How To Make Friends

The iPhone’s “Subscription Management” menu is famously inaccessible. To get there, you must slay an ogre, somersault through an intergalactic wormhole, and click, like, four buttons.

Since subscriptions are a fundamental part of your iPhone experience, it’s always seemed odd that Apple would bury the menu so deep in Settings.

It must have seemed odd to Apple as well, because in a moment of mercy, the company implemented a solution. If you deleted an iPhone app to which you were actively subscribed, a pop-up modal would appear, asking: “You deleted the app, but your subscription is still active. Do you want to get rid of that as well?”

If you clicked, “Yes, please,” you’d be directed to a new tab, and from there, you could unsubscribe from the offending app (along with any others).

One click.

Needless to say, this feature was welcome. (Sharpening my ogre-slaying ax every time I wanted to access a menu was taking a spiritual and psychological toll.) Indeed, Apple’s reminder prompted me to cut several subscriptions for applications I’d long forgotten about. In my head, I applauded Apple’s user-friendly move; I celebrated my decision to remain plugged into the company’s ecosystem; I toasted Tim Cook and his visionary leadership.

As of the last iOS update, this feature is gone.

Although I’m not privy to the reasons, the main one seems simple to guess at: money. Apple probably looked at the results of this experiment and concluded that the downside (expressible in cold, hard dollars) was not worth the harder-to-measure upside.

Making it too easy to cancel is good for users, but bad for business.

Monopoly Money

Obviously, I would have preferred if Apple kept this feature. But I can see why they didn’t. Apple is currently trying to leverage its position as a hardware maker into “Services” (e.g., App Store revenues). It could hardly afford to give up a chunk of that burgeoning business in the name of saving endangered fauna like “Brand loyalty” or “Doing right by customers.”

And yet…

That Apple didn’t make this trade-off seems like a departure from what made the company so successful in the first place.

Apple’s success in hardware has always stemmed from a commitment to quality, or, more precisely, a form of institutional myopia, in which every aspect of the user experience, no matter how trivial, is subject to scrutiny. The spreadsheet math might argue against focusing on every tiny detail, but somehow, if you focused on enough tiny details, your disjointed efforts paid off in multiplicative ways. (Concretely, I wouldn’t buy an iPhone because I find the swipe gestures intuitive and easy-to-use, but I would buy an iPhone because of what that says about Apple’s approach to building hardware.)

Now, it seems like the spreadsheet math is winning out.

Apple is increasingly willing to “spend” the loyalty they’ve built in hardware in order to bootstrap Services. Rather than bring their customer-first spirit to a new domain, Apple has become the Comcast-style monopolist, content in the knowledge that if your users have nowhere else to go, then friction, not delight, is the surest route to profits.

Dramatic? Absolutely! But, hey, this is the internet.

Plus, this example is one of many. Ben Thompson at Stratechery has been documenting others, and they tell the same story: Apple is abandoning the culture that made it great in the name of maximizing financial metrics. While the company rightfully earned its dominant position (it’s not totally Comcast, just acting like it), that dominant position is now too easily abused.

Because when you’re a monopolist looking to maximize short-run revenues, it’s too tempting to become the only ax seller in a kingdom beset by ogres.