WordPress founder claims Apple cut off updates to his completely free app because it wants 30 percent

Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

WordPress, the iOS app, lets you build and manage a website right from your iPhone or iPad, for free.

Separately, WordPress.com also happens to sell domain names and fancier website packages.

Now, WordPress founding developer Matt Mullenweg is accusing Apple of cutting off the ability to update that app — until or unless he adds in-app purchases so the most valuable company in the world can extract its 30 percent cut of the money.

Here’s the thing: the WordPress app on iOS doesn’t sell anything. I just checked, and so did Stratechery’s Ben Thompson. The app simply lets you make a website for free. There isn’t even an option to buy a unique dot-com or even dot-blog domain name from the iPhone and iPad app — it simply assigns you a free WordPress domain name and 3GB of space.

Apple admitted to The Verge that it’s involved, reminding us that in-app purchases are required whenever apps “allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired in your app on other platforms or your web site.” But again, the WordPress app doesn’t sell anything itself, and it sounds like you can’t do anything special with anything you’ve purchased from WordPress.com (beyond uploading additional files or selecting website themes) from the app, either.

While Mullenweg says there technically was a roundabout way for an iOS user to find out that WordPress has paid tiers (they could find it buried in support pages, or by navigating to WordPress’s site from a preview of their own webpage), he says that Apple rejected his offer to block iOS users from seeing the offending pages.

Mullenweg tells The Verge he’s not going to fight it anymore, though — he will add brand-new in-app purchases for WordPress.com’s paid tiers, which include domain names, within 30 days. Apple has agreed to allow Automattic to update the app while it waits. (The last update was issued yesterday.)

In other words, Apple won: the richest company in the world just successfully forced an app developer to monetize an app so it could make more money. It’s just the latest example of Apple’s fervent attempts to guard its cash cow resulting in a decision that doesn’t make much sense and doesn’t live up to Apple’s ethos (real or imagined) of putting the customer experience ahead of all else.

Mullenweg, of course, is only one of those speaking out publicly about the Apple tax and the company’s uneven enforcement of its rules. Yesterday, a group of major news publishers banded together to ask why Amazon, and not them, should get a sweetheart deal that allows the giant e-tailer to pay 15 percent instead of 30 percent for Prime Video. And all of this, of course, is happening in the shadow of Epic Games’ gigantic fight against Apple, one that Apple responded to this very afternoon, complete with a cache of emails from Epic’s own Tim Sweeney. You might want to give these links a look:

Interestingly, Mullenweg tells us his tweet was really for the WordPress community, not necessarily to rile up anger against the Apple tax; he says he anticipates pushback from the community when they suddenly see WordPress asking them if they’d like to purchase a .com upgrade.

Update, 6:44 PM ET: Added comment and confirmation from WordPress’s Mullenweg that the company has already caved; it has agreed to add in-app purchases within 30 days.

Update, 7:50 PM ET: Added that WordPress will specifically be adding in-app purchases for its paid plans (which include domain names), not simply its domain name purchases.

Update, 9:11 PM ET: Added Apple comment, and more details from Mullenweg about what Apple rejected.

Update, August 22nd at 6:11 PM ET: Apple has decided it won’t force this issue after all.

Comments

I think ultimately this whole kerfuffle is going to be good for end consumers in terms of their choices of where to buy digital items

Hopefully. Apple will want to make up that revenue somewhere however and where does that come from? Higher device prices? Or….. It sounds good on the front end, but I’m afraid the other side might not be all roses for consumers. Not saying there shouldn’t be changes here, I’m just a little skeptical that consumers will actually win anything here in the end.

You just demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on. Just a heads up.

What I am wondering is do you just need an option to buy something in the app? Why not add something totally ridiculous that no one would ever buy. Like grains of sand in a glass tube for $100. You have an option to purchase it now as in in-app purchase. Anyone dumb enough to buy it and WordPress gets $70 for something that cost under a buck to make. Doubt that would please Apple though, and that is the main issue.

From purportedly running on principal to goading regulators to bring on the hammer. I sort of wonder if this may be an example of an overeager app-reviewing contractor farm poring through apps from biggest to smallest for seeming to violate terms, but if for years the Wordpress app has operated freely but now Apple does in fact officially say no, you may not pass go, is this not an example of "prior art" that would cause multiple judges to issue injunctions against Apple for some sort of bait and switch tactics.

The prior art is that for years and years if app developers wished not to participate in the in-app-purchase paradigm, they had to preclude any in-app payment system from being available, à la Spotify showcasing premium features that you can access if you go to your account on a browser and sign up that way. Clunky as eff, and indeed anti-consumerism by Cupertino, but it is millions of subscribers perhaps being inconvenienced just the once and then they don’t have to think about it again and Apple and Spotify can grumble around their demilitarized zone. If Apple is now app-by-app saying that that stuff’s over, there is no choice, and they are mandating an in-app option to companies who offer paid tiers to users outside of the store, subtextually saying that it’s economically unfair for them to provide free downloads and updates of apps as of mid-2020, then the app store is about to go through enormous convulsions and that $2tr market cap will decline dramatically with the explosion of lawsuits about to hit Cook’s desk.)

If this indeed happened, it’s wild behavior from Apple. They don’t even sell anything on the app, why try to force them?

For people running Apple, taking advantage of their monopoly position makes perfect sense. They truly believe that they have the best platform for apps and that consumers and other developers should feel greatful to Apple for the opportunity to make apps.

This is fucking ridiculous. They’re one step removed from 30% of anything you sell on your website if you have an app on the App Store.

