This again, Apple?
Getting an app into Apple’s app store without giving up 30% of profits is something the team at 37signals battled back in 2020 when it launched the HEY email service. What they didn’t expect would be to have some of the same challenges in 2024 with the HEY Calendar app.
Listen in as David Heinemeier Hansson shares the history of the 2020 App store rejection along with the most recent, and the last minute update the team made to the app to get the final approval.
Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website. Full video episodes are available on YouTube and X.
If you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or email, and we might answer it on a future episode.
Links and Resources
January 5, 2024 – Apple Rejects the HEY Calendar from their App Store
January 8, 2024 – We’ve Resubmitted the HEY Calendar App to Apple
January 9, 2024 – Apple Approves the HEY Calendar
Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host Kimberly Rhodes, and if you’ve been following along on the internet, you know that 37signals recently had some trouble getting their app for the HEY Calendar into the Apple Store just like they had trouble getting their app into the App store in 2020. Here we are in 2024 with challenges again. I’m going to turn it over to you, David. Tell us the history of this, how this all started and where we are today.
David (00:27): Yeah, so this goes all the way back to 2020 when we first introduced HEY just as the email service that most people have known it as up until now. We had a heck of a time getting our app approved and it was a really weird flow. First we got the app approved, we were able to launch and then literally as soon as we submitted an update, apple was like, oh no, sorry, we made a mistake. You can’t have your app in the app store unless you give us 30% of your revenues from all the signups that are coming through that store, and you have to use our in-app payment system. And we went like, whoa, whoa, whoa. What are you talking about? We’ve been in the app store for a decade with Basecamp in many ways a similar product where you have to sign up for a Basecamp subscription on our website, and then you can go to the app store and you can download an app and you can use the subscription you already have with that app.
(01:17): And we thought, hey, this is how we’ve been doing things for 10 years. This is how tons of other people are doing it. We can continue to do that. And suddenly Apple just showed up with the baseball bat and the threats to no, we’ve changed our minds, we haven’t changed our guidelines, we haven’t changed our policies, we’ve just changed our minds about how we’d like to enforce them. And that led to a truly exhausting two-week battle, I believe it was, from when Apple first denied the hey email apps admission to the app store until it was finally resolved and it was finally resolved in this really weird roundabout way were Apple led by the head of the app store review process, at that time, Phil Schiller, just came up with a new rule on the fly that they didn’t even bother to document, that is the app needs to do something when you download it.
(02:07): That is you can’t just have an app that has a login screen when you download it. And that was basically sort of their way out of the embarrassment I suppose, and we said like, okay, fine. We’re not going to arm wrestle Apple to the ground on all the points. Here’s an opening where we can get our HEY email app into the store without paying the 30%. So we took it and then after that, apple amended the app store guidelines in all sorts of ways. Most specifically, they carved out these free companion apps from having to use in-app payment. This was essentially sort of the victory we got out of round one. There’s a whole slew of exceptions in the app store guidelines as who has to use the in-app payment system who can get around it. This is why you see applications like Netflix for example.
(02:56): You download Netflix, you can’t do anything. You to have a Netflix account that you bought on netflix.com or on another device or service that doesn’t have these restrictions and then you can log in. It’s also how stuff like Salesforce work, there’s a million of these kinds of apps that require you to have a preexisting account and then log in. And that’s what that carve out. The free companion app carve out was supposed to give us, it was supposed to give us security and knowing if you have a service that isn’t app first that exists outside of the universe that Apple has created and you managed to sign up customers on your own outside of the app store, you can put your free apps in the app store and people can use those to access your service. It is called the 313F rule and it’s about free companion apps and it lives there.
(03:50): Apple has this other exemption for what they call reader apps. This is what Netflix and these other streaming apps fall under. Reader appss were exempt. Certain types of enterprise apps are exempt. Certain type of multi-platform apps are exempt. It’s very complicated and this is the weirdness of the setup. Apple went through the truffle of specifying, I think 12 amendments or something to who has to pay for the in-app service. There are all these exemptions like this app doesn’t have to pay. If they do this thing and they stand on the top of their head and they stick out their tongue, then they get in. But you then think that those guidelines would actually govern Apple’s behavior when it comes to these apps. They would actually follow the guidelines and if you clearly fall into one of these categories, if you are a streaming app like Netflix, they’re not going to shake you down if you live up to that.
