On June 3, 2019, Ben and Dan Volach watched the Apple keynote of its annual Worldwide Developers Conference. Software chief Craig Federighi, presented iOS 13, the newest version of the iPhone operating system. As usual, the description of each new feature drew cheers and applause.
The Israelis brothers listened intently. They developed BlueMail, an email app for devices running iOS and other operating systems. They were ardent Apple fans. Ben has several Apple devices, including iPhone, MacBook, AirPods and Apple Watch.
But then Federighi introduced a new feature, called Sign in With Apple. The Volachs exchanged agitated looks. This can’t be happening, they said. Apple simply stole our technology. A few days later they received another blow – their mail app was suddenly removed from the Mac App Store. “On June 3 they announce a feature that violates a patent and on June 7 they kick us off Mac,” they say. “That’s when we realized we needed a lawyer.”
Eight months later, the Volachs find themselves in a situation they never thought they’d be in. They are suing the tech giant amid a glare of media coverage as well as organizing a protest movement of developers, claiming that Apple is exploiting its immense clout in order to harm them. They have been interviewed by The Washington Post, The Financial Times and Wired magazine.
They want a court injunction prohibiting Apple from taking further monopolistic steps in the Mac and iPhone email software market. They are also seeking damages. They want the App Store declared a monopoly.
Ben, 37, and Dan, 43, are developers and brothers (“in that order!”). They grew up in Haifa and now live and work in London and New Jersey. In 2006, they sold their mobile messenger company Followap to a company called Neustar for $160 million. They now head the U.S. startup Blix, which developed BlueMail. It boasts 10 million users. Blix has also developed messaging software.
In 2018, BlueMail added a feature it called Share Email that allows users to send emails anonymously, for example to respond to an online promotion without risking a deluge of spam. The Volachs registered a patent for the technology behind it.
Sign in With Apple, the highlight of the June 3 keynote, is very similar, allowing users to conceal their email address as well as to sign in to third-party apps and services using an Apple ID, without having to provide personal details.
On June 7 the two were surprised to find that BlueMail had been removed from the Mac App Store, which offers apps for Apple’s laptop and desktop computers.
A few months later, Blix sued Apple in a Delaware court, claiming patent infringement and the violation of U.S. antitrust laws.
“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.” says the lawsuit. “Apple’s theft of Mr. Volach’s patented ideas, days before Apple threw Mr.Volach’s very successful software product out of Apple’s ‘App Store’ marketplace, caused tremendous harm to Blix.”
A few weeks later, the Volachs posted an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Apple later claimed that Blix’s app was removed because it overrode basic data security protections, potentially exposing users’ computers to malware that can harm them and threaten their privacy. The Volachs reject this and claim that Apple has changed its story several times.
“Each time they have a different excuse. Before, they argued that our app violated user conditions due to its duplicating another one of our apps, but we’d taken that one out before we were kicked off, so that argument doesn’t hold water. Apple then moved on to another excuse. Their excuses are childish, akin to someone saying their dog ate their homework. They’re in touch with us, sometimes ignoring us, sometime nagging us, looking for reasons not to restore our app, looking for reasons as to why it’s not their fault.”
The two assail the process of approving and monitoring the applications that get into the App Store. “Apple makes and enforces the rules, deciding whether you’ve abided by them. They have total control and you can’t do a thing. You prosecute them and they don’t respond. What can you do? Turn to the U.S. president? What can we do in order to be restored to the App Store?”
This month, the Volachs turned themselves into the standard bearers of an ideological campaign. With the hashtag #fairness2020 and a website, they are calling on other developers hurt by Apple to join them and tell their story.
“If Apple has kicked you out of any its App Stores, used its developer guidelines to control your innovation, hijacked your store ranking, or (let’s be honest with each other) lied to you while it steals your technology, it’s time to talk,” the website says. Among other things they are calling for outside observers to vet the approval and removal of apps in the App Store to wrest exclusive control from Apple.
The Volachs refuse to say how many people who have answered their appeal or the types of complaints they have heard, arguing that developers do not want exposure. “Many come to us with their stories. It’s unbelievable, there are some real horror ones. Apple unabashedly takes technology and puts it in their products. Much more than the press is aware of. People are afraid of Apple.”
