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ProtonMail CEO says Apple forced him to add in-app purchases, compares it to ‘mafia extortion’

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On Tuesday, Congress revealed whether it thinks Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are sitting on monopolies. In some cases, the answer was yes.

But also, one app developer revealed to Congress that it — just like WordPress — had been forced to monetize a largely free app. That developer testified that Apple had demanded in-app purchases (IAP), even though Apple had approved its app without them two years earlier — and that when the dev dared send an email to customers notifying them of the change, Apple threatened to remove the app and blocked all updates.

That developer was ProtonMail, makers of an encrypted email app, and CEO Andy Yen had some fiery words for Apple in an interview with The Verge this week.

We’ve known for months that WordPress and Hey weren’t alone in being strong-armed by the most valuable company in the world, ever since Stratechery’s Ben Thompson reported that 21 different app developers quietly told him they’d been pushed to retroactively add IAP in the wake of those two controversies. But until now, we hadn’t heard of many devs willing to publicly admit it. They were scared.

And they’re still scared, says Yen. Even though Apple changed its rules on September 11th to exempt “free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web based tool” from the IAP requirement — Apple explicitly said email apps are exempt — ProtonMail still hasn’t removed its own in-app purchases because it fears retaliation from Apple, he says.

He claims other developers feel the same way: “There’s a lot of fear in the space right now; people are completely petrified to say anything.”

He might know. ProtonMail is one of the founding partners of the Coalition for App Fairness, a group that also includes Epic Games, Spotify, Tile, Match, and others who banded together to protest Apple’s rules after having those rules used against them. It’s a group that tried to pull together as many developers as it could to form a united front, but some weren’t as ready to risk Apple’s wrath.

That’s clearly not the case for Yen, though — in our interview, he compares Apple’s tactics to a Mafia protection racket.

“For the first two years we were in the App Store, that was fine, no issues there,” he says. (They’d launched on iOS in 2016.) “But a common practice we see … as you start getting significant uptake in uploads and downloads, they start looking at your situation more carefully, and then as any good Mafia extortion goes, they come to shake you down for some money.”

“We didn’t offer a paid version in the App Store, it was free to download … it wasn’t like Epic where you had an alternative payment option, you couldn’t pay at all,” he relates.

Yen says Apple’s demand came suddenly in 2018. “Out of the blue, one day they said you have to add in-app purchase to stay in the App Store,” he says. “They stumbled upon something in the app that mentioned there were paid plans, they went to the website and saw there was a subscription you could purchase, and then turned around and demanded we add IAP.”

“There’s nothing you can say to that. They are judge, jury, and executioner on their platform, and you can take it or leave it. You can’t get any sort of fair hearing to determine whether it’s justifiable or not justifiable, anything they say goes.”

“We simply complied in order to save our business,” he adds.

Yen tells me there was a month-long period where ProtonMail couldn’t update its app at all, even for security reasons, and Apple was threatening to remove the app if his company continued to delay. So ProtonMail decided to raise the cost of its entire service on iOS by roughly 26 percent to satisfy Apple’s needs, eating the rest itself.

“When Apple charges 30 percent extra … we don’t have a 30 percent margin! It’s very odd to find a business with 30 percent profit margins,” he explains. “We had to raise the prices, and we weren’t even able to communicate to our customers that they could get it cheaper from our website.”

And while Apple increasingly pitches itself as the privacy company, Yen argues that Apple’s 30 percent cut is actually hurting privacy-centric apps — because it’s tough to compete with Gmail when you have to charge a fee for your service and you’re also being taxed. He explains:

Google exists by selling your data to third-party advertisers to subsidize the services you get for free, but that’s very bad for user privacy because companies are incentivized to abuse your privacy as much as possible. The alternative to that is the subscription model … we have a certain percentage of customers who pay and that’s what sustains us. That makes us hit the 30 percent fee, but the ad-based models don’t have to pay, and that discourages business models that are pro-privacy.

He also thinks it’s hard to fairly compete with Apple’s own apps when you need to give 30 percent of your revenue to a direct competitor,

The elephant in the room is that Apple changed its rules in September, allowing free companion apps, including email clients, to evade the IAP requirement. Shouldn’t some of these points matter less today, at least for apps like his? But Yen says ProtonMail hasn’t yet bothered to try removing IAP, partly because the rules as written would still keep him from telling his customers that there’s even an upgrade to be had.

