Apple’s WWDC 2014, its annual Worldwide Developer’s Conference, has just ended with an interesting, subtle update that relates to its support of bitcoin. Although no specific mention of bitcoin or virtual currencies was uttered by any of Apple’s leaders on stage, an update was apparently made to its App Store Review Guidelines without any fanfare. Many people are predicting that this could be the change that finally relaxes the restrictions on apps that allow us to manage, use, and trade bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies.
The specific addition is expressed in a single sentence under the document’s Purchasing and Currencies section.
Apps may facilitate transmission of approved virtual currencies provided that they do so in compliance with all state and federal laws for the territories in which the app functions.
So what does this statement really mean? Has Apple had a change of heart?
Is Apple Against Bitcoin?
First of all, I find the concept of Apple being against bitcoin not as a losing proposition for bitcoin, but rather for Apple. Apple has been rejecting, removing, and requiring app developers to remove bitcoin access off and on for the last two years. I even discussed this issue my book, The Bitcoin Tutor: Unlocking the Secrets of Bitcoin. Many bitcoin advocates have already traded in their iPhones, destroyed them publicly in YouTube videos, and adopted Android as their new, uncensored, mobile computing platform. And for many, they will never go back regardless of Apple’s changing positions.
Android has happily embraced virtual currency apps that work with bitcoin and other currencies in their Google Play store. Google’s policies are more open and flexible for application providers, and hence, has become the new home for bitcoin mobile wallet apps, those little programs that allow bitcoin users to spend bitcoins in person for goods and services.
As for me, I still have my iPhone. I spoke about “upgrading” my iPhone to Android in my book, but I still haven’t made the change. Personally, I am a long-time Apple user and currently have two Macs, two iPads, two iPhones, and an AppleTV in my household. The tight integration between iOS devices — when it works properly, of course — is quite compelling and a major reason to keep the Apple family of devices altogether. However, I can assure you that my interest in bitcoin far outweighs my allegiance to Apple. That viewpoint, including from many Apple fanatics, may have finally resonated in the ivory towers at One Infinite Loop in Cupertino, Apple’s headquarters location.
What Is Apple’s Concern?
Apple has allowed bitcoin apps, including mobile wallets, from major bitcoin companies such as Coinbase and Blockchain.info, to be published to its App Store. However, on one particular day in late 2013, all bitcoin apps disappeared from the store without notice and without reason. CEO’s, reporters, and other interested folks repeatedly asked Apple, by email, by letter, and in interviews, to explain why that had removed, and apparently banned, bitcoin apps from iOS. In each case, they only got “radio silence” — no response, no reason, and no rationale from Apple.
Was Apple coming out with its own cryptocurrency and holding back bitcoin apps until that day? Was Apple concerned about losing its 30% commission on all App Store transactions? Or was there something else at play in their decision? In the typical secretive and opaque Apple style, no clarification was forthcoming. In fact to this day, no official statement has ever been made.
What Will Actually Change?
The change in policy that was published last week is encouraging. However, there’s still no proof that Apple will consider bitcoin or other major cryptocurrencies as one of their “approved virtual currencies” as they refer to in their new guidelines statement. However, if they don’t accept bitcoin, they what virtual currency would they actually support? After all, bitcoin is the granddaddy of all modern virtual currencies, the so-called cryptocurrencies. And, what criteria will they use to determine whether to include apps that work with cryptos like litecoin, dogecoin, and others?
I suspect that bitcoin app vendors will be retooling and resubmitting their apps shortly for resubmission to the App Store. Time will tell whether they have found the secret to Apple’s approval. The game that Apple is playing, however, is not in the spirit of supporting app vendors to bring the best apps to its platform. Apple is, in my opinion, being a big bully. They are playing a dangerous game and missing an opportunity for goodwill with its users and vendors, friendly cooperation with the bitcoin community, and of setting clearer guidelines that would help all bitcoin app vendors meet Apple’s expectations and requirements.
Why can’t Apple simply explain their concerns? Legitimate, venture-funded companies like Coinbase are being prevented from accessing about 40% of the smartphone market — that is, the iPhone user market. But why? What are vendors doing that is causing the Apple rejection?
Should there be a statement upon app launch that exempts Apple from any loss due to holding and transacting virtual currencies? Is Apple looking for a commission on each transaction? Must vendors utilize GPS location information to verify that the app is legal in the current jurisdiction?
What’s the Next Step?
Uncertainly still remains as to whether Apple will approve bitcoin apps with their new policy in place. Will they publish a list of their approved virtual currencies? Will they create a new category of apps for virtual currencies? Or will they publish further guidelines for this sure-to-be explosive category of new iOS apps?
I’ll keep an eye out for what comes out of Apple’s secret lair and share my finding in future blogs.
So, what’s your opinion on all this? Do you think Apple’s decision is reasonable or justified? Is it still time to trade in your iPhone? Or, should we wait just a little bit longer? Share your comments below.