My dad has always been an engineer, but by the end of his career he had three-letter titles starting with “C”. And all my life he’s taught me lessons, but the most important ones to me professionally were never about technical matters; they were always the talks about how large companies work. Watching some of the reactions from devs to the recent Taylor Swift/Apple back-and-forth, I realized that one of my dad’s lessons might be helpful to others.
“Can we solve this by throwing money at it?” Problems come in two major forms: money problems and not-money problems. Money problems are the easy ones. If you can write a check and the whole problem goes away, that’s the kind of problem you want. Lots of problems aren’t like that. Sometimes it’s because the check would have to be too big, but many times it’s because no amount of money would fix the problem alone. It’s not a “throwing money” problem. In fact, most problems are not-money problems when you dig into them.
Big companies love money problems because they have money. No matter how much they’re cutting budget, I assure you they have money. It’s what big companies are made of. And no matter how much they say “employees are our greatest asset,” I assure you that money is their greatest asset. That’s why when companies can’t find anything to invest in, they horde money and lay off employees. If employees were their greatest asset, they’d burn money to keep them.
And this brings us to music streaming and the App Store and why they’re completely different problems and why Taylor Swift could turn Apple around in 24 hours when tens of thousands of developers have groused for years about the App Store with slow improvements at best. Yes, Taylor Swift is a big name and controls a lot of content that Apple would like access to. That’s not why it all turned around so fast. And no, Taylor Swift demanding faster App Store reviews won’t change anything, no matter how many albums she threatens to withhold.
The difference is that musicians had a money problem and devs have a not-money problem.
What was the musician problem? Apple wasn’t going to pay musicians during free trials (but was paying them after that). What was the solution to the musician problem? Apple writes a bigger check. They were already writing a huge check. Musicians wanted it to be a little bigger and structured a little differently. Throw money and this whole problem goes away. Musicians are happy. Taylor Swift tweets Apple love. That’s a money problem. Money problems are easy and clean.
What is the dev problem? App Store approvals are slow and inconsistent. It is not always clear what is or isn’t allowed, and some decisions seem arbitrary. Apple’s 30% cut may be high. Apple policies make many valid business models difficult or impossible. Apple technology and policies make many useful kinds of apps impossible. Apple created a 99 cent culture that undermines sustainable app development. And the list goes on.
Only one problem on that list is a throw-money-at-it problem: “Apple’s 30% cut may be high.” OK, so Apple switches to 25% cut. Is everyone happy now? We all tweet App Store love? No. We’re a little happier, but we’re still grumbling because most of the problems are about process and policy (and particularly inconsistency and opaqueness), not money. Apple drops it to 20%? 10%? 0%? At what point do we say “yep, that was the problem, thanks Apple! The App Store is fixed now.” There is no answer. This is a not-money problem.
Not-money problems are a pain. There’s no check that Apple writes that fixes their App Store problems. It’s not even obvious exactly what you’d change so it’d be right. You could hire more reviewers, but then it’s harder to keep them consistent. You could hire fewer, more heavily trained reviewers, but then review times go up. You could make your rules fixed and automatic, but then bad actors will more easily to slip through. You can adapt to bad actors as you discover them, but then you’re inconsistent over time. The App Store is an engineering problem, not a money problem. Engineering problems are hard and messy.
If you want a company to do something quickly, turn it into a simple money problem if at all possible. Create situations where “Company wants X. If Company writes a check for Y, they get X and we’re done.” Many problems can’t be solved that way, but when they can, you’re going to have much smoother sailing.
And that’s why one artist can move all of Apple. Yes, she’s big and important, but she also brought a simple problem.