That sounds familiar.
It’s the first thought that crossed both Dan and Ben Volach’s minds after Apple announced Sign in with Apple at its annual developer conference this past June. Specifically, the part of the new feature that allows users to generate a random email address for apps when signing in, so they never need to hand over personal information to a third party.
A few days later, still reeling from the shock of seeing the technology they patented announced on the world stage, the Volach brothers’ email app, BlueMail, was removed from the Mac App Store. Coincidence? They don’t think so.
The pair are suing Apple for patent infringement, but they’ve also just published an open letter to Tim Cook, asking the Apple CEO to restore BlueMail to the Mac App Store—despite the ongoing litigation—so they don’t lose their business.
“It has now been over five months since Apple removed BlueMail from the Mac App Store,” Ben Volach writes in the open letter. “In these five months, our company’s future has been put in jeopardy. Our users do not understand why BlueMail stopped being available on the store, nor can we give them a date when it will be restored.”
Dan and Ben Volach told WIRED their company doesn’t have the resources to pursue the lawsuit if their MacOS app isn’t back on the App Store, considering the litigation can take time. It doesn’t help that Apple’s legal team has allegedly asked for an extension to prepare its defense.
“Without a presence on the Mac App Store, we cannot continue forever,” Ben Volach writes in the letter. “No small developer has your resources and these extensions are more than preparation; these delays leverage your resources and control over our ability to generate revenue. And so, when you delisted our app, we lost our voice.”
Dan and Ben Volach are the creators of BlueMail, an email app founded in 2013 that prides itself on supporting multiple services, from iCloud and Gmail to Outlook and Exchange. The app—which has 10 million users globally, according to Sensor Tower—is also cross-platform, supporting Windows, iOS, Android, Linux, and, until a few months ago, MacOS.
Last year, the app was found to be sending users’ passwords to the developers, but the company issued an update that reportedly rectified the issue and claims it doesn’t store emails or passwords on its servers.
Also in 2018, BlueMail released a feature called Share Email, which allows people to communicate through public addresses without revealing private email addresses. For example, if you share your email address through this feature and post it to Twitter, you won’t be able to see the real email addresses of people who email you, and the idea is you’re safe knowing no one can identify your real, private email address. The United States Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to Ben Volach for this technology a year prior.
This experience is similar to what Apple promises if you use Sign in with Apple, a new feature baked into iOS 13 and other Apple software like MacOS and WatchOS. When creating an account for an app, if the developer supports Sign in with Apple, you can choose to “hide your email” so the app can’t access your private email address. Apple generates a random address, which the app-maker can access in case there’s a need to send marketing materials, promotions, or general support inquiries.
Similar services like Sign in with Google or Facebook exist, but third parties you’re trying to connect to can still ask Google and Facebook for personal information, such as a name, email address, and profile picture. Those third parties can also still build a user profile around you. Opting to use Sign in with Apple means you don’t need to worry about your email sitting in a potentially insecure database managed by some unknown entity, waiting to be snatched up in a data breach. This feature is the crux of the lawsuit the Volach brothers, under the name of Blix Inc., have brought against Apple.
“Not long after Mr. Volach’s team unveiled BlueMail’s innovative anonymous communication options, Apple took Mr. Volach’s pioneering ideas—without permission, payment, or credit—and used those ideas in Apple’s own products,” the lawsuit reads.
This is not the first time Apple has been accused of stealing ideas from apps on its storefronts. Apple has data on which apps are popular because of its role in managing and operating the App Store, and several apps have fallen to their demise after Apple integrated similar features into its own apps, or into the iPhone’s software. For example, Apple cracked down on apps that help manage digital wellness citing the apps could glean too much user data. But this started happening a few months before Apple introduced its own screen time management tools in iOS 12. Some of those apps that have seen their features poached have shut down, according to The New York Times.
Qustodio is one of the screen-time management apps that was affected, though it was never removed from the App Store. It filed a complaint with the European Union, alleging Apple tried to use its power over the App Store to stifle apps with competing Screen TIme features. Qustodio CEO, Eduardo Cruz, told WIRED what happened to his company—and BlueMail—feels like the “digital Inquisition.”
“In a matter of minutes, the app business that you’ve grown over the years can be shut down with little or no warning, and without alternatives,” Cruz said in an email statement. “App developers are currently at the mercy of two primary gatekeepers for their livelihood, Apple and Google. It’s like the Digital Inquisition. Regulations over the rules and limits set by the big players are more critical than ever to fair and healthy competition in the marketplace, allowing consumers to make their own app choices.”
More recently, Apple enabled period-tracking in its Health app, worrying developers behind popular apps like Clue.
“It’s a love-hate relationship, of course,” Ida Tin, Clue’s CEO told The Washington Post. “You don’t want to annoy the milkman when you only have one milkman.”
