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Ask HN: Apple shutted down our 30k/mo business. What now?
72 points by fairplayer on May 23, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 85 comments
I & my partner launched an app a year ago. It took half a year to build something sustainable and month ago we finally reached 30k / mo profit. Yesterday after technical release (just to change title in the AppStore) the app got rejected. We didn't violate any concrete guideline, Apple Review Team just decided that we use VPN in an anapproved manner. We use VPN to analyze traffic and show reports to the user. Of course users are uknowledge and ok with this solution. Needless to say that that dozens of our competitors use exactly this solution but apparently it’s not enough for Review Team.

Now I'm lost and don’t know what to do. Situation seems unfair. How come that developers give away half of their earnings to the monopolist platform and are still treated like kids. I mean, people will lose jobs and funds just because of "unapproved way" of using public (!) API. Honestly I liked this platform and I invested a lot into it but I'm sure I will stay away now.

Any thoughts or advices?

"How come that developers give away half of their earnings to the monopolist platform and are still treated like kids"

I don't mean to troll, but the answer to that question lines in the uncomfortable economic reality. Apple did the hardwork to centralize a massive user base on their vertically integrated devices and protocols. And you the developer has chosen to buy into that closed door, centralized, ecosystem for easier profits and access to their users.

Don't like it? Help the world move towards a free and open model.

Exactly. Don't use Apple hardware, don't write for Apple hardware. There are plenty of mobile platforms that need some care, help them become relevant instead of giving yourself into the hands of a walled garden owner.

But the walled garden is nicely maintained with neatly trimmed lawns, beautiful flowers, cool rippling ponds and shady trees. While over the wall is all rocky scrub land, with no benches, muddy paths and the occasional smelly dumpster fire.

  But the walled garden is nicely maintained with neatly trimmed lawns, beautiful flowers, cool rippling ponds and shady trees
You forgot the landmines and the iOS police watching your every steps, kicking you out of the garden without much recourse if you feel it was unwarranted.

They do that to the vendors at the stalls they licence to sell refreshments, if they break the rules of their license, not to the public enjoying the garden.

And as a visitor, I can't even bring my own refreshments in, for instance when I want to reduce waste. Not speaking about invalidating my lifetime ticket if my child tells something wrong to the gatekeeper. Thanks, but no thanks.

iOS is a field of landmines that will cost you an arm and a leg and turn you into a blind, hobbled dependent with sour gangrenous appendages and a permanent zombie-like facial expression. Things will blow up in your face if you make the wrong hidden gesture or if you don't want to follow the exact path set out for you.

Outside that is freedom to travel wherever you want to without restriction.

Did you have a conversation with your reviewer, or are you just citing what the App Store rejection was?

You can both appeal the reviewer's decision and have a conversation with the reviewer, and if that doesn't work, you appeal to apple's app review board.

In the few times we've experienced rejection, the review board was the most useful option, and always approved us in the end.

Few points to expect:

- it was not uncommon to get cited completely different "violations" as you go through various appeals

- "other apps do it" doesn't get you far

- process can take a while but perhaps we made a mistake of not going directly to the Apple app review board and stating our case there. We got approved in a few days after that.

Hello, thanks for sharing. We tried to talk with our reviewer (phone and resolution center) but he insists, that VPN is not intended for such use case. In my opinion it depends on the viewpoint. Reviewer's view is that we use VPN for functionality not related to VPN. Our view is that we _are_ VPN that provides extended functionality.

Yeah, skip the reviewer, they cite the rules endlessly, even if the rule they are citing has no connection to the actual problem (in your case it does, but still). App Review Board, send in your plea, that's that.

You haven't been entirely upfront though.

Is your app providing a proper VPN service or is it just for website analytics ?

But is that how you market yourself to consumers, as a VPN, that also provides additional functionality? Or as a traffic analytics tool (that just so happens to be a VPN)?

The way YOU view your product is one thing- but how you market and present the app to customers is another.

A spammer might view their spam as "marketing email", but that doesn't make it so just because of their viewpoint

I think you are hiding something. Are you selling user browsing history? And don’t tell me user acknowledged it. They never read your terms of service. I’m sure if they knew, most of them will freak out.

Also your competitors might be a step away from getting banned. If you are doing shady stuff then I’m happy Apple is taking action. 30k/month, jobs, my company, etc... is not going to cut it. They are just sensational arguments.

Violated guideline: 5 Performance: Software Requirements. Unapproved use of VPN in this context.

Yes, I agree, the post is emotional, but we do not hiding, selling history or do something related.

That’s very broad. We don’t actually know what you are exactly doing. Did they provide an exact reason? What do you think is the exact reason?

