Apple must eradicate predatory App Store IAP ‘scams’ gaming the system

I’m all for developers of apps and games making money, whether by one-off payments or subscriptions. Although many now opt for the latter – and, frankly, in rather optimistic fashion, given the price-hikes that often occur – that’s fine if the user is at no point hoodwinked into signing up. Sadly, many apps are now using predatory tactics to game the system – and Apple needs to crush this horror.

The example I’m going to use here is Selfie Art, which is currently being advertised across a number of games. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill app that I nonetheless imagine quite a few people might enjoy, transforming photographs into comic-style illustrations. The ad is sleek and inviting. As is, to some extent, the app itself when it first appears. However, on examining the initial screen, there are a number of red flags.

First, this is a doorslam. There is no way to escape the screen and use even a feature-limited version of the app. The FREE FOR NEW USERS button shimmers and animates, and the header states you can “access all features for free”. However, beneath the shimmering button is a comparatively dull one, outlining a staggering £24.49 fee – for a filter app. This is clearly designed to drive people to prod the free button; but take another look and you see some really faint grey text below, which notes that the trial is for just three days. After that point, you’ll be charged a monstrous £8.49 per week – more even than that monthly fee.

Sure enough, tap the button labelled FREE under the heading that says ‘For Free’, and you’re invited to join a piffling three-day free trial that then converts into an £8.49 per week charge. On older iPhones, this is horribly easy to trigger in error – automatic, if your thumb’s already on the Home button. Newer devices require a double-click of the Side button, but even then many users do this without thinking. Should you make that error and not notice (if you don’t track your App Store receipts), you’ll be down 300 quid a year – again, for a filters app.

Clearly, this is not OK. Apple really needs to have stricter policies in place to weed out such predatory charging, in order to protect its users. Two obvious options spring to mind:

1. Make it so charges are outlined in the same fonts, at broadly the same size, and in crystal-clear text. No more buttons marked FREE, unless that’s followed by FOR THREE DAYS, say.

2. Notify users when trials end, and have them confirm sign-up again.

I imagine lots of devs would be horrified by the prospect of users having to confirm a subscription a second time – on the basis a lot of people wouldn’t. If that’s you, perhaps petition Apple to strictly enforce IAP listing rules that are fair, obvious, and clear. And if your apps aren’t already all of those things regarding payment options, redesign them right now. Don’t be the bad guy, tricking people into signing up; be someone where people splash out on a subscription solely because they want ongoing access to a great app or game you’ve made.

August 19, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Apple Maps in iOS 13 still isn’t a Google Maps killer

As iOS 13 rampages towards us, half the Apple press has lost itself in a squee love-in, glowingly reporting that Apple Maps is now a Google Maps killer.

I’ve used the new Apple Maps quite a bit, and it is an improvement. Apple’s Street View rip-off, ‘Look Around’, not only sounds like a terrible 1970s BBC family TV show, but it’s smoother and more useful (what with inline POIs) than Google’s equivalent. Also, Apple now gives you shareable collections, and still actually knows what colour roads are supposed to be on maps in the UK. (Hint, Google: motorways are BLUE; A roads are GREEN.)

But the wheels come off unless you’re living in a big US city, and armed with as much data as your phone can eat – on a connection that never dies. Head beyond a handful of US cities and Look Around vanishes entirely. The lack of a map download option means Apple Maps is effectively useless unless you’re online.

I’ve no doubt future Apple Maps revisions will address these shortcomings. In fact, it doesn’t take a tech genius to recognise that in a few years, these apps will enable you to download offline mapping info for the entire world. But my assessment of software and services is based on what I see right now, and where I happen to live and work, rather than in a bubble – virtual or otherwise – that exists around Cupertino.

August 12, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Google Play Pass vs Apple Arcade – which has the best chance of victory?

Android Police reports Google is looking into a Netflix-style app/games bundle priced at five bucks per month. This is probably good-ish for users, but a questionable draw for devs. When Amazon’s done similar things in the past, I’ve not heard positive things from app/game creators regarding income. Most have said such deals turned into a time-sink – little extra income, but a big increase in support requirements.

Naturally, there will be comparisons with Apple Arcade. I’m hopeful but cautious about Apple’s offering. After all, the company’s recent history with gaming has been poor. Game Center was left to rot, and then Apple killed it entirely. This left us without a centralised system for social gaming on the platform, and a massive increase in games asking people to sign into Facebook for high scores and the like. MFi and controller strategy has been repeatedly and unnecessarily botched. Even now, there’s no way to get a dynamically updated list on the App Store of games that support controllers. And then there’s the thorny issue of pricing, with many devs switching from c. 2012’s THE APP STORE IS AMAZING to leaving the platform entirely.

However, there are signs Apple is beginning to get gaming – at least to some degree. iOS 13 will support Xbox One and PS4 controllers out of the box. Apple Arcade isn’t just a case of Apple creating a gated gaming service – it’s throwing millions of dollars of funding at the thing as well. The App Store, too, now has its Games tab and games editorial in the Today tab, both of which help people discover great new and existing titles. Google doesn’t come close with most of this stuff – it is the BBC Micro to Apple’s ZX Spectrum.

