New email app Hey finds itself in battle with Apple over app store guidelines

Apple has told the app to comply with guidelines or face being pulled from its app store.
Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributing Writer
Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

On Monday, Basecamp launched an email app and service called Hey. The paid service attempts to reimagine email as we know it with features like removing tracking pixels, email screening, and more, all of which attempt to lessen the burden of email and make it more manageable.

The cost of email nirvana? Just $99 per year. 

A few hours after launch, Hey found itself in what's turning out to be a battle with Apple. According to a series of tweets posted by David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp co-founder and CTO, Apple initially approved the version 1.0 of Hey and published it in the app store. A bug fix was then submitted to Apple's App Store review team and ultimately rejected because Hey doesn't offer an in-app purchase option directly in the app for users to sign up for its $99-per-year subscription service. The company appealed the decision, with the same result. 

Here's a direct link to the rejection letter Hey received (also embedded below), citing the exact review guideline along with an explanation of what Hey will have to do to get the app approved. If Hey doesn't comply? Apple may remove the app. 

Apple typically requires a 15% to 30% revenue, depending on the sales model and how long the app has been listed in the store. For subscriptions like this one, specifically, Apple would take 30% of each subscription for the first year and then 15% after. 

Apple refused to comment about decisions regarding a specific app but told me the company has strict guidelines for developers to follow in order to have apps published in the app store, one of which is App Store Review Guideline 3.1.1. That particular guideline stipulates that, if an app offers a cross-platform subscription service, it must offer an in-app purchase for the subscription. 

The problem I have with that explanation is it'ss not evenly applied and leaves room for interpretation. On Apple's App Store Principles and Practices website, the company calls out Amazon Kindle, Audible, Netflix, and Spotify as apps it categories as "Reader" apps. As such, users can subscribe to the service, such as Netflix, through its website and then use the free iOS app to access their subscription. Apple doesn't make any money through revenue sharing or any other means from those apps. 

This is the same approach Hey is taking, as far as I can tell. And as Heinemeier Hansson points out, several competing email apps use the same approach Hey is attempting, but they haven't faced the same restrictions. 

The only caveat I can see after looking through the App Store guidelines is with guideline 3.1.3(a) that defines which apps are considered "Reader" apps. That list includes "magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, video, access to professional databases, VoIP, cloud storage, and approved services such as classroom management apps." Email isn't on that list, but could arguably fall under cloud storage or approved services. 

It's clear there's room for interpretation about what is or isn't a Reader app, and I'd argue that as long as Hey is following the rules just like Netflix or Spotify, there's no reason the app should be rejected or even pulled from the app store. 

What do you think? Is Apple overstepping here, or should Hey comply with Apple's App Store guidelines? Let us know in the comments below.

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