(04:42): That’s what we saw. When we submitted the HEY calendar app. We did a thorough review of the app store guidelines. We went through every point, let’s make sure we’re not in violation here. Let’s make sure we’re not in violation there. Let’s make sure we follow this to the letter of the law. Exactly. Because we just went through this three years ago and we’re like, you know what? No, don’t want to do that again. Which is funny. As an aside, there’s some people who are like, oh, you planned all this. You set Apple up and then you made this amazing market campaign by goading Apple into rejecting you. Like, what? First of all, what 4D chess strategic vision do you think we have here that we can just maneuver the largest most valuable company in the world to just play our little tune? I mean, that would be amazing if we had little puppeteer springs here and we could just like Phil Schiller reject the app once, but not twice, only for two days, so it doesn’t hurt us too much.
(05:39): What? What are you on about? That’s just not how this works. We absolutely read those guidelines to make sure that we were not going to run the risk again of angering apple as it is because listen, 85%, 85% of the people who use our HEY email and calendar service and pay for it, they use Apple devices. We have to be on the iPhone. It is not optional. It’s not something just like, oh, well, if they say no, then we’ll just take our marbles and go play in a yard somewhere else. There are no other yards. There is this one yard that allows for viable businesses to exist in the United States when it comes to people who want to pay for software, and then there’s the other yard where you’re dead. That’s the other yard is the fricking graveyard. That’s the alternative. So that was never an option.
(06:29): So to think that we would willfully gamble our entire damn business on what a skit? On a marketing bit? No, that’s just not what happened here. So it was kind of surprising and disheartening to see this and also because Google didn’t do it. So Google has essentially the same app store policies. They’re very, very similar. They also have these carve outs. They also want you to use in-app payments. They want to do all these things. The Google app is live. The Google app just went through a normal review process and got approved. Now the other thing is we didn’t actually talk about this for a long time. We submitted these apps back in the middle of December. It is now getting close to the middle of January and we’ve only now just gotten them in. We try to like, all right, let’s make sure we’ve got plenty of tim.
(07:19): so when our big launch comes up, we can have the apps available. And Apple took their sweet time, which addresses this other point I’ve seen online. It was like, Nope, this was just an Apple mistake. This was some low level employee who didn’t read the rules correctly. Maybe they didn’t know about 3 1 3 F. Maybe they didn’t have any of the history of, Hey, no, no, no, no. Apple told us they called Jason the lovely named Bill. This is what happens when they call you. Bill calls you, right? I very much doubt that Bill’s name is actually Bill, maybe it’s Bob, maybe it’s something else, but it’s not Bill. He’s on a first name basis only and he calls to deliver the bad news, such that they don’t have to put anything in writing, preferably says that they’re not accumulating evidence to the inevitable lawsuits that will follow from this.
(08:08): But anyway, Bill calls us and says, do you know what? It took three weeks more or less for us to review all this stuff because it actually went all the way up to the app review board, which is this mysterious Illuminati board that no one knows who’s exactly is on, but apparently has final authority to control who gets to be in the app store and who doesn’t. This was not a low level mistake. Apple took their sweet time, they took weeks of deliberation to arrive at the verdict that you can’t be in the app unless, as he said, he gave us two options here. Either you just pay us, just give us the money, just give us the 30%. If you start doing in-app payments, we’ll let you in. What? Or second, and here it comes again, the rule we just made up and never committed to the guidelines, we’re just going to pull that back again, you have to do something.
(09:02): You can’t just have an app that has a login wall without letting customers try it, and we were like, again, what? You had three years since you made up this rule last time to put it into the guidelines so that people like us would actually have some clarity as what does it take to get approved? If we had known upfront that you had to have a spurious demo mode again still after these years, we would just have put that in. You could have saved all this aggravation. You could have saved all this to do it. I still think it would be intolerable if that existed, but at least we’d know where Apple stands, which is really what gets me so fired up here is that Apple pretends gives the pretext as though their app store review process is governed by something resembling laws, that there’s a rule of law that you can look up what it takes to get approved and if you do the things Apple tell you to, you will get in and no, that is not true at all.
