Apple restores banned BlueMail app but devs say fight is not over

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Mac App Store
The email app BlueMail finds itself on the outside of the "closed garden."
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Banned email app BlueMail is back in the Mac App Store, just one week after its developers tried to publicly rally other small companies to speak out against Apple’s App Store practices.

Ben and Dan Volach’s eight-month appeal of Apple’s ban ended Tuesday when the App Store relisted BlueMail. But the brothers say they will continue to fight Apple in court on claims the tech giant stole patented features of the app before booting it from the App Store.

“We know this isn’t the end,” Ben Volach said in a written statement obtained by Cult of Mac. “Our experience has shown that until the app review process includes effective checks and balances, Apple holds too much power over small developers.”

Apple said last week it made several attempts to work with the Volachs’ company, Blix, to bring BlueMail back into the App Store. Cupertino said it booted BlueMail due to “security risks that could expose users to malware and threaten privacy.” On Monday evening, Apple told Cult of Mac that Blix kept submitting the same version of its app. Apple approved the app last Friday because Blix submitted an updated version that satisfied App Store security and privacy policies.

Apple and devs: A rocky relationship at times

The Volachs’ story touches on long-running complaints about Apple’s business practices. From opaque App Store policies considered by many to be monopolistic to the “sherlocking” of popular apps, BlueMail’s sudden disappearance from the App Store offers a glimpse into the oft-tumultuous relationship between developers and the world’s most valuable tech company.

Blix co-founders Dan and Ben Volach
Blix co-founders Dan and Ben Volach.
Photo: Blix

For the Volachs, their relationship with Cupertino went south when Apple CEO Tim Cook showed off the new Sign in with Apple feature at last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference. The Volachs say Apple’s privacy-focused feature borrows key technology from BlueMail. It lets users create burner email addresses to log in to websites, thus hiding an individual’s real email address from advertisers and websites.

A few days after WWDC, the app disappeared from the Mac App Store without an explanation, the Volachs said. (The iOS version of BlueMail remained available.) The Volachs then started a campaign to get their Mac app back in Apple’s software repository.

“Apple is controlling our ability to be successful,” Ben Volach said in a recent interview with Cult of Mac. “What if we didn’t fight them? They are way too powerful and way too vicious. (This is) dangerous to innovation, to technology and to the small player.”

Blix accuses Apple of patent infringement

Blix filed a patent-infringement suit against Apple in October. The company later filed an additional claim that Apple was “suppressing” apps in App Store rankings so its native apps scored higher.

BlueMail became popular with PC and Android users, downloaded more than 10 million times. However, the app never got that kind of traction in Apple’s App Store. It ranked 143rd, but after a New York Times investigation showing how Apple’s own apps ranked higher than its competitors, the Volachs said BlueMail suddenly ranked 13th. Other companies, they said, experienced similar spikes.

In filings for its lawsuit, Blix claims it possesses data showing exactly how Apple suppressed the rankings of its competitors.

Making public appeals

Since suing Apple, Blix has been trying to get BlueMail back in the Mac App Store. Though it was dropped in June, the Volachs said they could not get a response from Apple tech support until they wrote an open letter to Cook on their website in November.

In the letter, Ben Volach wrote:

No small developer has [Apple’s] resources. These delays leverage your resources and control over our ability to generate revenue.

Apple may have long forgotten what it is like to be a small company, but we are living it. Please recognize your own roots as a small business, struggling to compete against the establishment, in our struggle for fairness.

The Volachs said they think the letter got the App Store to finally respond to their appeals. But the Volachs contend Apple gave “shifting explanations” for why BlueMail remained on the outside.

Why did Apple ban BlueMail?

Reasons, they said, ranged from BlueMail being a duplicate of several other apps to Blix’s software not working on the newest Mac operating system. (Dan Volach said he tried to provide proof to Apple tech support that the app ran fine on macOS Catalina.)

Apple said its tech team observed privacy and security warnings when launching BlueMail in Catalina. App Store guidelines warn developers that apps should run without warnings on the latest operating system.

The Volachs updated the app and received word that Apple approved it once again for download in the App Store.

After hearing from Apple, Cult of Mac asked the Volachs for additional comment. The brothers issued the following joint statement:

“Apple’s comment is another shifting explanation. This security warning is generated by Gatekeeper, which was only launched on October 7, 2019 as part of macOS Catalina. Why then was BlueMail removed from the Mac App Store in June 2019? None of the explanations Apple has provided over the last eight months have added up and this is a new explanation from just days ago.”

Pressing Apple for fair treatment in App Store

The brothers think Apple surrendered to the public pressure they drummed up last week. Their campaign included several interviews with tech and business news sites, along with an additional open letter to developers, asking them to share negative App Store experiences.

“If you’re out there too scared to come forward, let this be your proof that speaking out works,” Dan Volach said in a statement. “To Apple, we want to reiterate that all we want for developers is an opportunity to be treated fairly.”

The App Store Principles and Practices page on the Apple website says the company gives developers a fair and level playing field. Some 60% of the apps pitched make the App Store. The company rejects others, often based on privacy concerns.

Apple says its App Stores for iOS and Mac hold close to 2 million apps, and that developers earned more than $155 billion worldwide selling digital services via their apps.