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Home Markets Perspective | Buying stuff in apps is broken. Try this instead.

Perspective | Buying stuff in apps is broken. Try this instead.

Perspective | Buying stuff in apps is broken. Try this instead.


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You are not Elon Musk. (Unless you are? Hi!) But like Musk, you have reasons to be mad about Apple and the status quo of apps.

A growing number of companies are rebelling against app constitutions that were invented when the BlackBerry was still cool. Those revolts — and Apple and Google’s defiance to them — are making more apps annoying to use, costing you money, or compromising what you can do on your phone.

A few examples of app irritations:

* You can buy a physical copy of Ina Garten’s new cookbook in Amazon’s iPhone app. But you can’t buy the e-book version in the app. Six months ago, you could buy a Kindle cookbook from the Android app. Now you can’t.

* Buying a one-month membership to Bumble costs more in your phone app than it does if you pay for the dating service on Bumble’s website — $39.99 instead of $29.99 when I checked this week. No one tells you this before you click “buy.”

* You can purchase a subscription to the Disney Plus streaming video service in the company’s app. You can’t buy anything in Netflix’s app.

* Musk’s Twitter doesn’t plan to let people buy its coming verification feature in the app, the Platformer newsletter reported this week. You presumably will be able to buy the paid check mark feature on the company’s website, but most usage of Twitter is in its apps. (We’ll see if Musk changed his mind after meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook.)

Some of these app roadblocks are old, and you can work around them. And in most apps, it’s still easy to buy whatever you want. But in a growing number of cases, buying digital subscriptions or virtual goods in apps is broken.

You can blame Apple and Google, or app makers like Amazon, Spotify and Tinder that refuse to go along with the rules of Apple and Google as owners of the dominant app stores. They all deserve blame and they’re a little right, too. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But this isn’t about them. It’s about you. You just want to buy stuff in apps and not pay more than you need to. But sometimes you can’t or you are.

The increasingly busted app system is more evidence of how your experiences online are shaped by corporate interest rather than what you want. What you can and can’t do is completely at the whims of secret negotiations between Apple, Google and app makers.

I’m proposing a tiny consumer revolt: Think twice before buying digital stuff in apps. This is a pain and it won’t change anything. But hear me out.

One reason apps are a mess: Digital and physical stuff are treated differently.

Almost from the birth of modern smartphones, Apple — and later Google — declared a first principle of apps:

If you’re buying something in an app that exists in the real world, Apple and Google have nothing to do with it. But if you’re buying something that lives only as pixels, those two companies might be your co-pilots in that app forever.

That means if you’re buying a novel, you buy it from Amazon in Amazon’s app. You book an Uber ride in that app and only deal with Uber. If you bought a toy from Walmart’s app, you can return it to Walmart.

But in the parallel app world for digital stuff, you’re buying that Disney Plus subscription from Google or Apple — not Disney. If you want to quit or have a billing problem, Disney can’t really help you. Disney pays a portion of your subscription to Apple or Google as long as you keep streaming.

Apple’s rules on this have been firm for years. Google had been less strict but this year it essentially copied Apple. Many app companies and people who make a living on apps like YouTube haven’t loved Apple and Google standing between them and you, but they deal.

Some digital companies, though, are refusing to go along. Buy buttons have disappeared from apps like Kindle, Netflix and Spotify’s iPhone app. The “Fortnite” video game app disappeared entirely. Some digital subscriptions like Bumble, Tinder and Amazon’s Audible charge you more in their apps to offset the commissions they pay to Apple or Google.

The apps themselves don’t typically explain this because any words they say in their apps must be cleared by Apple and Google. But if you’re aware of the app store meshugas, you can buy a subscription on and use your subscription in the app. Ditto for Kindle, Audible, Netflix and others. If you don’t know this, you might just be staring at an e-book that you can’t buy or paying more in an app than you need to.

It’s fair to ask if tech bosses like Spotify’s Daniel Ek or Tim Sweeney from “Fortnite” are to blame for crippling their own apps in a spat with Apple or Google.

It’s also fair to ask whether the old app store principles for digital and physical goods still fit.

Twelve years ago when a Netflix subscription involved DVDs by mail, maybe it was logical for Apple to treat that differently from a Netflix streaming subscription. Does the distinction make sense today? Is it justified, as a U.S. senator asked last year, that there’s a completely different app system when you use Uber to meet a stranger for a ride and when you use Tinder to meet a stranger for a date?

What you can do: Consider buying on the web, not in the app. (Don’t hate me.)

Apple and Google are the dictators of apps, and you live by their commands. But here’s one small measure of control you can grab back.

If you are paying for digital subscription, a virtual product like a Zoom fitness class or an online performer you love, consider purchasing from the company’s website instead of the app. Again, you must do this for a handful of things like Netflix or Kindle e-books.

Ask yourself: Would you prefer to buy a Duolingo subscription from Duolingo or from Google? How would you feel if you paid more for that yoga subscription in the app instead of on a website? Are you O.K. with Apple getting $1.50 of your $5 payment to a favorite YouTube channel?

There’s no right answer, really. If you do pay for something virtual in an app, just know that you made an arrangement with Apple or Google, not Duolingo or Down Dog. That has pros and cons.

The advantages are it’s often easier and probably safe to pay for a digital subscription in your app using credit card information that Google or Apple may already have. Apple and Google can protect you if you buy something digital from a dodgy app. (These protections don’t apply if you buy a physical subscription or product from a dodgy app.)

Apple and Google also let you — although it’s not as easy as it could be — see all the digital subscriptions you’re paying for and quit ones you don’t want.

Personally, I try to buy most digital things in a web browser and not in apps — especially if it’s a business that isn’t swimming in money such as a news organization or a Twitch star. Paying on the web saves them from handing over as much as $3 of my $10 subscription fee to Apple or Google. (And it collectively might spare all of us from the app maker raising prices.)

I also feel like this is a personal veto against an app buying system that denies you the choices that you deserve.

This side step might not work for everything, like video game apps, for which there is often no way to pay for stuff on a website.

Partly because of new laws over apps, there will be more experiments that could give you more sane ways to buy stuff in apps. (Maybe. Eventually.) I am intrigued by a program Google started this year with Spotify and a handful of other digital companies to give you the choice in an app of buying from Google or from the app company.

Look, I know this is a pain. You just want to buy stuff in apps! That’s what apps are for! Yes and no. Because of choices made by powerful companies, that is not what all apps are for.

And in the past 24 hours of Elon Musk-related news:

➦ Musk said that Twitter suspended the account of Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, after the rapper shared a tweet that included an image of a swastika.

➦ Twitter has offered incentives to advertisers, including matching what they spend dollar-for-dollar, to encourage them to buy Twitter ads. (The Wall Street Journal)

➦ Racist and anti-gay slurs and antisemitic posts have increased on Twitter since Musk took over the company, researchers said. The numbers of hateful posts are relatively small, but the researchers said the increases were unusual. (The New York Times)

Help us help you. What do you want to know about apps? How are you navigating online shopping for the holidays? Email us at [email protected] or ask us your questions about technology in your life. We’re all in this together.

My Help Desk colleagues and I love Libby, an app used by many public libraries to let you borrow e-books and audiobooks for free. Read more from my colleague Heather Kelly about Libby and other free alternatives for reading, listening and watching.

Bonus: You don’t have to think so hard about buying stuff in an app.

Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.

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