(09:58): The process is entirely capricious. There’s a fig leaf of guidelines that you can look at and try to read the tea leaves and what it takes to get in, but it doesn’t actually govern what gets in and what doesn’t get in. So we end up in this situation where they come out with this bullshit again and we go like, okay, here we go again. First of all, this stuff is going on. We get the initial rejection just from Bill who calls us right in the morning. Then they wait the whole day until end of business Friday and I think five minutes to five they send us the official written rejection and we go like, yeah, Apple. Okay, this is how you’re trying to bury this once more. You’re just going to get hide it in under the weekend. And we are like, okay, whatever. Yes, you have all the power, you can absolutely make a dance and we will dance.
(10:51): So dance we did through the weekend to come up with this, it has to do something bullshit where we was inspired by a physical calendar that someone made to record the history of Apple. And we thought like, do you know what? That’s a good idea. So we did our own research. We didn’t use anything from that actual calendar, just the idea that, hey, do you know what? There are people who care about Apple’s history. I care about Apple’s history. Apple’s history is in part my history when it comes to computers. I’ve been using Apple for, what is going to be now 23 years? I was an extremely enthusiastic evangelist for Apple and has been basically ever since I converted, I don’t know how many people back in the early Ruby on Rails days who saw me using text made the editor on a MacBook and they switched from Windows.
(11:43): I remember when I was in college, I basically converted half my class to Apple who were all using PCs, and here I come with my white clamshell iBook and people are like, what kind of computer is that? And I sing the praises of Apple because I like the stuff they make. So Apple’s history is important to me, it’s important to us, it’s important to a lot of people. So we put that in, we basically a little cheeky, alright, fair. We made it a little cheeky that you could either log in, this is what we want people to do, we want people to go to hey.com, buy a subscription, then download the admin login in. But alright, it has to do something. So there’s a little link at the bottom. If you don’t have an account, you can see Apple’s history. If you click that, you get to see our calendar, how it works, how the detail pages work.
(12:26): It’s gorgeous, and you see Apple’s history in there. And that’s what we submitted yesterday, bright early Monday morning. The team had worked through the weekend. We get that in, it goes into review almost right away, I think within 40 minutes or something the little status change takes in and says in review, and then this morning it’s finally approved. Now was it approved because the goodness of Apple’s heart and because we just put that in there and they were like, yep, you complied with the guidelines we had on our head and that was exactly what was needed. No, of course it didn’t. It went through in large part because we are loud and obnoxious wasps and if you stick your goddamn paw into our hive, we will sting and we try to do the best stinging we can. Again, we’re small independent software maker, right? We don’t have lobbyists, we don’t have a bunch of people we can sort of pull around and maneuver.
(13:26): So we got to just shout through all the channels we got and shout we did. And I think this was, you’d think Apple would’ve perhaps remembered the stings that got back in 2020 when they were also adamant that we were just going to be dead and we were going to get kicked out of the app store unless we paid the 30%. And lo and behold, after a few weeks of just a torrent of bad press, they relented and they came up with a new rule basically just for us and thankfully also other people who fall into the same category and now we’ve done the same thing again? Grouper on Daring Fireball just remarked on this this morning or yesterday. Why? Why are you doing this? First of all, you shouldn’t be doing this to anyone. You should have clear guidelines. The guidelines should be fair and they should be applied equally to everyone.
(14:16): So you can’t let in a bunch of high flying apps like Netflix or Salesforce or whatever, that’s just a login screen and then claim to a bunch of smaller apps and smaller makers. No, you can’t do that because reasons I only have recorded inside my head that’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, including lawmakers, including regulators, including developers who just go like, okay, Apple, you’ve done a lot of good things. This is by the way, really important to stress here. I don’t hate Apple. We don’t hate Apple. I’m on an apple right now. I use Apple stuff all the time. I think Apple makes really good stuff. They make really good computers, they make really good phones and that’s why it’s so extra frustrating that you’re doing this to what should be your biggest fans who are in many ways your biggest fans.
(15:04): Not just us by the way, but your customers. We have all these customers, as I said, we have tens of thousands of customers on on HEY. 85% of them use Apple devices. So when Apple tries to get at us, they get at their own customers. They deny their own customers access to use the software they want to use. When you buy a thousand dollars phone, you should be able to use the HEY calendar if you want. It shouldn’t be up to Apple as to whether you can use a HEY calendar or you use Apple’s calendar or you use Google Calendar. That should be up to the consumer. The consumer should be able to say, I want to pay a hundred dollars a year to get amazing emailing calendar from this crew over at 37signals and then just be allowed to use their computer that they bought in their pocket to do whatever they want.