That surprised me because on September 11th, Apple clarified to us that it wasn’t prohibiting app developers from communicating with their customers outside the App Store, and that it would look at tweaking the language of its rules to say that more clearly. But sure enough, nearly a month later, App Store guideline 3.1.3(f) still prohibits “calls to action for purchase outside of the app.”

Today, Apple confirmed to us that interpretation is still correct: “free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web based tool” don’t need to use IAP as long as the apps themselves don’t offer purchases, and as long as the apps themselves don’t ask users to make purchases outside the app. Developers can advertise different pricing on the web, TV, billboards, or anywhere else outside the App Store, the company tells The Verge.

Hearing that, Yen says ProtonMail will indeed try to remove Apple’s in-app payment system — but he’s still skeptical enough that he plans to test the theory with the company’s next app, ProtonDrive, just to be safe. He doesn’t want to risk ProtonMail.

Yen says it’s strange that Apple’s actual written rules aren’t as clearly defined as what I’m telling him, and that he doesn’t trust the rules in general: Apple originally justified blocking the app because of an obscure rule that apps shouldn’t “include irrelevant information,” he says, and he believes that the results of app review are largely predetermined: “They made a decision, and then it’s just about pointing to the relevant passages of the rules to justify the decision they’ve already made.”

He’s not the only one who believes Apple’s decisions are arbitrary. We’ve repeatedly written about the company’s inconsistent enforcement, but Phillip Shoemaker, Apple’s own head of app review from 2009 to 2016, spoke to Congress for its bombshell antitrust report, too. He testified that Apple’s senior executives would find pretexts to remove apps from the store; that apps which compete against Apple’s own services often have problems getting through the review process; and that Apple’s new guidelines that supposedly allow cloud gaming onto the App Store were probably written to “specifically exclude Google Stadia” and were “completely arbitrary.” (I came to the same conclusion about Stadia, too.)

You might be wondering what Apple thinks about all this, and so we asked. Apple tells The Verge in no uncertain terms that it doesn’t retaliate against developers — it works with them to get their apps on the store, and claims it applies the rules fairly. Apple points out that developers have many ways to communicate and appeal Apple’s decisions, including the ability to appeal entire rules, and that it will no longer hold up bug fixes for rule violations, unless the app has legal issues.

Following my conversation with ProtonMail’s CEO, another developer who’d been forced to abruptly add in-app purchases also told me she wasn’t willing to risk removing IAP quite yet, partly because the rules aren’t clear enough, and partly because of the arbitrary nature of Apple’s review.

“Even if it got approved, there’d be no guarantee that another reviewer in the future wouldn’t interpret the rules differently and reject the app, and force us to implement IAP all over again,” says Belle Cooper, co-developer of behavior-tracking app Exist.io. “We don’t really fear retaliation. It’s more that we don’t want to constantly live in fear (more than we already do) that they’ll suddenly reject us and force us into doing a whole bunch of work on their terms. It was a really stressful experience last time and threw a spanner in our plans for the app, and we’re nervous it might happen again.”

Cooper says she did try to challenge Apple back in September 2017 when the company forced her to add in-app purchases — two years after the app was first approved — but she didn’t get very far:

I argued we were a “reader” app and they said no. I argued other apps were doing the same as us and pointed out some examples and they said we can’t discuss other apps. They allowed one or two important bug fix updates that they’d blocked after I spoke to them on the phone and promised to do what they asked for.

I have to wonder how many more developers have stories like these. Perhaps more will share them now? (My DMs are open.) It feels like some are already getting bolder: here are a couple examples I was forwarded while researching this story.

I also wonder if Apple might follow developer Marco Arment’s advice, because as he amusingly points out, Apple’s rules around in-app purchases are clear as mud right now.

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ShopUp raises $22.5 million to digitize millions of mom-and-pop shops in Bangladesh

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A startup that is aiming to digitize millions of neighborhood stores in Bangladesh just raised the country’s largest Series A financing round.

Dhaka-headquartered ShopUp said on Tuesday it has raised $22.5 million in a round co-led by Sequoia Capital India and Flourish Ventures. For both the venture firms, this is the first time they are backing a Bangladeshi startup. Veon Ventures, Speedinvest, and Lonsdale Capital also participated in the four-year-old ShopUp’s Series A financing round. ShopUp has raised about $28 million to date.

Like its neighboring nation, India, more than 95% of all retail in Bangladesh goes through neighborhood stores in the country. There are about 4.5 million such mom-and-pop stores in the country and the vast majority of them have no digital presence.

