For many years, independent software developers have debated the pros and cons of unionizing. Now, a small group of iOS builders seems to have taken matters into their own hands, launching The Developers Union.
The union’s initial goals are relatively narrow in scope, and focused exclusively on Apple’s App Store. “Today, we are asking Apple to publicly commit—by the tenth anniversary of the App Store this July—to allowing free trials for all apps in the App Stores before July 2019.”
If the union succeeds in that goal, things will escalate: “After that, we’ll start advocating for a more reasonable revenue cut and other community-driven, developer-friendly changes.”
Within a few days of the unveiling, the union had more than 400 developers publicly supporting its cause, along with roughly 450 apps. The group’s founders include Brent Simmons, who has been writing apps for various Apple platforms for decades. “Trial versions have worked great for years for indie Mac developers, before the App Store, and we think it would benefit indies on the iOS and Mac App Stores,” Simmons wrote in a posting on his personal website. “And the platform would get better—and more sustainable—apps.”
In theory, a union provides benefits in exchange for dues from members. A company, if its entire workforce is unionized, can use that leverage to extract concessions from management such as better pay and working hours. And therein lies the issue with attempting to unionize independent software developers: they’re spread over too wide a geographical area, and have radically different goals and needs. Many develop apps as a side-gig while working for another company full-time; others would refuse to pay dues unless their very specific interests were addressed, which might compete against those of others.
Plus, some organizations, such as the Freelancers Union, already exist to provide benefits such as healthcare and disability insurance to contractors. That would make it harder for a large, mobile-developer-specific union to attract members.
There’s also the question of whether Apple, Google, and other tech giants would bother to listen to a relatively small group of tech professionals who want changes to an app store or a revenue model. According to TechCrunch, Apple’s App Store may have racked up $38.5 billion in 2017, while Google Play made $20.1 billion. If a couple hundred (or even several thousand) developers threaten to withhold their apps from the store in protest over policy, there’s a tide of other developers who will fill that sudden hole with their own products.
In a Medium posting, Dice editor Nate Swanner argued that The Developers Union could actually shoot itself in the foot. “If by happenstance the [App Store] changes are being considered at Apple, this might have put a halt to them,” he wrote. “Apple won’t want to be seen as cowing to a subset of developers, no matter how carefully considered their argument is. Further, the promise that these hits will keep coming draws a line in the sand.”
It seems unlikely at this juncture that The Developers Union will achieve its goal of major changes from Apple, despite a promise to collect thousands of members by this year’s WWDC conference. The changes desired by many freelance developers around the world, including adjusted revenue splits, may have to wait for a different vehicle to convey their needs to the tech giants.