Email app returns to Mac App Store after 8-month fight with Apple

BlueMail's fracas illustrates the power tech giants hold over the digital realms they've created -- and the work it is to maintain them.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Apple; Illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The BlueMail app is back on Apple's Mac App Store after an eight-month absence because -- depending on whom you believe -- either Apple or app developer Blix got its act together. The reinstatement took place on Monday after Blix submitted a new version of an email app that Apple rejected in June.

Millions of people use BlueMail on Windows PCs, Macs, iPhones , iPads and Android devices, co-founder Ben Volach said. He said Apple rejected the app using a series of "shifting explanations." Blix's experience is typical of many independent developers working in an ecosystem that Apple controls, particularly when the developers compete with Apple itself, he said.

"They punish everyone" who competes, not just Blix, he said.

But Apple offers developers "a fair and level playing field," the company said in a statement, pointing to numerous other email apps available on its app stores. It's consistently told Blix that the New Jersey-based company needed to bring its app into compliance with the MacOS Gatekeeper feature that protects against malware, Apple said. 

Specifically, BlueMail would create a new program when launched. That program wasn't properly signed and would have a different identifier each time, issues that would trigger a security and privacy warning, Apple said. Blix fixed the issue with its most recent update, submitted Friday and approved Monday.

The tension between Apple and Blix illustrates the realities that many developers face in the modern computing world. Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have created sprawling, complex tech ecosystems and hold power over other players that make a living in them. Maintaining the platforms allows other companies to thrive, but challenging the platform owner can prove difficult when things go wrong.

A political issue, too

Tech platform dynamics are getting more attention. A 2017 lawsuit arguing that Apple keeps too much revenue from sales of third-party iPhone apps went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against one part of Apple's argument. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to split Apple from its App Store as part of her attempt to break up tech giants and stop companies from "using proprietary marketplaces to limit competition."

That's in line with Blix's concern. "They own the device and the platform. They own the App Store. They decide the review guidelines. They enforce the guidelines. If you're not happy and want to appeal, you're appealing to Apple," said Dan Volach, Blix's other co-founder. "It's Apple, Apple, Apple."

Blix directly challenged Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook in November and last week tried to rally other developers to its cause. In October, Blix sued Apple, arguing its "sign in with Apple" technology infringed a Blix patent.

"We're not going to drop the lawsuit," Ben Volach said. Apple didn't comment on the lawsuit.

Apple's own apps

Apple offers its own apps on its App Store and ships them with iPhones, a challenge for any app maker seeking to compete with its apps and services.

But Apple argues its processes have made its App Store "the safest, most secure and trusted platform for customers and a great business opportunity for all developers." And competing doesn't mean developers can do whatever they want, Apple argues.

Blix "refused" Apple's help and wanted Apple to approve an app that overrode "basic data security protections," Apple said. Once Blix fixed that problem, though, BlueMail came back.

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