ShopUp is attempting to change that. It has built what it calls a full-stack business-to-business commerce platform. It provides three core services to neighborhood stores: a wholesale marketplace to secure inventory, logistics (including last mile delivery to customers), and working capital, explained Afeef Zaman, co-founder and chief executive of ShopUp​, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Image Credits: ShopUp

These small shops are facing a number of challenges. They are not getting inventory on time or enough inventory and they are paying more than what they should, said Zaman. And for these businesses, more than 73% (PDF) of all their sales rely on credit instead of cash or digital payments, creating a massive liquidity crunch. So most of these businesses are in dire need of working capital.

Zaman declined to reveal how many mom-and-pop shops today use ShopUp, but claimed that the platform assumes a clear lead in its category in the country. That lead has widened amid the global pandemic as more physical shops explore digital offerings to stay afloat, he said.

The number of neighborhood shops transacting weekly on the ShopUp platform grew by 8.5 times between April and August this year, he said. The pandemic also helped ShopUp engage with e-commerce players to deliver items for them.

“Sequoia India has been a strong supporter of the company since it was part of the first Surge cohort in early 2019 and it’s been exciting to see the company become a trailblazer facilitating digital transformation in Bangladesh,” said ​Klaus Wang, VP, Sequoia Capital, in a statement.

The startup has no intention to become an e-commerce platform like Amazon that directly engages with consumers, Zaman said. E-commerce is still in its nascent stage in Bangladesh. Amazon has yet to enter the country and increasingly Facebook is filling that role.

ShopUp sees immense opportunity in serving neighborhood stores, he said. The startup plans to deploy the fresh capital to deepen its partnerships with manufacturers and expand its tech infrastructure.

It opened an office in Bengaluru earlier this year to hire local tech talent in the nation. Indian e-commerce platform Voonik merged with ShopUp this year and both of its co-founders have joined the Bangladeshi startup. Zaman said the startup will hire more engineering talent in India.

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After outcry, Microsoft presses pause on unsolicited Windows 10 web app installs

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On Saturday, I pointed out how Microsoft force-restarting Windows 10 computers to install unwanted web apps was the latest proof you don’t own your own Windows PC. Today, the company says it was at least partly a mistake — and will be pausing the “migration” that brought web apps to your Start Menu this way.

Originally, Microsoft tells The Verge, the idea was that any website you pinned to the Start Menu would launch in Microsoft Edge. If your website of choice had a PWA web app version, the Edge browser could automatically launch that as well. But — in what Microsoft seems to be calling a bug, though we’re trying to get clarity as to which part was the bug — the change also made it look like existing web shortcuts to its own Microsoft Office products had installed a web app on your PC as well.

A screenshot of the web apps that Microsoft force-installed on my PC.
Web versions of Microsoft Office appeared in my list of programs.
Screenshot: Sean Hollister/The Verge

Giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt for a moment, I can see how that chain of events could have unfolded, and why that might have been an unintended consequence.

But that doesn’t actually address any of my previous concerns:

  • Why was Microsoft using my Start Menu as free advertising for its Office products to begin with, web shortcut or no?
  • Why do these PWAs fire up Microsoft Edge, instead of respecting my own default choice of browser? Chrome handles PWAs just fine, for example.
  • Why does Microsoft believe it has the right to force-restart my PC at all? What was so critical about this update to make that worthwhile?

Microsoft has clearly heard some displeasure, and it’s reacting to that today. But it’s not clear whether anything will change as a result. I wouldn’t be surprised if the only difference is that PWAs won’t appear in your list of programs from here on out.

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The Best Computer Desk Is a Standing Desk: Your Top Options to Reach New Heights

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Illustration for article titled The Best Computer Desk Is a Standing Desk: Your Top Options to Reach New Heights

Image: Wayfair

Best Overall: Uplift V2 Standing Desk

Buying a desk doesn’t seem like too difficult a task. Find one that’s pretty enough to sit in your office, has enough storage and space to house all your trinkets, and hope for the best. But shopping online might make it difficult to know if it’ll be good for your body long-term. Ergonomics are tricky, and a poor setup can leave you with serious back or wrist pain.

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You don’t have to commit to a standing desk to resolve those ergonomic woes–a few accessories might make your current desk perfectly usable–but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the added option of getting on your feet for a bit during a long workday. Whether your current setup has wreaked havoc on your posture or you’re just taking the precautions necessary to prevent that, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got the best computer desk to suit your needs. And since the best desk is a standing desk, it only makes sense reviewers would agree, as evidenced by the highly-rated furnishings below.