These practices haven’t gone unnoticed. Apple is facing anti-competitive investigations from Congress, the European Union is looking to investigate Apple for similar behavior surrounding rival app Spotify. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court said App Store customers can sue Apple for antitrust violations. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has also said she thinks Apple needs to be broken up, along with a myriad of other tech giants.
“Apple, you’ve got to break it apart from their App Store,” Warren told The Verge earlier this year. “It’s got to be one or the other. Either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.”
The Blix Inc. lawsuit uses another incident to further paint Apple as anti-competitive. The MacOS version of the app was ejected from the Mac App Store days after Apple announced Sign in with Apple. There’s no definitive link showing the app’s removal is connected to the rollout of Sign in with Apple—I have asked Apple about this and will update this story if we get a comment—but the Volach brothers insist it’s not a coincidence.
“Apple’s vague rejection was part of Apple’s scheme to remove competition from the App Store,” the lawsuit claims.
App Store Removal
After a beta period, BlueMail was published to the Mac App Store on May 8. Despite initially approving it, around two weeks later Apple reportedly sent a notice claiming BlueMail violated Guideline 4.3—called “Spam”—of its App Store Guidelines. According to the lawsuit, Apple asked the developers to upload a compliant and updated version of the app within 48 hours. Here’s what the guideline says:
“Don’t create multiple Bundle IDs of the same app. If your app has different versions for specific locations, sports teams, universities, etc., consider submitting a single app and provide the variations using in-app purchase. Also, avoid piling on to a category that is already saturated; the App Store has enough fart, burp, flashlight, and Kama Sutra apps, etc. already. Spamming the store may lead to your removal from the Developer Program.”
Ben Volach owns another app called TypeApp that is not affiliated with BlueMail. It’s also an email app, though the lawsuit said it “targets email service providers and is customized for the needs of those service providers.” Assuming this app is what Apple referred to when it mentioned “multiple bundle IDs,” the Volach brothers decided to pull TypeApp from the Mac App Store, and the BlueMail team submitted a new version of their app with a new design.
In this resubmission, the team asked Apple to “elaborate on which apps you find similar, so we can look into it and take action if required.” Yet BlueMail was rejected again, with Apple citing the app duplicated content available on the App Store. After asking again for more clarity, a few days later Apple finally said BlueMail is duplicating TypeApp.
“BlueMail and TypeApp were never duplicate applications—but they certainly could not be “duplicates” on June 4, 2019, that were “currently available on the App Store” when TypeApp for Mac had already been voluntarily removed weeks earlier,” according to the lawsuit.
Despite explaining that TypeApp had already been removed after Apple’s initial complaint, Apple said it still found BlueMail wasn’t “in compliance,” and on June 7 it booted BlueMail from the Mac App Store without further explanation.
BlueMail and TypeApp both still currently coexist on the iOS App Store (and even on Android’s Google Play Store), so it’s unclear what prompted Apple’s rejection on the Mac App Store. Reddit users have been debating the differences between the apps, with most suggesting the two apps are indeed duplicates. Looking at both apps, they appear almost exactly the same and have similar features, though WIRED hasn’t been able to analyze the pulled Mac applications to see if they’re any different.
The Volach brothers didn’t offer much explanation as to how the two apps are different, due to pending litigation. The lawsuit says, ”TypeApp is customized for Locaweb Servicos de Internet S/A in Brazil, whereas BlueMail has no Brazil-specific customization.”
Harming the Business
Ben Volach said a large number of BlueMail’s clients use MacBook computers, and a lack of a presence on the Mac App Store is harming the company’s business (despite only launching the MacOS app earlier this year). The company’s newest product is a platform called Blix for Teams, which integrates messaging and BlueMail’s email client into one platform and heavily utilizes the Share Email feature from BlueMail as a way for companies to privately communicate with people outside their organization. The lack of a Mac app for BlueMail has the duo worried that Blix might face similar problems for the Mac App Store (it has been approved for the iOS App Store), but they also think Apple’s patent infringement beats their new service to market.
He said the company doesn’t want to distribute BlueMail over the internet and bypass the Mac App Store because Apple’s MacOS software prevents downloads from “unidentified developers” unless a user tweaks their MacBook settings. He said repeated security warnings will put people off.
This is true. As of the MacOS Sierra update from 2017, Apple’s Gatekeeper software no longer offers a toggle option to download apps over the internet—which Apple claims prevents users from installing malware. But you can bypass the restriction, and Apple explains how to do so in this support page, though it does prompt several notifications warning users they are potentially downloading malware.
The Volachs believe Apple infringed on their patent, and they think BlueMail’s removal are all a part of Apple’s goal to copy ideas and stifle competition. They know Apple’s legal team can draw out the lawsuit for a long time, but they’re hoping the open letter will draw attention to their case.
“Mr. Cook, we are asking you personally, please bring BlueMail back to the Mac App Store,” the Volachs write. “Please treat small developers with fairness and empathy. Please recognize your own roots as a small business, struggling to compete against the establishment, in our struggle for fairness.”
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