App Rules Are Twisted to Absurdity

Apps have become a huge economy, but the rules that govern them are almost impossible to understand.

Apple and Google have twisted their decades-old rules for their app stores like a pretzel to the point where they may no longer make sense. This has made buying digital stuff in apps convoluted as heck.

One example: In theory, though not yet in reality, you can use your Amazon account to buy an e-book from Kindle’s iPhone app. You cannot buy an e-book in the Android version of the app. Until recently, Kindle purchases were effectively a no-go under Apple’s rules but fine under Google’s. Now it ‘s the opposite.

Confusing? Yep. Apple and Google have written long, complicated guidelines for apps and frequently revised those rules to protect their own interests. (I’ve noted before that Apple’s app rules are much longer than the United States Constitution.)

Want more zaniness? Today, it’s easy-to-peasy to subscribe to a podcast in Patreon’s iPhone app. Apple stands aside and allows Patreon to take your personal information and credit card details.

But buying other types of digital subscriptions can be completely different. If you purchase a platinum membership service on the Tinder in the iPhone app, you are effectively signing up with Apple, and Tinder is on the sidelines.

Apple takes a chunk of that membership fee forever. If you want to quit, you tell Apple, not Tinder.

Buying a six-month membership through the Tinder app costs some people $ 14.99 a month, but it costs $ 13.50 if purchased from the website. (The price difference is Tinder’s way of recouping the up-to-30-percent fee it pays for Apple each app purchase.) Oh, and paying to use dating apps might soon work more like paying for stuff in Patreon – but only in the Netherlands.

For now, paying for Tinder through its Android app is more like how Patreon works. But that’s only because Match Group, Tinder’s parent company, has sued Google to stop the company from changing its rules.


I could bore you details of why Apple makes a distinction between buying a subscription from Patreon and buying one from Tinder. There is a logic behind why you can buy a paperback copy of “1984” from Amazon’s Android app but not the e-book edition, and why new Netflix subscribers can be used to sign up from its Android app now. Or, sort of can’t. It’s another pretzel twist.

It took me hours of phone calls and sleuthing to figure out all the details in the paragraphs you just read. If so many rules, exceptions and explanations are needed to buy things from an app in 2022, perhaps the logic of the app economy is illogical.

For years, some companies that have made apps have griped about how Google and especially Apple control many aspects of this economy. They both dictate which apps we can download easily through their app stores and when they directly handle purchases that we make through the apps.

If we use an app to buy stuff that exists in the real world, such as an Uber ride or a meal kit subscription, those purchases bypass Apple and Google. The fight is over buying things that we use digitally, such as a trinket used in a smartphone app game or a dating app subscription.

The problem is that distinctions that seem sensible when Apple created its app storefront in 2008 don’t necessarily fit the modern digital economy.

I’ve written before about YouTube video creators who can’t understand why Apple or Google are entitled to a chunk of money – potentially forever – that their fans pay them through an app.

In the Zoom-everything age, does it make sense to have different rules, as Apple is seeking, for, say, buying gym classes to take in person and those you take virtually at home? Why not apps like Facebook that make money from advertising handles a chunk of revenue to Apple and Google, but those that sell digital subscriptions?

And the app rules change often, creating more complexity.

This month, Google put in place tighter restrictions so it must handle more purchases of digital stuff in apps and take a cut.

Again, there is some sense behind all of these pretzel twists. Apple and Google want to avoid major smartphone video games, the biggest moneymakers in the app worlds, bypass their regulations and fees. And they say they are trying to respond to complaints that they have too much control or that they burden small businesses.

But the more concessions that Apple or Google make to mollify angry governments and some angry developers but not others, the more arbitrary their app store logic may seem.

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