(15:51): That’s not the world we’re living in right now, unfortunately. Maybe it will be soon. I mean this is the irony of the timing again, three years later. Last time the timing was really bad for Apple because they had the WWDC, the Worldwide Developer Conference coming up at exactly the same time. They had all this spotlight on them and they want to go out at WWDC and say like, look, developers we’re really great to work with and you should build for the Apple platform. And then here, there’s this case that says, you’re horrible to developers and if you misstep the guidelines we have in our heads, we will squash you. It didn’t really square. That was an out of tune melody. Here we have now again, the Department of Justice in the United States is according to a report that the New York Times put out, what Friday last week, about to launch a major antitrust lawsuit against Apple on all of these issues.
(16:46): Alright, so that’s hanging there. In two months, I believe it’s in March or early April, the Digital Markets Act kicks in the EU. This is the act that basically bans Apple from using this tying that they can’t force developers to use during that payments. It makes Apple and Google and other systemic gatekeepers or whatever they call it, have alternate ways of installing software that they have to allow other app stores. If Epic Games want to have an app store, a game store, perhaps they should be allowed to do so. If Microsoft want to have a game store, they should be allowed to do so. Side loading, which side loading is such a funny term by the way. It sounds like kind of sneaky, it sounds like side alley. It sounds like something like you have to do in a trench coat when in reality it just means you can install whatever software you want, just like the Mac. On the Mac, you can download software from the internet that doesn’t go through Apple and you can install that. So the timing is just really strange. It doesn’t seem like Apple was going to gain anything. Apple did not gain anything except tremendously bad press. I think 2 million people saw that original tweet thread I put out and you’re like, again, why Apple? Let’s just get over this bullshit.
Kimberly (18:02): Okay, David, I’m going to let you dispel a myth that I saw online, which is that the app was rejected because of a login issue. Like the person reviewing it didn’t have correct login information. Tell us about that.
David (18:13): Yes.
Kimberly (18:14): Where did that come from?
David (18:15): I mean, it comes from a deep seated belief amongst some developers that Apple is actually really right, that their livelihood perhaps depend on Apple. They love Apple, so they can’t see Apple being this bully that they actually are. So they come up with all these reasons for why actually it’s your fault that Apple is kicking you in the teeth. And one of those explanations that came up was like, oh, it doesn’t do anything. Of course the reviewer has to be able to use the app yet. Well duh, we’ve been using this process for literally a decade. The Basecamp app is a login wall. It has been so far over a decade. Whenever we submit a new build, we supply login credentials to that reviewer. Because this is a server side powered system, we can see whether the reviewer logs in. We could see the reviewer logged in. We could see that they tried the app and actually gave it a fair shake.
(19:05): So that wasn’t it. Some of the other kind of calls to this again have been along the same lines where people are so invested I guess in the narrative that like Apple, I’m on team Apple, I’m an Apple fan, I’m an Apple person. Therefore it’s very intellectually painful. If Apple does something that just objectively seems objectionable and then they come up with this stuff, but it just wasn’t the case. We did all our homework. This is not our first rodeo. First of all, we’ve been publishing in the app store for over a decade. We have a lot of apps that’s gone in there without any trouble at all. We just went through this whole debacle three years ago. We did all our homework and double checked it before we submit it.
Kimberly (19:48): And then another thing I wanted to bring up, you mentioned that we got the second rejection Friday, late Friday and the team worked over the weekend and got something else out on Monday, working over the weekend. We saw a lot of comments on Twitter about people not thinking that was the 37signals way. Tell me your thoughts about that.
David (20:06): Yeah, so we have a book from 2018 called It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. And even just the title there is just so delicious for something like Twitter or X, right? You just go like, gotcha! I gotcha! Like all this stuff you made, it’s all invalid because some people worked over the weekend. Now I actually went through to read the chapter that addresses this in the book yesterday because I was like, what do we actually say? And what we say is, if you are constantly pushing the envelope, running it to the max, working 80 hour weeks working through the weekends, there’s something wrong in your business. And a hundred percent that’s true. What we also say is that occasionally, rarely, there will be a crisis that you should show up to fix. If our servers are offline on a freaking, if our servers are offline Christmas Eve, if they’re offline Thanksgiving dinner, you can rest assured that there will be people from 37signals working to fix that problem.