That all said, success for these new subscription services will likely boil down to something a lot simpler – in fact, just two things:

  1. Are people willing to pay?
  2. Does enough high-quality fare exist on the platform?

For Google Play, answers to both of those are, sadly, mostly no. Android has a decent selection of games, but lacks many of iOS’s top-tier titles; and once you move past customisation and emulators, the app landscape on Android is dreadful. On iOS, I’ve of late found good new apps harder to find, but the ecosystem is still very strong. Games-wise, though, it’s frequently great – and that’s before Apple Arcade’s arrival.

That said, I remain unsure how many people will shell out ten bucks a month in the long term for games. (Frankly, you’d have to be a massive idiot to pass on the prospect of dozens of high-quality mobile titles on day one. But on month two…?) But it feels like Apple has a better shot at this than Google – unless Google puts some serious effort into ramping up the quality and discoverability of the content on its mobile store.

August 2, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Trying to explain reduce motion to designers who don’t have a vestibular disorder

With my recent griping about Apple and reduce motion, I should note many other companies/designers fail this test. The web remains rife with such issues, as does the app and gaming ecosystem.

In part, I can understand why. Vestibular issues are weird. I never used to have one, and now I do. I’ve no idea where it came from. It also makes little logical sense to people. They think I’m lying that I get triggered by animations because I also write about videogames. But here’s the thing: I’m fine with racing games, just as I’m fine with roller-coasters. Whatever’s going on in my head manifests when 1) too much of my focus is taken over by a screen, and; 2) whatever’s happening on the screen is outside of my control.

So I can play Super Duper Racing Games VI, but an abrupt full-screen slide transition in an otherwise static puzzle game on the iPad might make me woozy for hours. This is why iOS 7’s transitions were a problem for many people – they couldn’t be ‘prepared’ for. That sounds weird, I know, and I recognise it’s tricky for designers to test against. You can have a crack at dealing with visual impairment by using your app or website with your eyes closed. Vestibular issues? Nope. So you need to fallback on testing and rules.

The first of those is pretty simple: find some people who have such issues, and ask them if your app/website causes problems, and for suggestions on how to fix it. On iOS, this might simply mean adding a preference to toggle some animations, such as parallax backgrounds. Regarding rules, ask yourself: do I really need this animation? Do I really need that full-window slide transition? In book and comic apps, can I offer an option to turn off transitions entirely? Have I checked transitions elsewhere within our apps?

The last of those is where Apple fails. The company’s accessibility people have been broadly impressive when it comes to being reactive to comments and requests I’ve made. But it seems there’s no systematic checking of triggers throughout the operating system. That might sound like I’m asking for too much, but if you have reduce motion baked in at system level, use it! It’s absurd to create something that can make millions of people’s lives better, and then pepper the OS and first-party apps with slide animations.

In a sense, I’m fortunate. After I figured out I have this issue (back in the Mac OS X Lion era, where I felt sick for days), I can usually recover from being blasted within minutes; if not, it takes a few hours. I’ve heard from people who can be knocked out for days.

So as web/app designers, ask yourself: what can I do to improve my work for people with vestibular disorders? And then think widely: what can I do to make my content accessible to everyone? That should be the goal of computing, not saying “well, just don’t use that”.

October 16, 2018. Read more in: Apple, Design, Opinions

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Reduce Motion doesn’t reduce motion in the macOS Mojave App Store

Accessibility rants on this blog are like busses. One doesn’t show up for ages, and now two are belching fumes into your face.

So, anyway, I just opened the App Store app on macOS Mojave, and I had the audacity to click on something that was featured and looked quite interesting. WHOOSH went the full-window slide transition. BLORCH went my innards. Through squinting eyes I then did a bit more testing. Clicking Done made the window zoom downwards again. And then I clicked a standard list item. WHOOSH went the full-window slide transition, but, excitingly, in a different direction this time (horizontally). GAH went my brain, asking me to JUST SODDING STOP WITH THIS STUPID EXPERIMENT ALREADY.

But, come on, Apple – what is going on here? This kind of thing is not a surprise. I and others have been writing about motion triggers on iOS and macOS for years now. I thought you’d finally got it right when you added Reduce Motion to macOS. But no. Because someone at the Apple interface team is apparently addicted to swoopy whooshy animations, and because apparently no-one thinks to actually test them against accessibility controls, it seems people who have vestibular disorders get to play a fun game of Russian roulette with their wellbeing every time Apple releases a new app.

Sorry, but this is not good enough. Apple is often rightly lauded for its accessibility stance; but as I’ve said before that means accessibility for all, not just the cool stuff that gets the headlines.

(And in case anyone’s wondering, yes I have already emailed accessibility at apple dot com about these issues.)

(Oh, and anyone who dislikes transitions of this type, probably don’t bother with News nor Stocks for macOS either.)

October 15, 2018. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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