Best Overall: Uplift V2 Standing Desk

Illustration for article titled The Best Computer Desk Is a Standing Desk: Your Top Options to Reach New Heights

Graphic: Gabe Carey

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After spending my first six months of quarantine back in my childhood home, my wrists and lower back were in pretty awful shape. Holding my phone hurt after a long day of typing, and I found myself slouching a little too often in my family’s stiff dining room chairs. Once I got back home to California, I jumped on grabbing an Uplift V2 Standing Desk—and haven’t looked back since.

It’s one of the most customizable options you can get, with a slew of different finishes, sizes, frame configurations, and accessories to tack on. The base model starts at $600, and can easily reach over $1,000 depending on how you customize it. Its surface is sturdy and looks nice in my office, the adjustable-height mechanism is smooth and stable, and the setup is pretty quick even if you have to do it solo.

If you’re looking for more than just a desk, you can upgrade to have a couple of outlets right on top of your setup for easy access, get some upgraded cable management gear to keep things tidy, or even grab a slide-out keyboard tray for improved ergonomics and a little extra surface room. I’d recommend getting the C-Frame model for increased stability, even if it’s an $80 add-on. It’s also worth it to get the advanced keypad if you’re planning on switching between sitting and standing a lot, or if it’s going to be used by more than one person.

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Best Cheap Desk: Monomi Electric Standing Desk

Illustration for article titled The Best Computer Desk Is a Standing Desk: Your Top Options to Reach New Heights

Image: Monomi

Nice as it is, the UpLift is on the more expensive end, and that’s a reasonable dealbreaker. Standing desks don’t have to raid your savings, though. The Monomi electric height-adjustable standing desk is one of the best available on Amazon right now, according to reviewers, and a 48″ model costs just $300.

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Like the Uplift, the Monomi has a keypad that lets you quickly adjust the height of the desk, extendable up to 46″. Unlike the Uplift, though, its keypad and keyboard tray are included, so you won’t have to sweat the upgrade prices. It’s not as elegant-looking as pricier options, not to mention it lacks the C-frame to improve stability, but at half the price, it’s not something you’ll fret too much—the basics are more than plenty.

Best for Small Spaces: Upper Square Babin Standing Desk

Illustration for article titled The Best Computer Desk Is a Standing Desk: Your Top Options to Reach New Heights

Image: Wayfair

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For those looking for a minimalist desk, or anyone who likes to use their surface for scribbling as much as they do hunting and pecking, the Upper Square Babin is highly rated on Wayfair. Unlike the Uplift or Monomi, this desk has a groove in the front to get you a little closer to the monitor. Additional features include a glass surface that doubles as a dry erase board you can use for brainstorming, a slide-out drawer, and a built-in USB port.

As with the other options, its height is adjustable and comes with three pre-programmed heights, reaching up to 47″. It typically sells for about $530 (though it’s on sale right now for $410). While that’s not too far off from the Uplift, without any upgradeable options, you won’t have to worry about a shocking price tag at checkout. Currently sitting at 4.7 stars on Wayfair, based on over 700 reviews, customers like it for its easy setup, handy whiteboard surface, and the quality of its height adjustment mechanism.

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Best Standing Desk Converter: FlexiSpot Standing Desk Converter

Illustration for article titled The Best Computer Desk Is a Standing Desk: Your Top Options to Reach New Heights

Image: Flexispot

Maybe that’s all too much, and you’d rather spend your money elsewhere. Or perhaps there just isn’t space in your apartment for another big piece of furniture. If you’re not looking to rearrange your whole room, a standing desk converter will do the trick. While the top-reviewed ones aren’t exactly cheap, they’re notably less expensive than true standing desks, with the added benefit of mobility.

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If you want the cheapest option with the most positive reception, grab the FlexiSpot standing desk converter. Only $100 on Amazon right now, it doesn’t look as elegant in your office as an elevating desk, but it gets the job done. It can reach up to 28″ high and measures about 28″ wide, so it won’t occupy a ton of room in your house or apartment, plus there’s an electric motor for easy adjustments. Oh, and it’s even got a keyboard tray, so you won’t be giving up too much of that limited surface space. It’s currently sitting at about five stars based on 127 reviews, and customers seem to have few issues with it. As long as you’re okay with a slightly clunky aesthetic, you shouldn’t be disappointed.


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