5 March, 20227 minute read

Apple should charge more for IAP

Purchasing goods online is a terrible user experience, because businesses at large have made the decision that reducing churn is better accomplished by making it really hard to unsubscribe instead of improving the value of their product. The modern software industry is chock full of predatory dark patterns which violate end users in a myriad of different ways.

Today I ran headfirst into this problem.

I had purchased a Business Insider subscription in order to read a paywalled article which sounded interesting—I'm more than happy to part with a few dollars for a truly insightful piece—and decided today that it wasn't worth keeping the subscription going. A lot of their content isn't terribly interesting to me, I'm not interested in their value-added services like their salary database, and great articles are few and far between regardless of which website you go to.

That should be the end of the story. If you're a business and your customers don't like your product, then you don't get paid. Welcome to capitalism. But of course, while it is extremely easy to set up a Business Insider subscription, it is extremely difficult to then cancel that same subscription.

Canceling my Business Insider subscription

My first step was to navigate to the Business Insider website: businessinsider.com. Business Insider redirected me to the Australian version of their website, and as you can see below there is no user account management functionality on the Australian website.

Screenshot of Business Insider's home pageScreenshot of Business Insider's navigation menu

If you scroll down to the bottom (@Business Insider: don't put links in your footer alongside infinite scroll) of the page, there are also no useful links. Inspecting the sidebar also yields nothing useful.

What you need to do is go to the international version of Business Insider1. Once you're there, you'll have a little user icon at the right edge of the main header. Clicking it will open up the user menu, and instead of the page being filled with useful links to account management you are instead greeted by a bunch of their extra services. To access your subscription, you need scroll a tiny menu at the top of the menu horizontally in order to find the "Subscription" section.

The Business Insider account menu; the link to manage your subscription is hidden off-screenShowcase of the subscription menu link after scrolling horizontally

To their credit, they've added UI affordances here which make it reasonably obvious that you can scroll that top bit of the menu. But it's quite frustrating that subscription management is tucked away out of sight.

I don't have screenshots for this as I'm writing this article post-hoc, but here's what happened after I tapped the "Subscription" link:

  1. I was shown a full-screen dialog trying to upsell me to an annual subscription
  2. After closing out of that and tapping cancel I had to give them a reason for canceling
  3. After providing my reason I was shown a page which served to remind me about all the services I was going to unsubscribe from
  4. After clicking through that I was shown yet another attempt at upselling
  5. Only after clicking through that was my unsubscribe successful

This is garbage. Instead of trying to improve their product, Business Insider instead makes unsubscribing a complicated process in the hopes that you'll give up and wind up sticking around for another billing cycle before trying again. It's utterly user hostile, and lots of people have been involved in implementing this—it's not just a one off thing.

Dark patterns are everywhere

The sad thing is that Business Insider isn't the only company which makes cancelation difficult. Telecommunications companies are perhaps the most canonical example of this business practice in action, but you can find examples of it almost everywhere you look. This kind of behavior might be justifiable for certain businesses dealing in physical goods, where there are high marginal costs associated with adding new customers and cancelation of accounts might be complicated, but it absolutely has no place in the technology space where distribution to a million customers is largely the same as distribution to a handful of customers, and where account cancelation is entirely handled by software.

The App Store

Let's zoom out a bit and talk about Apple's App Store. Apple has an infamously tight grip on the iPhone's software ecosystem, and prevents most types of apps from taking payments without using Apple's own payment solutions. The bottom line is that if you're a small app making <$1MM/year in revenue you'll need to pay Apple a 15% cut, and otherwise you'll need to pay them 30%.

The 30% cut is controversial. Epic Games' CEO, Tim Sweeny, described it as "terribly unfair and exploitative", and one Twitter user even described Apple's behavior around the App Store as being "like a mafia shakedown." We're seeing new legislation come out with the goal of reducing Apple's grip on their ecosystem: South Korea has mandated that Apple must allow alternate payment systems, and the US is looking to push through a series of antitrust laws targeted at large technology companies.

What does it look like when you subscribe to something on the App Store?

Compare that to how Business Insider handles their subscriptions. If you can't see how much better Apple's subscription management is as a consumer, then I don't know what to tell you. Buying something off the App Store is a nonevent for me because I know I'm in good hands.

Showcase of Apple warning me about a subscription after deleting an app

I can't put a price on my peace of mind. Apple thinks it's worth about 30%—and that actually seems cheap to me.

Commentators are correct when they observe that a 30% revenue take is far in excess of what Apple needs in order to maintain and operate the App Store itself. But the App Store isn't the entirety of Apple's value proposition: selling through the App Store gives you access to millions of customers who are primed to spend money. App Store revenue is consistently about twice that of the Google Play store despite the iPhone's lower market share in large part because Apple has made it really easy and safe to spend money on their platform.

The value of caring about your customers

This doesn't end with their technical offerings. The tip of my Apple Pencil had distorted weirdly a few months ago and I didn't have any replacement tips handy. There weren't any available in any local brick-and-mortar stores2, so I purchased them from the Apple store. I paid zero shipping and received them less than 24 hours later, even though they were shipped from Sydney.

Apple's generally pretty good when it comes to delivery times. My most recent iPad arrived in a little over 24 hours, my iPhone arrived late on launch day (after DHL was supposed to be closed for business, even), and whenever I need accessories from them they also tend to arrive pretty quickly. Apple charges no shipping fees, and has a very generous 14-day return policy. For a comparison, I was unable to get a refund for a mouse I'd purchased online from Noel Leeming which hadn't even shipped yet.

Apple is the most valuable company in the world, and a large part of that valuation undoubtedly comes from their dedication to customer support and service. I rarely spend money off the App Store because when purchasing from a different company it is impossible to know ahead of time what sort of experience I'm in for, and I'd rather not take the risk of it being unpleasant like it was with Business Insider.

This isn't to say that Apple is a perfect company. All multinationals engage in morally and ethically dubious activities, and it would be remiss to not mention that.

Frankly, it sucks that Apple is the only company that provides a nice system for managing payments. In a more civilized world we'd all act like adults and it would be easy to cancel subscriptions we no longer want. Unfortunately, that Platonic world and the world we exist in are very very different places. The closest we can get to that ideal is through Apple forcing businesses to behave in a customer-friendly manner.

And it sucks even more that legislators are spending time targeting the App Store instead of the thousands of companies which trick customers into doing things they don't mean to do through use of dark patterns. Canceling a subscription should be just as easy as it is to start a new subscription with no wiggle room. That's the standard which the App Store has set, and it should be the standard which everyone endeavors to match. If we're concerned about customer wellbeing then legislation which targets the kind of trash that Business Insider uses to hold on to subscribers is the most logical thing to pursue.

After we've cleaned up the rest of the industry is when we should start talking about reducing App Store commissions. The rest of the worlds' businesses are simply not capable of managing their own payment processes in a customer-friendly manner.

  1. Not strictly true. Some of the other regional websites seem to have subscription management, but I can't figure out a pattern for it.
  2. Honestly, this is likely Apple's fault. They control the price retailers can sell their goods at, which means the NZ$29 replacement tips are likely not worth the shelf space.

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