If you are not hiding what you do, then what do you do?

I posted a question before. And will post it here.

Does your product function as a VPN or is it just a website analytics tool ?

It works as a normal functional VPN (via our private servers) but the main idea is traffic classification and reports. It's impossible to get this data on iOS without VPN.

I'm only an Android user, but I got an app ( https://github.com/M66B/NetGuard/releases ) that does the same, but just uses a local VPN to analyze traffic and block what I don't want. There isn't even a server it could talk to. What is the problem with that on iOS ? Sending my whole traffic to your server is not worth the analyzing you do, even if you block what I don't want like NetGuard does.

So what is your app? If it's gone from the app store, can you post the description?

Can't you setup some kind of local VPN loop and perform analytics on the device? Alternatively just call your service a real VPN and then provide analytics as an extra.

Seems like that would be by design.

Yeah, if your app is shutdown, you may as well disclose the name here. Something feels off.

Yes, the timing of this is particularly relevant with the GDPR. Apple has been removing apps that sell location history, even if there is a genuine reason to use location.

> don’t tell me user knowledged it

you are doing a disservice to this noble noun

Every business based on a single point of failure - single customer or single platform is overexposed to risk. That’s what happened.

Do what others suggest to beg Tim Cook for mercy. Hopefully someone will help you to reinstate your app.

Step 2:

Rethink your business model. It will happen again. Possible change - provide app building services to others. You have expertise. You can deliver. You’ll have multiple customers. Your business won’t rely on apple or Facebook of YouTube mercy.

> Do what others suggest to beg Tim Cook for mercy

Why bother ?

This app is capturing website history which would be invaluable to third parties. Given the current environment (with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook) there is no way any normal, sensible company wouldn't crack down on apps like this given half the chance.

It sucks for the guy if his app isn't sending data to third parties but you can't blame Apple for not trusting him.

“This app is capturing website history which would be invaluable to third parties.”

Foursquare is capturing location history, which it admits to selling to third parties.

I’m waiting for Apple to remove them from the app store.

If this guy was a larger company with a good reputation and documented privacy policies like Foursquare has then it's quite possible his app wouldn't have been removed.

But the fact is this VPN app looks awfully similar to those dodgy apps we saw on Facebook which were pretending to be some useful app but were secretly selling your data to third parties. And since he is just a small time app developer we (and by extension Apple) can't completely trust that he isn't doing that.

They won't do this for the same reason Googl won't remove Pinterest from SERP in spite of them violating their ToS.

Not sure of capabilities of the app in question, but with HTTPS used nearly everywhere, there is not much value from the traffic other than some domain name or usage timing patterns.

If you really want to resolve this favorably, you should probably remove this post and try to resolve this in a private conversation with Apple. They aren’t gonna like this kind of attention...

I agree with this. The best thing to do is try and resolve this with Apple. Apple's review process is very particular, and sometimes simply resubmitting an application version is enough to get it through. It's common for things to be picked up by one person that are ignored by another. I've also found that simply pressing the issue is enough to get reviews passed.

I’m not disagreeing with you, but Apple do just make it up as they go and will make wildly inconsistent decisions, make major revisions to the rules out of nowehere and then reverse them out of nowhere.

In a company I used to consult for, Apple has taken up 9 out of the last 12 months of their product roadmap after introducing new rules, and then revoking them. They were reasonable to talk with, but... yikes. Worst part was all their competitors just ignored the rules and cried until Apple reversed them, so they were just massively punished by Apple for earnestly following the rules.

The rule which you have violated is a dangerous one:

> 2.5.1 Apps should use APIs and frameworks for their intended purposes and indicate that integration in their app description.

It is all encompassing and actually often violated. But it not new that apple shuts down apps that use APIs for novel purposes. Most famous is probably the usage of VoIP or background music playing in order to keep apps from sleeping.

Nevertheless, it is never a good idea to use an API for something that goes out of the line. It is where the innovation and money is, but the risk of getting shut down like you did is real.

A) Remove this post B) Contact, by phone an apple employee *your region. C) I am serious about this, fly to Their offices to solve it. prove them that you are not doing anything worng, they need that. Did they shutted you down becuase you are making profits out of a digital asset without apple purchase?

> We use VPN to analyze traffic and show reports to the user.

Where is your revenue coming from?

Your app probably got removed because from what I gather you're a scammer. This isn't the first time a scam app with massive recurring subscriptions was banned. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2017/06/12/apple-d...

He's not saying the app name because he knows it got removed for a very legitimate reason. Make a useful app and stop overcharging people for worthless shit.

I think as other users have said, the review board is your best bet.