I keep joking about Apple demanding 30% of your hospital bill because you called an ambulance with an iPhone. It’s obviously a stretch, but I would not be surprised if some soulless bean counter argued it was "fair" because the alternative is consumers just wouldn’t have been able to call an ambulance, it costs Apple money to maintain and update the phone app, etc etc.

Maybe less of a stretch, how about 30% of bills that access iWatch health data, they’re keen on touting it as useful for such things right?

And with the cost of American health care imagine how much money Apple could make!

This behavior is a perfect example of how monopoly is not just a mathematical distinction about market share. It’s about the leverage an entity has over other actors and their ability to insulate themselves from market forces. When everybody from Facebook to Microsoft to Google to Epic to Spotify to indie developers to niche video streaming apps like Floatplane are all complaining that Apple is stifling their business and there is no market mechanism to get Apple to change it’s behavior (or have Apple go under because they refuse to change), it doesn’t fricking matter that Apple only has a small percentage of market share if you define the market as all mobile phones all around the world.

Exactly. US needs true Capitalism without the cancer of monopolies.
The anti competitive laws need to be stronger.

I work for Microsoft but I’m happy that back in the 90s, the government stepped in at the right time to steer Microsoft in the right direction. Microsoft is much more valuable and more eager to partner with others now.

The rule is intended to keep developers from putting something free on the App Store which then directs the users to pay for it on the web, bypassing the App Store specifically to avoid the App Store fees. It sounds like WordPress got caught in that rule by selling products to WordPress users on their website that would affect the app.

And that rule is dodgy as all hell!

Feels like Apple is trying to give us much ammo as possible to the EU and everyone other government entity opening up antitrust investigations into Apple. Yet another example of Apple using it’s dominance (65% of the mobile app market) to extract profits for things that have nothing to do with iOS.

If I was to break the machine from the inside, this is exactly what I would be doing.

Yeah, this move is so comically mustache-twirling evil that it’s hard to believe they’re serious about it – forcing a developer to implement a feature in their app solely so you can tax it is an impressive level of bullying. If you told me this was someone in mid-level management in the App Store who thinks the policies are ridiculous but is forced to follow them trying to push the issue so hard it forces governments to act, I’d believe it.

Apple once again showing its anti competitive ways.

Something’s gotta give.

The issue is not straightforward.

The issue is WordPress.com the commercial service shares it’s name with the open source project by the same name: WordPress.

This app is really a WordPress.com app that happens to work with self-hosted WordPress. You can use it with a self-hosted open source WordPress site but the login for that is buried and the onboarding is very much WordPress.com first and foremost.

So the issue isn’t that WordPress.com doesn’t want to implement in-app purchases for people to pay for WordPress.com service, the issue is the app has always been promoted and given lipservice as being the "WordPress" app and people within the open-source project ecosystem wouldn’t like WordPress.com having in-app purchases in an app that has been promoted as the WordPress app.

If this is confusing to you… imagine what it’s like for users.

And to solve this [problems??], wordpress.com need paying Apple?

it is not confusing at all to me. If the article is right, Apple is forcing a company to add commercial products to an app so that they can get their share. Apple is now dictating what apps must and must not offer, effectivelly coordinating business decisions that belong to other companies.

Hopefully I understood well what it is.

Yup its in the Apple comment for this article and the App Store guidelines: "… in-app purchases are required whenever apps ‘allow users to access content, subscriptions, or features they have acquired in your app on other platforms or your web site.’"

That is ridiculous to me, but not because Apple doesn’t deserve a cut.

Honestly for most businesses, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. In-app purchases work for a reason, because most businesses want more purchases (duh, more money). This is true in any form of sales where the middle man deserves a cut because they put the business in great position to win a customer.

Apple has made it incredibly easy to make an in-app purchase, which is why it’s great for businesses and probably worth stomaching the commission. Because it might be much more difficult to get that same purchase done in a different way. For example, does someone with the ESPN app really want to close their app, open a browser, go to the ESPN website and sign up for a ESPN+ subscription there when they can do it through the app in less than a minute with a few taps? Probably not because the end result is the same for them – they get the subscription services they want. Apple is enabling the customer to sign up and for ESPN to earn its new customer, in very few easy steps.

In other words, a win-win situation with a middle man is usually worthwhile for everyone. However that can only go so far. In my opinion, the part that is abusing their market position is that exact quote from their App Store guidelines.

Developers are required to build in-app purchases if they offer paid services accessible through the business’ website or its app? It should never be forced upon a developer ever, because it blows up the whole argument I just mentioned.

If you build a great platform businesses want to take advantage of and are willing to share revenue with, that’s great. But if you build a platform in which businesses are now required to sell all services through, or risk the consequences of having their app unlisted / removed while other free apps without any in-app purchases are still allowed? That hurts businesses and, by extension, the end consumers.

There’s no realistic alternative in the Android-iOS duopoly we live in right now. Especially for iOS because Apple devices don’t allow any other app stores besides its own. So that kind of language in their guidelines is seriously dangerous when you see it actually enabling this behavior from Apple. I’m not even going to rant about the "other platforms or your web site" part of that guideline quote because that’s not even up for debate in my opinion. That’s reaching beyond that Apple walled garden and very clear abuse of their market position.

Good post. I don’t normally read posts that ramble on for that long but I like the way you laid it out.

WordPress.com doesn’t want to implement in-app purchases for people to pay for WordPress.com service


people within the open-source project ecosystem wouldn’t like WordPress.com having in-app purchases in an app that has been promoted as the WordPress app.

What I’m getting from the situation is, Wordpress.com devs don’t want to add in-app purchases and people using the app don’t want in-app purchases…? End of story. If this is true, Apple is still very much the bad guy.

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