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Even Apple's ex-head of app reviews says App Store is unfair to Spotify, Netflix

"Apple needs to own up" to irresponsible App Store policies against direct competitors like Spotify and Netflix, says Phillip Shoemaker, who ran app approvals for seven years.

Apple restricts its iPhones to apps from its own App Store.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's former head of App Store approvals believes his former team is the best in the world -- but the policies it enforces aren't. 

"Over the years, Apple has struggled with using the App Store as a weapon against competitors," Phillip Shoemaker, who ran Apple's third-party app reviews for seven years, said in a Medium post Tuesday. 

Apple is facing intensifying scrutiny over how its App Store policies treat services, like Spotify and Netflix, that directly compete with its own. Earlier this year, Spotify lodged a complaint with Europe's antitrust watchdog, saying Apple uses its App Store policies as a cudgel to stifle Spotify, the main competitor to Apple Music

The App Store is the biggest moneymaker in Apple's services business, but the issue will only grow thornier this year, as Apple launches subscription services in new arenas like video, with its Netflix competitor Apple TV Plus, and video games, with Apple Arcade set to compete against Google Stadia

Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. In the past, it has rejected Spotify's claims. Wednesday morning, the company also launched an App Store explainer page that noted how Apple operates "a store that welcomes competition."

Dumb readers

Shoemaker called on Apple to change two policies. One, known as the dumb reader rule, prevents third-party apps from using any payment system other than Apple's own in-app purchases, all of which pay Apple a 30% fee in the first year and a 15% fee after that. Another policy, known as the no-linking-out rule, prohibits apps from including any buttons, links or other directions that would help potential subscribers find other sign-up options. 

Spotify and others have complained that the two policies give Apple the power to put its rivals at an unfair competitive disadvantage. 

Now playing: Watch this: Apple Music vs. Spotify: Music streaming battle

"With the App Store being the only way to install apps onto your iPhone and iPad, Apple has complete and unprecedented power over their customer's devices," Shoemaker said. "The decisions they make with regards to third-party apps needs to be above reproach, and currently are not."

Shoemaker called on Apple to create a limited exception to both policies, specifically for apps that directly compete with Apple. He suggested allowing external links to other purchasing options only for apps that directly compete with Apple in areas with tight margins, where a 30% fee hits the app maker hard. That would include things like news services, books, movies, music and cloud storage.

"Some may argue that this is generally difficult to police, and that it is a slippery slope," said Shoemaker, who was Apple's senior director of App Store review until his departure in 2016. "Slippery slopes and policing is what the App Store review team does, and during my time, they did it better than anyone else in the world."

App Store uproar

Apple has faced scrutiny over its App Store pretty much since it launched in 2008, but the threat from these complaints has grown in recent months. In the last month alone:

In the midst of these squalls, Apple launched an App Store explainer page ahead of its biggest annual event for app developers, its Worldwide Developers Conference set to start Monday. The site notes that Apple operates "a store that welcomes competition," as listed apps in the App Store compete with Apple's own. The page also breaks down the steps it takes to "make sure apps are respectful to users with differing opinions" and reject apps that are "over the line."

But the page didn't directly address any of the recent claims alleging Apple abuses the App Store's power. 

"Apple needs to own up to their irresponsibilities and fix these significant problems," Shoemaker said in his post. "If they don't, the regulators just might."

Originally published May 29, 8:49 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:35 a.m. PT: Adds details about App Store explainer page.