But maybe you could let us know more about what the problem is exactly? Here's Apple's guidelines for VPNs: https://developer.apple.com/app-store/review/guidelines/#vpn...

Sounds from what you said the user is informed about what data you are collecting, but what other part of the guidelines are you potentially breaking here?

Apple Review Team rejected us based on: 5 Performance: Software Requirements Unapproved use of VPN in this context.

"2.5 Performance" is a long section with various ways your app might violate this clause. In no part of it does it specifically mention VPNs. So you're going to have to a bit more specific here.

I can assume that your app falls under this part of 2.5.1:

> Apps should use APIs and frameworks for their intended purposes and indicate that integration in their app description. For example, the HomeKit framework should provide home automation services; and HealthKit should be used for health and fitness purposes and integrate with the Health app.

So you're running a VPN using the NEVPNManager API, and I'm guessing your app does something such as monitor traffic or speed or something like that by routing all traffic through a VPN so you can "listen in" to get your reports.

Apart from appealing the ruling, I think maybe if you could be more specific as to what your app is collecting and why, someone here might help with figuring out an alternative way of doing that so that you can get your app back in the store.

What, exactly, does your app do?

Hopefully you can get in touch with some apple employee here and get it resolved. Make sure you have your email in your profile.

Please let's not turn HN into a tech support backchannel site.

If they only take action when publicly shamed I fail to see the problem.

I think it's more of the fact that he doesn't want people coming on HN and whining everytime someone does them wrong just to get attention from the business.

Just talk with the reviewer and follow the his suggestion for amendment, if your application is not about selling users' browsing history and privacy .

We have our app being rejected serval times by Apple. We insist we have done nothing wrong and many competitors do the same way. Eventually, we decided to talk to the reviewer, and followed his suggestion to amend our application. Then it finally get approved.

  monopolist platform
There's your problem, you have no control over your main distribution channel.

Unless they allow people to sideload apps like on Android, the situation is unlikely to change.

I'm sorry for your loss. Do you know anyone in the AppStore team, whom you have talked to during the good times? If not, do you know any fellow developers who might have such contact? Your best option is to tell your side of your story (your efforts/dependence) to a person, instead of assuming the official communications as the final word.

EDIT: In future, I suggest you invest time in establishing relationship with these teams (like going to WWDC), especially when you are betting your entire revenue on such marketplaces.

Thank you for this advice, this is really helpful. Unfortunately I don't have any good contacts, but I'm going to WWDC this year. Maybe some advices about how to establish this relationship? Never did this before.

If you are a developer, you can try these:

- Be active in Q&A sessions and community events. They might also have an expert community that you can join [1]

- Participate in alpha programs and connect with the product managers

- If your app is widely adopted, offer them to do a customer success story about unique iOS feature that you might have used. If you reach that stage, they are unlikely to ban your app without warning.

[1] For Android - https://developers.google.com/experts/all/technology/android

You've built your business on sand. Suck it up and move on.

> monopolist platform

I don't think iOS is the leading, let alone monopoly, platform for smartphones in any market is it?

It is not a monopoly but it is where the valuable customers are.

Hm... Why would the majority of these "valuable" customers choose such a flawed platform then? Maybe they prefer an ecosystem that has a vetting process to prevent apps extracting too much of their "value"?

Why the scare quotes? It is a fact, study after study shows that people who have iPhones spend more money in average[1]. This gives Apple a sort-of monopoly in the sense that if you want to earn money you kind of need to get iPhone customers.

Also I did not say that the platform is flawed, or criticised the fact that Apple vets applications. If anything I would like Apple to test the applications even more because there is still a lot of malware and crap apps there. (e.g.: fake VPN apps, virus scanners and whatnot).

Not to say that the platform is flawless, there is a genuine problem if you wish to create an app that Apple has not yet thought of because even if it might be technically possible, the rule 2.5.1 is there against you. In this particular case the developer has wrestled the VPN API to extract browsing patterns (from what I understand). This is not something you should do with a VPN, rather it should be done as a browser extension but hey, iOS does not have that.

[1]: https://moz.com/blog/apple-vs-android-aov

Yes, Apple users spend more money on average. But it's not like Apple has a monopoly on these juicy users, and uses its evil walled garden to lock out poor indie developers from milking these "valuable" users.

These juicy users willingly chose the Apple ecosystem, precisely because it's a safe and trustworthy walled garden, in contrast with Android's offering.

Complaining about this is like a door to door salesman protesting to be let into a gated community to sell his crap. The people living in the gated community chose it precisely because they don't want any of your crap (among other things).

> sort-of monopoly

Yeah maybe it's a 'sort-of' monopoly in some analogy kind of way, but it's not actually 'monopolist' is it? That's just not true.

