Apple Says App Store Subscriptions Are Media Only
After weeks of development and testing, confirming that my app, Uptimetry (website, app store), correctly processes payments using Apple’s new auto-renewing subscription in-app purchase framework, I submitted to the App Store. Then, after an extended review period, my app was rejected. The rejection letter stated simply that my in-app purchase type was invalid. After some digging, I discovered this meant they would prefer I use a non-renewing subscription type for this app. I engaged in a dialog with the reviewer, asking for clarification on why exactly my monthly recurring service (provided by an external system) was not suited to be an auto-renewing subscription type. The answer I got was “I can’t help you. File an appeal.” So I did.
Several weeks later, I received a phone call from Apple regarding my appeal. Their explanation seemed astonishing to me. They rejected the appeal, standing on the initial position that despite the clearly recurring nature of my product, it was being delivered not in the form of visual or audio media, such as a magazine or streaming video, but in the form of a service. They also acknowledged that Netflix doesn’t even offer the ability to purchase and/or modify your subscription through their iPhone or iPad app. I almost pointed out that this was a tacit admission of failing to enforce the widely scrutinized policy forcing developers to offer subscriptions through their iOS apps if the same subscriptions are available through external channels. I thought better of it, preferring a more diplomatic solution.
I championed the notion that to prompt the user repeatedly to renew their subscription would be far more of a burden than asking them to manually cancel future renewals for their active subscription(s). I made the case that especially in my situation, the auto-renewing feature was adding value to the user’s experience. The whole point of Uptimetry is to monitor your web resources and guarantee they are always being served correctly with the desired content. I want my customers to trust me to keep a watchful eye on their assets, informing them at the first sign of trouble. If they receive an email every month asking them to renew and prompting them to open the app and update their subscription, that’s going to get old fast. If instead, the system simply processed their renewal automatically through their iTunes account and pushed updated subscription data to their device, their service would remain uninterrupted until they manually cancel their subscription renewal and the active subscription expires.
Why Not Annual?
You might be thinking “ok, sure, monthly renewal notices are annoying, but that just promotes purchase of an annual subscription.” As I spoke with Apple’s appeal representative, I argued further that an auto-renewing monthly term is better than a non-renewing annual term because it gives the customer frequent opportunities to modify their subscription, but saves them from frequent reminders. For Uptimetry, this is key. A user might start using the monitoring service with a few URLs, so they buy the Micro plan. Then, as time goes by, they realize they need to monitor a few more, so they need to upgrade to the Medium plan. With an annual plan, they’re locked in and can not upgrade without committing to the new service level for a full year. With a monthly plan, they can buy a plan with a higher or lower service level any time, and the commitment is limited to a month. All they need do is cancel renewal of plans they wish to drop, and they will naturally expire. This additive subscription system makes it easy for customers to combine multiple subscriptions as needed to match their needs.
Product vs Service
This all begs the question, “what is the difference between digital product delivery and digital service delivery?” In the case of products, a specific digital item, such as an app or song, is transferred to the customer, granting unlimited future use. The license agreement in this case is simple. The customer agrees not to distribute copies to other people. Often, there is no cost associated with delivering a digital product, as there are no materials required to produce it and no shipping costs required to deliver it. In the case of services, though, the field widens. Digital services can be more than simply data storage and hosting. Often, they perform actions on behalf of the customer, such as waiting on hold while seeking customer service with a third party (FastCustomer), monitoring a web server to adjust its hosting parameters to match the real-time load (HireFire), or searching CraigsList for specific items and sending notifications when matches are found (CraigsCrawler). Digital services represent a unique corner of the market, as they deliver value to customers and cost almost nothing.
Line in the Sand
Apple has clearly made a policy decision here. They have decided they will allow auto-renewing subscriptions for digital media products, such as music, magazines, newspapers, and video, but digital services are expected to be provided on a non-renewing basis. While there is clearly an appropriate use for non-renewing subscriptions, this distinction between media and non-media seems arbitrary, especially given there is no mention of it in the developer guides. Speaking as an iOS developer who is heavily invested in App Store subscriptions and in-app purchasing, I sincerely hope Apple re-evaluates this position. I realize that the digital service market is still defining itself. I do not expect them to be ahead of the curve in all aspects of the industry, but this feels more like a block than a fumble.