Earlier this year, Apple announced new policies aimed at, among other things, banning apps that contribute to spam and clutter in the App Store. Specifically, one policy gave Apple the right to reject apps built using a “commercialized template or app generation service.”

Now, Apple appears to be prepping enforcement of this rule in a way that could hurt small businesses in a big way.

According to TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez, a number of companies that offer businesses the ability to create apps using templates have been informed that apps they submit for inclusion in the App Store will be rejected starting on January 1, 2018. There is also a question as to whether or not they will be able to maintain existing apps that are already in the App Store, and for how long.

As Perez explained, many if not most small businesses don’t have the financial or technical resources to build apps from scratch, so they often turn to app builders that “help small businesses like local retailers, restaurants, small fitness studios, nonprofits, churches and other organizations to create an app presence using templates, drag-and-drop wizards and various tools to put together a more basic app that can then be customized further with their own branding and images.”

One U.S. lawmaker is concerned enough about the potential for Apple’s enforcement of its new policies to hurt small businesses that he is asking the company to reconsider. In a letter to the world’s most valuable publicly-traded company, Congressman Ted W. Lieu, who represents California’s 33rd Congressional District, stated:

Recently, I was informed that Apple’s decision to more stringently enforce its policy guidelines regarding design and functionality may result in the wholesale rejection of template-based apps from the App Store. It is my understanding that many small businesses, research organizations, and religious institutions rely on template apps when they do not possess the resources to develop apps in-house.

As Lieu sees it, Apple’s approach could “[invalidate] apps from longstanding and legitimate developers who pose no threat to the App Store’s integrity.”

The harsh realities of the app economy

While Lieu’s argument isn’t without merit, it’s also worth considering the significant challenges that small businesses face in the App Store.

Data shows that despite the fact consumers are spending significant amounts of time on their mobile devices, their usage of apps is concentrated in a very small number of popular apps like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Driving downloads and installs of mobile apps can be costly and retention is notoriously difficult. According to mobile engagement platform Localytics, nearly a quarter of apps are used only once after they are installed and overall app churn after three months is a depressing 80%.

From this perspective, one might argue that Apple is doing small businesses a favor, even if it isn’t apparent to them. After all, the data makes it clear: it’s very, very difficult to succeed in the App Store and many if not most small businesses are likely realizing little to no benefit from their apps. 

Even so, with some services offering template-based mobile apps for iOS and Android for as little as $10 a month, it’s easy for small businesses to overlook the fact that their apps aren’t delivering a meaningful return; they get to say “we have a mobile app.”

If anything, this might be the silver lining in Apple’s enforcement of its new policies: it will make clear to small businesses that they likely have to do more if they want to truly succeed in the App Store and it will give them an incentive to revisit their mobile strategies.

In doing so, some businesses may find that they have a legitimate case for investing in the development of a custom app, one that ideally has unique features that will differentiate it and maximize the value offered to users. This is more likely to be the case for businesses that have ongoing, strong relationships with their customers. For instance, a small gym chain might decide to develop a custom app that goes beyond scheduling and offers its members gamification features, workout tracking, regularly updated custom content, and social networking and messaging functionality.

Other businesses, however, like restaurants and local retailers, are more likely to find that their relationships with customers aren’t strong enough to support a strong mobile app value proposition. In turn, they might realize their websites are their most important digital assets and conclude that their time and money is better invested in ensuring that their websites provide a solid mobile user experience.

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