Not longer after the #fairness2020 campaign began, Apple suddenly returned BlueMail to its App Store. Apple says it did so only after developers finally revised BlueMail that addressed the problems it had. But the Volachs say the company only acted after coming under public pressure.
They plan to continue with their lawsuit and campaign. They demand all developers get treated fairly by Apple. “It’s not enough that our app was restored, we want to make sure that we continue to be present in their App Store. What will prevent them from kicking us out again? It could happen to anyone. These aren’t just any developers, these are companies that invested millions in their products. That’s why we want this dealt with thoroughly. We have a one-time opportunity to cause Apple to change and become fair.”
The Apple spokesman in Israel had no comment.
Others have sued, too
The Volachs’ claims against Apple are not new and the company has been sued before. Claims that Apple has a monopoly over app distribution that it exploits to hurt its competition and promote its products are being investigated by the U.S. Congress, the Justice Department and the European Union.
Over the years, developers of iPhone apps have repeatedly discovered that Apple had integrated technology similar to theirs into its devices, often at no charge to users. The simplest example is the flashlight apps that were common on the App Store in the past, but were eliminated after Apple integrated them into iPhone screens.
This practice is known as “Sherlocking,” for the Sherlock search tool that Apple introduced in 2002, with many features “borrowed” from a third-party app called Watson.
Last year, The New York Times reported that Apple had removed a host of parental control apps from the App Store. The official explanation was that they violated users’ privacy, but all this happened in suspicious proximity to the introduction of a similar option on iPhones.
As reported in The Washington Post in September, this wasn’t just about stealing ideas, a common practice in the world of technology. Apple owns the App Store, with complete access to all apps it carries, including downloading and user instructions. This is information it can use when it decides what and how to copy. It can also check apps before they reach the market, and can remove or restrict those that compete with its own products.
On the other hand, one can’t expect Apple not to innovate and improve its devices, just because some app is already doing the same thing.
“We don’t have solutions to this problem,” admit the Volachs. “But the system in which Apple just takes what it wants from the toy store can’t go on. They sit up there, see what others are doing, and take. And when they’re sued? They dispatch a battery of lawyers. This is totalitarian rule which kills innovation and weakens other companies, since anyone not putting up a fight goes under. We don’t expect them not to be innovative but there is a way of doing business. They’re rich, and stealing is not the way to go.”
Similar claims have been made against Google, Amazon and other tech giants, including investigations and lawsuits. The most famous story was in the 1990s, when Microsoft incorporated the Explorer search engine into its Windows operating system, thereby wiping out Netscape. The result was an antitrust lawsuit filed by the U.S. government, which ended in a settlement.
Since then, Microsoft has been treading carefully. “We work with Apple and Microsoft, and there is no comparison,” say the Volachs. “Microsoft works hard not to be like that, and they too are worth a trillion dollars. Apple today is much stronger that Microsoft in those years. It’s an aggressive company, you don’t become a mammoth without being aggressive.”
Promoting its own
As part of their lawsuit, the Volachs make another claim that has dogged Apple in recent years, that it has manipulated the App Store to promote its own apps over competitors.’ In making their claim, the brothers show that when they search for the word “podcast” in the App Store, half the screen is covered by an ad. The other half shows the Apple Podcast app. A search for an email app gives an equivalent result.
In contrast, similar searches in the Google Play Store, the app market for devices running Google’s Android operating system, yield six or seven diverse results. “Apple does whatever it wants, and you ask yourself if this is legal. Other apps get fewer opportunities. Even good apps don’t stand a chance since it’s not really a search. Apple determines the results on its own, unrelated to rankings, reviews or grades,” the Volachs say.
In response to similar claims, Apple last year made changes to the App Store’s search algorithm that completely altered the results of searches. Apple says the changes aim to reduce the number of results that give prominence to its own products. As a result, BlueMail’s place in search results jumped from 143 to 13.
The Volachs regard this as a positive development, but point out that it shows that until now the search function had suppressed BlueMail. “They need to explain what happened and what changed,” they say. Apple decides who succeeds and who doesn’t. How do they decide?”