Hey is trying a new take on email – but maker complains of 'outrageous' demands after Apple rejects iOS app

Downside of requiring a dedicated app rather than a standard email client?

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A new email service called Hey aims to solve issues with one of the internet's oldest standards – but Apple will not allow the iOS client into its app store unless the maker pays Cupertino "15-30 per cent of our revenue."

Hey comes from Basecamp, the company (originally called 37signals) founded by Ruby on Rails inventor David Heinemeier Hansson. You can still see the "37 signals" here – opinions about how stuff should work, the first being "the web should empower, not frustrate." The concepts behind Hey are in tune with that philosophy and attempt to make dealing with email more pleasant and productive.

Frustration is the order of the day for now, though, as Hansson has run up against Apple's App Store policies. Hey requires a dedicated app, rather than working with any email client, and users pay a subscription of $99 per year. "That makes our business work without having to sell your data, advertise to you, or otherwise engage in unscrupulous marketing tactics," its makers claim.

Apple therefore wants its cut. The Hey app was originally accepted into the App Store, but Apple has now said that this was a mistake. This is doubly unfortunate because users who already have the app cannot update it to fix bugs. Hansson has taken to Twitter to complain – a common recourse for those who feel mistreated by the tech giants.

Hansson claims Apple's App Store practices are "capricious, exploitive, and inconsistent." He said: "We did everything we were supposed to with the iOS app. Try downloading it (while you can?). You can't sign up, because Apple says no. We don't mention subscriptions. You can't upgrade. You can't access billing. We did all of it! Wasn't enough."

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Apple for its part has given detailed reasons for the rejection. The guidelines (or rules) for the App Store are here.

Normally Apple requires that subscriptions are offered through in-app purchase, which means Apple takes its share, normally 30 per cent. There is a clause 3.1.3(a) that allows "Reader Apps" for content subscriptions purchased elsewhere "provided that you agree not to directly or indirectly target iOS users to use a purchasing method other than in-app purchase."

Apple has decided that Hey does not qualify as a Reader App, saying: "Since the email services offered in your app are not of the type listed under guideline 3.1.3(a) for 'Reader' apps, customers must be able to purchase access to features or functionality in your app using in-app purchase."

Hansson said that "we've been in the App Store with Basecamp for years" and that "it was always customer-hostile, deeply confusing, but the unstated lines were reasonably clear. Now Apple has altered the deal."

The reason given by Apple, he said, "is preposterously false and inconsistent. The Basecamp app has been in the App Store for years offering access to a subscription bought elsewhere. The store is full of apps doing just that. Even other emails apps!"

He cited instances of several apps that offer subscriptions without in-app payment options, including Slack, Microsoft Outlook, and Spark mail. Apple apparently told him: "We are not going to talk about other apps." Apple also told reporter David Pierce that "Apple allows these kinds of client apps for business services but not consumer products" – though there is no mention of this distinction in the published guidelines.

Apple is currently the subject of an EU investigation into its business practices.

How do you solve a problem like email

What of Hey itself, though? Email is a service that most cannot do without, especially in business, despite huge growth in non-email messaging services such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, or direct messages on services like Twitter.

Email is an ancient internet standard that is not owned by anyone that lets anyone send a message to anyone, armed only with an email address. But it's not without problems. There is too much of it, mostly either benign advertising and marketing junk, or malicious junk that tries to steal credentials or infect a device with malware. Flagging email as spam or ham is an inexact science, the result being that some always goes the wrong way.

Even if you are lucky enough to have most of the rubbish filtered out, dealing with the volume of legitimate business emails is a challenge. Another issue is that top-posting means many emails carry with them the entire thread (sometimes causing embarrassment as users do not check exactly what past messages they are sending to a new recipient). It is an archaic system, but it is the standard.

Hey claims to fix email, which according to Basecamp has seen little innovation since the launch of Google's Gmail in 2004. Hey describes itself as a "full email service provider" with a few key features. You have to approve senders, who until then are listed in a "first-time senders" section. If rejected, subsequent emails go directly into a spam box. You can enable a sender to bypass the quarantine by giving them a code; these can be regenerated to prevent leaked codes causing trouble. The inbox is renamed the "Imbox" on the basis that anything that makes it is "Im"portant. File attachments that you send are not included with the email, but sent as links to files stored on Basecamp's servers.

"Email's forever benefited the sender over the receiver," Hey's manifesto reads. You can rename or merge email threads; and email trackers, which tell the sender when you opened the message, are mostly blocked. "We bulk strip everything that even smells like a spy pixel," Basecamp explains on its website. In addition, all images are routed through the Hey servers so that the recipient's IP address is never revealed.

No automated signatures or footers are allowed. "The email already says it's from you. If someone needs your phone number, they can ask," says Basecamp.

The system does not show numbers of unread messages as this is an unnecessary distraction. Notifications are off, though you can enable notifications for specific senders or threads. Attachments are filed automatically in an attachment library.

A "Reply later" folder lets you store emails for attention at another time – better than the common technique of marking an email unread, according to Basecamp. There is also a "Set Aside" section for messages you might want for reference, and a "Paper Trail" section for receipts. Another feature is the ability to expand all unread emails in a single action so you can scroll through without opening each one individually. There is also a technique for managing frequent senders: you can bundle all their messages together so "they'll only take up a single row in your Imbox."

Hey has client apps for Mac, Windows and Linux, as well as Android and the troubled iOS version. You can forward email from other providers to Hey, but you cannot directly connect a Hey app to other email services. You cannot import existing emails into Hey, the stated reason being that this encourages bloat. Two-factor authentication is required for "all paying customers" and the database is encrypted at rest and in transit, though Hey holds the encryption keys so presumably could be forced to decrypt them in certain circumstances.

The company has some distinctive ideas, some of which will resonate with long-time email sufferers.

Can it succeed? There are a few caveats. The number of individuals willing to pay for a service when there are free and not-too-bad alternatives like Gmail and Outlook.com will be limited. There is also the question: if Hey does not support standard email clients, is it really email? It is a trade-off but nevertheless good to see attention paid to what is, for many, a troublesome messaging system. ®


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