(21:07): Now, this wasn’t Christmas Eve, this wasn’t Thanksgiving dinner, but this was akin to an outage. Our HEY users who have gotten access to the hay calendar, which by the way, we haven’t rolled out fully to everyone were rushing through to get through that this week. But the people who did have access and started using the calendar for them not to be able to use the calendar on their phone is a kind of outage. Now it’s not the same outage that is our service or offline, but it is a kind of inaccessibility to our servers against the expectations you would have as a customer of HEY. So we got a team together, we asked them to put in extra and they put in a weekend’s worth of work to get us through this. Which by the way, validated instantly right after given the fact we were able to submit Monday morning and now the app is actually in the store.
(22:01): So should this be the normal mode of operation? Should every weekend be something you plow through because you want to? No. Sometimes external factors are imposed upon you and you should react to those things. So I think you can also get so precious in your sense that no one should ever work a day long if there’s a problem. No one should ever show up for a weekend if things are on fire. What? You think normal people never work a weekend? You think normal people never work a day extra at something that warns it? Of course they do all the time. This is this kind of overly precious bullshit that people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year can lull their little brains into believing is actually right snd just that like no, everything is invalid if you make people work over the weekend.
(22:53): So yeah, it was good. It was good. Sometimes there’s a crisis. You should show up for the crisis, you should fix the crisis and you should make sure you don’t have a crisis all the time. Now, thankfully, perhaps, we don’t come up with new products every five seconds and try to get those into the app stores. We’ve been working on the HEY calendar for a year. These are people working a weekend to see the fruits of all of that, that year worth of effort actually come to fruition. Do you know what’s more frustrating than working a year and feeling tired? Is to see that that year was for nothing, at least yet,EYo see that you can’t get the satisfaction of something you built into the hands of customers who’ve you built it for. So we will absolutely show up to fight for that. To put the stuff that we’ve built, the satisfaction there is intellectually and business wise to get products that we’ve made into the hands of customers we intended them for.
Kimberly (23:48): Okay, and last question before we wrap up. You mentioned new products. Obviously the HEY Calendar is coming out and we’re working on a new product under the once umbrella, and I understand that that once product won’t have these app store shenanigans. Is that a true story?
David (24:01): It is with once.com. We’re planning this whole suite series of products. We’re almost ready with the first one. We’ve actually already started the beta testing last year on it, but then kind of got a little distracted here for a second dealing with these app store shenanigans. But there we’re going to route around it. We’re going to round around it. There’s something called Progressive Web Applications, which terrible moniker. It’s abbreviated PWA, which sounds like a freaking insurgency group in Nira or something. But PWA is a suite of technologies that allow you to create essentially what feels like native applications that you can install on your phones, where you can get push notifications and all these other things without going through the app store bureaucrats, without risking your life or business or stress levels to that approval process. And that’s what we’re going to pursue with the once.com stuff.
(24:57): It’s not a hundred percent there. Let’s not kid anyone, least of all ourselves. The kind of fidelity UI fidelity that you can achieve with native applications is still higher. We don’t have any plans of not doing native apps for Basecamp, not doing native apps for HEY. I don’t think the technology is quite there yet for those kinds of apps. But there are other kinds of applications where it is there where the bar is good enough, where we can then push the envelope on what’s possible with these PWA technologies. We can show people hopefully that there’s a whole series classes of applications that don’t need the app store, that don’t need applications, and in fact can be much better for consumers, especially if you install applications like once. Dot com is all about you run these applications yourself. We don’t have the data, we don’t run it through our services.
(25:51): So the fact that PWA technology, for example, can allow a company in Europe to be in full compliance with the GDPR by sending their own push notifications with perhaps sensitive data straight from their servers to the recipient, not going through our company is a real win. So super excited about that. It is a little funny that we have these two products at the same time. We’d be pushing at them because we’re a bigger company now than we were. We’re a far more capable company than we were, but we have had to distract a little bit of attention here to the HEY calendar launch. But we’ll get back to once in about five seconds.
Kimberly (26:30): Well, there’ll be more to come on that soon. For now, we’re going to wrap it up. Rework is a production 37 signal, so you can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast. Full video episodes are on YouTube and Twitter. And if you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business or app store shenanigans, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850. You can also text that number or you can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.