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App Store: a loophole in the infinite loop?

Posted 7 years ago in Tech by Philip Fierlinger

Two months ago we submitted Xero Touch, our iPhone app, to the App Store. After five weeks we got the disappointing response that the app was rejected.

Pay to play

Like every other iPhone app, we provided a way for people to signup from the app itself. However, Apple insisted we must use Apple’s in-app payments if we wanted people to signup from the app. Funny thing is, that’s not possible – their in-app payments can’t handle a subscription service like ours with upgrades, downgrades and volume discounts.

Beyond the billing mechanics, the pricing model for subscription software – 30% of lifetime revenue – is not an option. We can accept paying a one-off bounty for each signup, because that’s the value the app store delivers.

No sampling the merchandise

And anyway, our signup is free. People don’t have to pay to use a trial of Xero. Hence, Apple’s other policy – no trial versions. Apple says “Your website is the best place to provide demos, trial versions, ….” Except Apple then bans developers from that too “It’s not appropriate to include the link of your web service and references of the link in your app or your marketing text.”

After weeks of waiting and cryptic emails from Apple, we ended up on the phone with our judge & jury: a guy called Steve from Cupertino (alas, not the Steve). In a two minute phone call the ambiguities of written policies was cleared. If we removed the ability to signup from within the app we would get official approval, which we did and you can now get the Xero app here.

Straight to the top

It’s great to finally have our app in the App Store. Almost immediately we were featured at the top of the ranks. It’s been very popular. Which makes it really frustrating that people who discover the app can’t just try it out immediately. And it’s beyond frustrating that we’re forbidden from telling people how they can get a free login so they can try it out.

Double standards?

It’s unclear whether Apple is reviewing and rejecting all existing apps that have in-app signups and demos. There’s more than a few that we know about – Quickbooks Mobile is a perfect example – that don’t comply with this policy.

It’s worth noting the Quickbooks app released an approved update the same week our app was rejected.

We’d love to hear from other people who’ve had to deal with this or similar issues. Is there a loophole or a workaround that we haven’t discovered?


August 5, 2011 at 5.13 pm

Frustrating on the double standards!

Windows Phone provides trial facilities and does not mandate a 30% take for app purchases which would make things much easier. Not sure what Google offers in comparison.

I guess this is the price you pay for access to the most popular platform of people with money.

Did they let you keep the link to the website for those who dont yet have the service?

Wayne Robinson
August 5, 2011 at 5.25 pm

Maybe you could ask Steve why Quicken gets to keep the link?

Jerry Zhao
August 5, 2011 at 5.36 pm

Amazon is the other example! you can buy online without going through apple…

Clint Davis
August 5, 2011 at 6.03 pm

I am also writing an app that follows the same methods.

Using PayPal SDK for a services based credits purchase on my conferencing control panel. Along with signing up for the trial account.

I have not submitted the app yet, but I can already tell it may be hard to get through the red tape.

Glen Barnes
August 5, 2011 at 6.06 pm

You will get different responses from different reviewers for different versions of the same app.

Deal with it.

It isn’t just limited to the AppStore as either. The Microsoft Marketplace is just as bad. We have over 25 apps all built off the same code base and in the early days there were quite a few rejections until we honed the code base to remove bugs and refine the UI. Even now though some apps get rejected because of things like the way we use mapping (That is a mistake on the reviewers part and a resubmission with an explanation always works).

One possible workaround to the subscribe/try feature is to open the link in Mobile Safari and have a mobile web version of the trial sign up page which you can then go back to app afterwards. IIRC you are allowed to do this and maybe this is how the Quickbooks app works?

Aaron Green
August 5, 2011 at 6.39 pm

Hi Philip, There is an easy way around it and we did it with our Streamtime iPad app – just create a frame of an external web page (that you host) inside your app and then somewhere on that page have the sign up process. It would pay NOT to have the sign up process on that page when you submit the app for review 😉 just have a “info” or “help” type page displaying, you can change your web page later.

James Sugrue
August 5, 2011 at 7.17 pm

We’ve been doing this almost as kong as there’s been an AppStore, never had too many problems. Anything that was a problem, was our fault for not following the guidelines. We were always treated fairly and with respect, and a couple of times we were rung by reviewers to explain.

There are Australasian Dev liason at Apple Oz, who are very helpful. They will advise on whether your app has any issues that could see it fail, if you think you may be in a grey area. I think they would be better to contact than the US review team?

We have had similar pain to Glen on Windows Phone, multiple rejections for minuscule problems….

Philip Fierlinger
August 5, 2011 at 7.19 pm

Thanks Aaron. Great tip. WIll check that out!

@Glen & @Chris – we were explicitly prohibited from including a link to our signup.

@Wayne we did ask why QB is okay and we’re not – we got no response.

Layton Duncan
August 5, 2011 at 8.39 pm

Ultimately you play by Apple rules.

• I’d highly recommend NOT trying to subvert Apple’s policies using Web Views. Apple are known to punish severely those who attempt to subvert their policies.

• Apple will never discuss other apps which appear to contradict their policy with you. They often note the discrepancies and follow them up with the party concerned, but they will never comment at all on this.

• Policies on links to 3rd party payment processing are fairly clear. If you can signup or purchase in the app, it must be processed via Apple. All other payment processing in app is prohibited.

• Guidelines clearly state you can’t use the terminology ‘beta’ ‘demo’ ‘trial’ or ‘test’ anywhere in your app.

• If you ever get the ‘Your app is taking unexpected additional time for review’ email, it almost always means it’s been flagged for executive review, which happens on a monthly cycle. If you get this email, it’s worth emailing app review asking why it’s been flagged, so you can resolve things faster.

