbican. It wasn’t any good. I’m pretty tired of this AI fetishism and star-struck curators who pretend machine-generated stuff is worth exhibition.

One Reply to “Apple Rules*, Flat vs. Threaded Discussions”

  1. Ref. Apple, would they be less ‘bad’ if they ditched all 3rd-party apps, and only promoted their own? Their OS, their space, no rules for one and rules for another. This wouldn’t be unreasonable of them – no different to tying in hardware – so surely their decision to allow other developers access to a huge market is a valuable one, and they can run it how they wish?

    On the other hand “We don’t allow it in the “real” world and so we shouldn’t allow it in the digital world.”
    – we do allow it in the real world. A train operating company – with exclusive use of a given route, stations, rolling stock – can decide to allow its favoured types (i.e. staff, relatives) free or discounted travel, to approach them differently, to segment offers, subscriptions, renewable tickets… without making those available to everyone else, i.e. 3rd-party travellers. And why shouldn’t they? The analogy only goes so far, of course, but we do allow this behaviour. The owners of huge shopping malls dictate who the tenants can be, and will hike or drop rents, charges, %age overrides based on whether they like the business or not – anchor tenants get freebies and can even be paid to be there, so consider them the malls ‘own’ tenants. Every other 3rd-party tenant who wants to use that mall to sell their wares has to pay up under a different set of rules.
    – if we were to not allow it in the digital world, would this also be a call-to-arms prevent Twitter, FaceBook or others de-platforming anyone who’s views they don’t like? That’s just deselection by a benevolent dictator based on an arbitrary set of rules constructed by the benevolent dictator in question (as opposed to, say, a court of law)

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