If you follow the news on the mobile apps industry, you’ll probably have already heard of the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF). Although it may not seem like it’s directly targeting the main issues in the Android app distribution ecosystem, the problems raised by some of these (pretty big) companies are quite familiar to all of us: extremely high fees (even referred to as “app tax”), lack of freedom on the consumer side, and, to sum it up, a quite intelligently designed framework of anti-competitive policies. It definitely seems like they also apply to the Android ecosystem, don’t you think?
What’s the Coalition for App Fairness?
As you’ve probably read before in some of our articles, big app creators have recently expressed their concerns about the unfairness of the app distribution industry’s current practices. Epic Games, the studio behind the absolutely massive hit Fortnite, made an amazing move (especially from the communication point of view) last August, and Spotify has been clamoring for change for years now. This time they’ve joined forces with other well-known faces in the technology industry, such as Basecamp, Blockchain.com, and Deezer, by creating the Coalition for App Fairness. As they define it, it’s “an independent non-profit organization aiming to advocate for freedom of choice and fair competition across the app ecosystem.” Although most of their communication seems to target Apple and their App Store, the complaints of these companies against Google’s Play Store are well-known to all of us; we all remember Time to Play Fair, the website created by Spotify.
From a practical point of view, we can say that CAF is an attempt from app developers to create an institution big enough to sit down and negotiate terms with humongous enterprises, such as Apple and Google, with the goal of defending not only their rights, but also their consumers’ rights. They’ve started off with ten principles that should ensure a level playing field, touching on areas like communication with users and the ever-present “app tax.”
The Old Same Issues
Although we all know app creators face many more issues in the current app distribution system, the Coalition for App Fairness’ ten principles revolve around these three key issues:
- The “gatekeeper” role: The two main “official” app stores (Play Store and App Store) are currently holding a dangerous amount of power by controlling the content that’s available to the end user. CAF even provides two well-known examples, one of them involving Amazon’s Kindle. Believe it or not, users cannot purchase eBooks in the Kindle iPhone app. The control of Apple in this case gets surreal when you realize that Amazon is not even allowed to explain iPhone users how to purchase an eBook; according to Apple’s rules, for the Kindle App to be available in App Store it cannot offer purchases and it cannot explain users how to make a purchase outside of the App Store. Does this remind you of Google Play policies on in-app purchases?
- The “app-tax”: Not much to say here, it seems we all (except these two big tech companies) agree that a 30% cut on all in-app purchases is clearly unfair. It severely cuts into customer purchasing power and developer revenue, benefiting only Apple and Google. Want to see the big picture? Well… the CAF, sourcing the CNBC, estimates Apple’s app tax equates to 15 billion dollars annually.
- Consumer freedom: At the end of the day, the victim of this battle is really the end-user. On the one hand, they have access to content in a very limited way, and on the other hand, their purchase power is artificially reduced to serve the economic interests of already giant companies. It’s easy to look at this as a dev vs. tech companies battle, but let’s just remind ourselves that consumer freedom of choice is very much at stake.
The CAF Principles: We Can Only Agree
Although it’s uplifting to see all the issues these principles are covering, it’s also a bit sad that some of these basic things need to be said. For example, “A developer’s data should not be used to compete with the developer.” Isn’t that basic? Well, as we all know, Apple and Google have used valuable developer data (from developers using their stores) to make quite interesting moves. Or there’s this one: “No app store owner should engage in self-preferencing its own apps or services.” Apple already did that with Apple Music vs Spotify, and let’s just remember that the highest fine imposed by the EU authorities was because Google search (surprisingly) was prioritizing Google services.
It’s not only about fairness, but also about transparency, user rights, and creativity. Without a democratic, transparent, and fair app distribution ecosystem, we’ll never have great products arriving to users. Although looking for alternatives is one of the solutions, the current system’s roots need to change. While there is hope, as some steps are being taken already (Microsoft launched their ten principles this week for example), much still needs to be done—for the sake of creators, users, and content.