Andrew Hall
August 5, 2011 at 9.32 pm

We had a similar issue.
We werent allowed to offer a link to our website from the description in ITunes, even though thousands of other apps do.

Our pricing model is a “per seat” system and like you, we couldn’t do this via the app either.

We finally got the app accepted by removing the links from the app and the about button which linked to our website – even though thousands of other apps are allowed!

Philip Fierlinger
August 5, 2011 at 9.39 pm

Thanks Layton, *now* you tell us! Where were you 2 months ago?!

So in your experience do you see Apple dealing with these discrepancies or is more to Glen’s point: luck of the draw in who you get to review your app?

What do you think about Apple’s approach to subscription services? 30% of lifetime revenue is a non-starter. Nobody is willing to pay it, so developers are creating broken experiences that customers are just putting up with. Nobody wins: customers lose out, developers lose out and Apple gains nothing. Do you expect Apple to wise up and make a change in policy? Or do you see it differently?

Layton Duncan
August 6, 2011 at 12.37 am

In many of the cases we’ve been involved in, they have dealt with the inconsistencies eventually. One in particular was extremely frustrating, which cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars before it was resolved. But you’ve got little choice but to suck it up.

As to luck of the draw, i’d say it’s more they make mistakes (although fewer these days) but those eventually get put right. In general I don’t see things as being wildly inconsistent in review in recent times.

I don’t see Apple ever changing their policy on subscription cuts. It’s clearly a barrier for many businesses, for the reason you mentioned, what enduring value do they provide after the initial discovery and signup? If it’s just card processing fees and re-billing management, then I guess they’re assuming a worst case transaction of $0.99, in which case $0.30 is probably what it would cost to process elsewhere. I’ve always been of the opinion that instead of the 30% they should have a lower percentage, but have a minimum per transaction fee of $0.30 or something. That way high dollar value apps pay more reasonable fees, at least closer to what other forms of card payment fees would be.

As for the mechanics of the payment options Apple offer, we’ve hit virtually every undocumented limitation possible with Air Forms. It’s a severely limiting option when targeting business users, so we have options to purchase licenses in volume outside the App Store, as well as the ability to purchase in app using Apples IAP system, up until it’s limitations on quantity and dollar value kick in. Frankly, I don’t think you’d want to touch Apple’s payment processing options even if they were technically usable in Xero’s circumstances, too much trouble.

Aaron Green
August 6, 2011 at 2.26 am

Julian over at Proworkflow has a sexy iPhone app too and he’s got an easy trial signup process so its obviously hit and miss as to whether you’ll get it passed.

Im guessing that if you want to behave and play by all the rules you’ll just have to offer a total free account for touch users that perhaps has no web component to it at all but requires the user to submit their email address to you. Once you have that you can of course easily direct market to them to “upgrade to the full rich Xero experience via your website”. You should be fine with having 2 buttons on the launch screen “I have an account already / create a new account” which nicely caters for all your existing customers who want to use the app. (it is a great app by the way, I had a good play with it when it launched).

I’m just hoping that Xero’s approval process isn’t has harsh as Apples – we submitted Streamtime for approval to the Xero “add ons” section a few weeks back and got knocked back on a few things which I think we’re putting right now 😉

Ivan Jouikov
August 6, 2011 at 3.05 am

You still haven’t figured out how this works, have you? You want something done, you pay good money to the right people.

Roberto Moreno
August 6, 2011 at 4.06 am

We have the same issue with one of Real Estate Website Video App, We have a link that points to our website that has services and products. Removed the link and waiting now….

Apple is not enterprise class « Technology
September 10, 2011 at 1.36 am

[…] though there is a strong case for arguing that’s relatively cheap marketing and distribution.Those flogging apps that carry subscription based pricing have an even bigger problem- at least perceptually – though again I would argue that’s less of an issue than it at […]

Apple is not enterprise class
September 10, 2011 at 1.39 am

[…] though there is a strong case for arguing that’s relatively cheap marketing and distribution. Those flogging apps that carry subscription based pricing have an even bigger problem – at least perceptually – though again I would argue that’s less of an issue than it […]

Apple is not enterprise class | Technology News - Computers, Internet, Invention and Innovation Tech from News247
September 10, 2011 at 6.52 am

[…] though there is a strong case for arguing that’s relatively cheap marketing and distribution. Those flogging apps that carry subscription based pricing have an even bigger problem – at least perceptually – though again I would argue that’s less of an issue than it […]

John P Coble
September 10, 2011 at 8.33 am

Apple is not relevant. Their only product that is of any use is the IPAD and that will be supplanted by Amazon’s Android Based Pad. Android and Windows Phone are the mobile OSs to focus on. Android because it is the most widespread mobile OS and it will get easier for Developers once Google gives more standardization to it (something they will do after becoming more fully integrated with Motorola). Windows Phone will become more integrated with Windows 8 and therefore a closer match for the desktop/laptop/pad-tablet than any other OS. Windows Phone will also benefit once the Microsoft purchase of Nokia is announced (hasn’t happened yet – but seems a good possibility). Blackberry will go the way of WebOS or worse. IPhones/Pads will go the way Apple has always gone (back into their niche). Blackberry doesn’t have the power to keep up and Apple doesn’t have the desire. Trust me, Android/Windows Phone, then Blackberry, the just let Apple work through the Safari browser since they want to be so greedy…

November 5, 2011 at 2.46 am

Apple’s famed “walled garden” approach. Annoying and, ultimately, their downfall when W8 takes off.

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