Late Wednesday night, Apple released a press statement that announced the company had resolved an investigation by the Japan Fair Trade Commission and will now allow developers of "reader" apps worldwide to include a link to their website so that users can "set up or manage" an account. It's a relatively small change that affects a relatively small number of apps, but--make no mistake--it is a big deal in one important way.
The change comes after Apple previously announced that it had agreed to a settlement with developers in a class-action lawsuit. In reality, that settlement did little other than provide $100 million to a fund that is supposed to go to developers. In reality, almost a third will go straight to the plaintiff's lawyers.
Apple said one of the terms of the settlement was that it was clarifying that developers could communicate with their customers via email, to inform them of alternative payment options. That's barely a concession for reasons I wrote about at the time.
This, however, is an actual change that users will notice when it goes into effect in 2022. Even if it doesn't affect the vast majority of apps, for the ones it does, it will improve the user experience significantly. Here's how Apple described it in the release:
The update will allow developers of "reader" apps to include an in-app link to their website for users to set up or manage an account. While the agreement was made with the JFTC, Apple will apply this change globally to all reader apps on the store. Reader apps provide previously purchased content or content subscriptions for digital magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, and video.
This means that Netflix and Spotify can now include a link to their website within their apps. It isn't clear how much developers can say about why you might want to click that link. That seems like it could be important, and I think it's curious that Apple was very careful to say that it is only allowing developers to "share a single link to their website to help users set up and manage their account." For example, can a developer tell a user "click here to sign up?"
To be clear, this is about the least Apple could do to fix the most egregious of its guidelines. A better option would have been for developers to include a web view within their app for users to sign up or manage their accounts.
Apple is clearly not ready to go that far, and since Netflix and Spotify (and other reader apps) already don't allow in-app subscriptions, this move doesn't even cost Apple any potential revenue. Still, this is the first time Apple has done something to fix one of the very worst things about the user experience on the iPhone.
For years, if you downloaded Netflix, the only thing you see when you launch the app is a button that says "Sign In" below text that says: "Trying to join Netflix? You can't sign up for Netflix in the app. We know it's a hassle. After you're a member, you can start watching in the app."
The thing is, Netflix couldn't tell you how to sign up. It couldn't tell you to visit Netflix.com to sign up. It was also barred from explaining why you can't sign up in the app.
You can't sign up within the app because Netflix would have to give Apple a 30 percent cut of your subscription. Instead, you just got the least helpful sign-in screen imaginable.
That's a problem for Netflix. As hard as it is to believe, there are people who aren't yet subscribed to the streaming video service. The fact that it isn't clear how to do that in the app is a really poor experience for those people.
For the rest of us, it's not great either. You can't manage or make changes to your account within the apps, meaning you have to instead log on via a web browser. That might seem like a minor inconvenience, but, again, the point is that the experience is made worse simply because Apple won't allow developers to communicate basic information to users or potential users.
That's why it was bad for Apple, more than anything. It was a bad experience for users. The rules and guidelines Apple makes for iOS apps directly affect the experience of using an iPhone. Until now, that experience was worse because of Apple's zero-tolerance policy towards anything that might possibly deprive it of even a dime of in-app transaction revenue.
This definitely doesn't solve everything--it doesn't even address the concerns of most of its developers around using third-party payment systems, for example. To that end, Apple has a lot of work to do to. This, however, is a small step in fixing the worst thing about the iPhone experience.