David Heinemeier Hansson

August 27, 2021

Apple's new settlement is a corrupt joke

There's this iconic scene in the movie Fight Club where Edward Norton's character is sitting together with his boss, and they're negotiating some enterprise software sales deal on a dreary Monday morning. The boss is being dazzled with the usual, trite spiel that enterprise sales people lay on middle managers, like "waste is a thief". But the caricature's central psychological point is revealed when the boss injects: "Can I get that icon in cornflower blue?". It's magnificent.

See, that interjection, the request for a meaningless color change of a fucking icon, is an onion of an existential power analysis. You can keep peeling the layers. Let's start at the most obvious:

1) The boss is requesting the change of color because it asserts his justification in the process. This is a discerning business professional who does not just take the first deal that gets sent his way. Oh no, he negotiates. Negotiating what doesn't matter. The whole thing is about proving to himself, and his employer, that he's valuable and important.

2) It's a cynical dance where both parties know that the other side is both acting and full of shit. The boss doesn't actually care about changing the color of some stupid icon to cornflower blue, and the salesman cares even less about complying. But these are the ceremonial steps required by the corporate dance, such that all parties can claim to have discharged their duties.

3) Because the essence of this dance is so nakedly cynical, and reveals the utter pointlessness of the participants' existence (in the David Graeber sense of bullshit jobs), they can't consciously admit to the cynicism. So the boss lets out a smug little side smile instead, and the sales person exaggerates his ritualistic compliance with an overly enthusiastic "absolutely".

4) It's not just that the individual participants are performing pointless roles, but that the play itself is pointless, and yet inevitable. Neither the boss nor the salesman has any real power to affect the outcome. The software is going to be bought, it's probably going to suck – or not, who cares! – and everyone around that table is confined to this outcome.

5) The only human response to this exercise of soul-sucking drudgery is to show your teeth soaked in blood. Which is exactly what Edward Norton's character does to conclude the scene. He'd literally rather swallow a pint of blood than to sit through this shit.

This new Apple settlement with a group of class-action legal vultures follow the arc of that iconic scene in Fight Club. In which both parties have assumed their ceremonial positions in a pointless settlement that reaffirm existing provisions and then asks for a couple of cornflower blue icons. Let's take it step by step again:

1) The plaintiffs – here being the actual lawyers in the class-action proceeding, not the interests of the developers they supposedly represent – have justified their pursuit for loot mainly by getting Apple to reaffirm existing policies. Like having them affirm that "at the request of developers, Apple has agreed that its Search results will continue to be based on objective characteristics like downloads, star ratings, ...". So part of this settlement is that Apple says it'll continue to do search like it's done so far, and that it won't make it worse for users and developers by corrupting it with self-dealings and sold preferences, but only for the next three years? What a concession to extract!

It keeps going on like this, such as the pointless concession that pricing can now be $40.99 and $41.99, in addition to the normal $39.99 and $44.99, or any other number out of a predetermined 500 price points instead of the previous 100. Talk about the many hues of cornflower blue.

But it gets worse, because the trophy of this settlement, as presented in the press, is supposedly that developers can now tell their customers where to buy services outside the app. Except no, that's not actually what's happening! Apple is simply "clarifying" that companies can send an email to their customers, if they've gotten permission to do so, on an opt-in basis. That email may include information about how to buy outside the app.

So the steering provisions of the App Store, that developers are not allowed to tell users inside their app or on the signup screen about other purchasing choices than IAP – the only places that actually matter! – is being cemented with this "clarification". It draws a thicker line, asserts Apple's right to steer in the first place, and offers the meaningless concession of opt-in email, which was something developers had already been doing.

2) The legal vultures running this class-action suit knew that all these clarifications and agreements were cornflower blue requests from the outset. The point of the negotiation was never to extract any meaningful change of policy or behavior, but to provide cover for the process, such that they could claim to have performed their judicial duties to the underlying plaintiffs (developers). While walking away with $30M in fees that they took from an Apple-administered charity provision that's part of the deal.

3) The cynicism of this performance drips in every other sentence of Apple's press release about the matter. Like the aforementioned sentence about how "At the request of developers, Apple has agreed that its Search results will continue to be based on objective characteristics". Yes, you can have your search results in cornflower blue. Because they already were! But also, we may change the color in three years. Of course you legal vultures will be long gone by then. You won't care, we don't care, this is all a performance of compliance!

4) Since the entire game was rigged for the outcome of having the class-action vultures taking a third cut of whatever settlement sum is included from the outset, Apple knew this too. Negotiating around the specific but meaningless points of the deal was just a way to justify that final outcome: Apple pays these lawyers $30m, such that they can print a press release that gullible journalists will try to spin as having some larger meaning, because that story travels better.

5) The only human response is to show our blood-soaked teeth in disdain for such a blatantly corrupt deal. Developers have suffered a litany of indignities under Apple's monopoly power over the years, and now they'll suffer a few more. The twist being that they now come from the hands of a group of legal vultures pretending to advocate on developer's behalf but are really just paid to collude with Apple.

If the developer community had any hopes riding on this class-action lawsuit, this outcome would have been a dagger in the heart. Far worse than if no suit has been undertaken at all. If anything, this settlement cements the tremendous power that Apple has and wields. Even when a class-action lawsuit gets underway, it can be bought with bromides and bribes.

I am Jack's complete lack of surprise.

The Narrator by Zapista OU.jpg

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.