Apple’s glitzy developer conference this June, WWDC, gave us our annual peek at the latest and greatest software the company is bringing to our devices, from iOS 15 to major updates to macOS, iPadOS, and more.
This year, as with other years, privacy improvements across Apple’s operating systems were front-and-center. Building on its anti-tracking pop-up boxes introduced last year that targeted cross-app tracking, iOS will now allow users to block email senders from tracking whether or not people are opening their emails.
Open tracking is one of the few ways people who send email are able to understand how well that email was read. Email marketers, as well as newsletter creators that send emails via platforms like Substack and Revue, use simple transparent pixels embedded in emails that load when an email is opened by a user, indicating that the email was read (or at least opened).
Unlike tracking on the web or in apps, this doesn’t tell you much about the user other than the general country they’re located in, and whether they actually looked at the email, which is used to determine the newsletter’s ‘open rate’ and figure out whether or not certain subscribers are still engaging with your emails.
As a user, I like the idea of features like this that allow me to choose my privacy settings. As a creator, however, it’s increasingly difficult to ignore Apple moving toward a world where the only acceptable business model is the company’s: building apps that monetize through platforms owned by Apple.
Falling afoul of those restrictive rules can be devastating, as the makers behind Fanhouse, an app that allows fans to pay creators, recently found out: Apple demanded they add its in-app payment gateway instead of taking payments via the web or it would remove its app, which would mean paying the company 30% of subscription money, resulting in less for the creators at the other end.
With the change to email tracking, Apple is killing off one of the few ways email senders actually had to understand their audience in one fell swoop–that simple tracking allowed many newsletters to monetize their work instead of charging subscription fees. The irony, of course, is if those newsletter creators were to build a free app, they would be allowed to track whatever users do within it.
I know this space because I sent an email newsletter, Charged, for years to more than 40,000 people every week. It was a free, accessible way for people to keep up with the technology industry, without reading news sites–it just came into their inbox. I was able to support doing this by selling simple text advertisements from companies that I directly worked with to place those ads, making sure they were relevant to the type of people that might read my newsletter. In order to get those advertisers to support me, they wanted to know one metric: my open rate, specifically the percentage of people on my list that actually read my emails.
The paid newsletter trend, thanks to the popularity of tools like Substack, has been a boon for the industry, allowing both independent creators and newsrooms to find new sources of revenue, building direct relationships with customers. But, once again, Apple has declared that alternatives to subscriptions are simply not a valid business model, demonizing those that choose to monetize in alternative ways that don’t demand users open their wallet.
It’s increasingly hard to offer any service that doesn’t directly ask for money from its users as its business model, which is a big shift from the internet of old, where services were often free, supported by advertising. Over the last few years, as mobile has outpaced the desktop in market share, it’s become impossible to ignore the impact of Apple’s decisions–and the benefits it reaps with every change like this. That’s why it faces antitrust probes such as the ongoing case of Epic Games, which argues Apple’s rules are unfair and designed to let the company win no matter what developers do.
This simple change to a single email app will have vast ripple effects. The majority of people that read email use the Apple Mail app to do so, which means this single change will have industry-shifting consequences and may kill some independent creators’ businesses that rely on the simple ability to understand if people are reading their content. Creators won’t be able to ignore it, because they don’t have a choice.
I feel somewhat uncomfortable defending the advertising industry; for years advertising networks abused user privacy, tracked them beyond what is appropriate, and pushed the boundaries to the point that this type of platform-level enforcement was practically inevitable. That said, much of the weird, wonderful parts of the early internet were accessible to everyone because advertising allowed them to exist and pay their bills, particularly when users may not have been willing to pay.
It’s frustrating writing about Apple’s focus on privacy because the company has done a fantastic job of positioning itself as the one true arbiter of things that are good, and the enforcer of what is ‘acceptable’ even when, in many cases, privacy changes serve Apple’s bottom line–nudging people toward the App Store, where it gets a 30% cut of every sale and subscription.
Every time I write about these changes, people tell me that perhaps those things didn’t deserve to exist — because tracking is evil — but not everyone can afford to pay a mountain of monthly subscriptions for things. Privacy is important, but when it’s used as a tool to benefit one company alone, we should be able to question that.
In the past, ads allowed the creation of something great that we could all use, from Neopets to MySpace, without demanding cash from the user. While it wasn’t perfect, and the industry could’ve done a better job of informing people or giving them a choice, it allowed much of the modern internet to exist.
With Apple controlling so much of the modern internet’s destiny, why should we let the company single-handedly decide what’s allowed, and what isn’t? Unfortunately, the reality today is that with hundreds of millions of people using iOS, and default apps, Apple can change the course of an industry with a single toggle in an update.
The newsletter probably won’t die, but it’s another example of the broad power Apple has to change an entire industry overnight, virtually unchecked. It’s Apple’s world, and we just have to hope they continue to allow us to exist in it.