What they really mean is that the only monopoly Apple have is the monopoly on the exact kind of customers that this team would like to sell to. Well, too bad for them. 'Monopolist' implies some kind of legal or ethical issue, and there isn't one in my opinion, so let's not muddy the waters or imply anything by using the word.

How do you make 30k/ mo profit with an app that analyze traffic ? Has the user to pay everytime he wants to do an analysis ? If you do not sell any user related data and we should believe you this, you have to tell us how you make so much money with it..

Mostly subscriptions.

What's the name of your app? If it were truly a useful non scammy app, Why wouldn't you take advantage of the free publicity you could get by giving the name?

Maybe not entirely on-topic, but I wonder. If the app update gets rejected does it mean that the currently approved version of the app is removed from the store, too?

I always had an impression that the current version stays up.

In my experience, the current app stays up when a build is rejected, but if the app itself becomes contested, it can be taken down (temporarily).

>I always had an impression that the current version stays up.


Look into getting a lawyer to help navigate the app board.

I'm sorry to hear mate. More generally, the war on VPN has indeed started, as a continuity of the war on privacy. Hang in there, tough days ahead.

Why can't you just remove the VPN and resubmit? It doesn't seem totally necessary.

Just modify the app and/or VPN functionality slightly and re-submit as a new update.


Publish under a different account?

Move to Android?


> Publish under a different account?

Not allowed and easily detectable

> Sue?

For what?

Damages. Loss of income is a form of damage.

When you signed up for the Apple developer program and accepted the agreement for revenue sharing on the App Store, you've signed away all rights to sue for damages.

Even the basic Developer Program License Agreement includes this language:

"Apple reserves the right to change, suspend, deprecate, limit, or disable access to the Apple Services, or any part thereof, at any time without notice (including revoking entitlements or changing any APIs in the Apple Software that enable access to the Services). In no event will Apple be liable for the removal of or disabling of access to any of the foregoing."

The revenue sharing agreement further reinforces that you can't hold Apple liable for anything.

It's Apple's store and Apple's customers. They display your software in the marketplace and provide cryptographic signing so that end users can install it, but they can stop doing that at any time with no justification needed.

Not really relevant as this is an example of when you can sign away your rights but I thought I'd just mention that it is impossible to sign away certain protected rights, no matter what a contract says.

A good example is a paid parking lot where it might say something along the lines of "by parking in this lot, you accept that 'parking company' is not liable for any theft, loss or damage of property." however if say a light fitting fell from the ceiling and damaged your car and you were able to prove negligence by the parking company then you may hold them liable for the damage.

Various companies try all kinds of unenforceable contract terms on the basis that the average Joe believes that he has to stick to whatever he agreed to. There was an amusing post on a legal blog where they went around NYC pointing out the hundreds of unenforceable contract terms that we are exposed to everyday.

Do you have source for the "legal blog post"? Would/Might be an interesting read!

I didn't say he'd actually win at suing Apple, just that it was possible to do so.

If OP is in the EU, then that entire clause is null and void and Apple can be held liable.

The OP’s company has a revenue share agreement with Apple where Apple is the service provider who makes OP’s software available to its customers at its discretion.

What’s illegal or unenforceable about this agreement between two corporations?

The part where OP signs away its rights to go to court over the definition of when their software has to be made available.

If Apple was just a random company only running an app store, it'd be different.

But Apple has a monopoly on app stores for iOS and macOS by preinstalling them, similar to Microsoft preinstalling Internet Explorer.

As a result of being the only possible marketplace for these platforms, Apple can't just act at its own discretion.

The anti-trust line of reasoning was debunked a decade ago.

And the fact is that Apple has acted on its own discretion possibly thousands of times when it came to the App Store. In fact they've been doing it since day 1. They have banned pornography, gambling, cryptocurrencies etc and they will continue to ban more in the future.

It's 100% legal and their right.

Also and much simpler, good luck suing Apple.

That's not that bad actually. Apples routinely loses "small" cases [0](recent) [1] (2012, unfortunately seattlerex.com is off)

[0]: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/a3yadk/apple-sued...

[1]: https://consumerist.com/2012/04/17/seattle-man-victorious-ov...

I think all you have left is your eyes to cry. When you trust rotten companies, you don't come crying next. Your only solution, assuming your mistake.

I had a similar issue, but was able to get approved after all.

You are bad at risk management. Find another person/company so you can abdicate some more responsibility and repeat the cycle because that's what slow learners do.

> We use VPN to analyze traffic and show reports to the user.

A VPN is not necessary to do that. This might leave a reviewer in doubt the VPN doesn't obscure other rule breaking.

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