Hey, the App I Wanted to Love

An electron app, questionable visual design and manufactured outrage. No thanks.

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I like what Basecamp stands for. Their books and approach to management are helpful for building a remote friendly, asynchronous and productive work life.

And so I had high hopes for Hey, their take on email. When you watch Jason Fried demo the Hey, it looks cool.

On the one hand, it’s super simple. A few opinionated approaches to email filtering and notifications turn email into something useful again. It’s revolutionary to be this dogmatic by default.

I love the concept and have been doing something myself with a bunch of hacks and filters for years. You have to be whitelisted to get into my inbox, mailing lists go to a separate folder and I have a “lobby” for everyone else that gets checked once a day.

Turning this into a product that will likely be profitable is great. I’m happy for Jason and David.

But…

Hey doesn’t have a true desktop app. It’s either electron or the browser.

Another tab in Safari isn’t the end of the world, but $100 a year for a hacked together solution doesn’t cut it for me.

Look at the interface of Things, iA writer or other premium productivity apps. Hey is an eyesore.

On the other hand, I’m probably not the target customer. I’m fine with getting 80% of the functionality of Hey with a few workarounds. Using a native email client is more important to me than the extra features Hey has. The target client is likely a busy professional that wants a principled approach to email that works out of the box.

The Apple drama

In the background of the launch, there’s been a brewing storm over Apple threatening to remove Hey from the App Store. I don’t think you have to be either pro-Apple or pro-Basecamp here. Both sides have a point and look petty at the same time.

I intentionally buy an iPhone and iPad because of the App Store. I can buy apps and subscriptions without giving away my credit card to random people on the internet. I’m not going to download malware.

If I wanted complete flexibility, I’d get an Android phone. But, I don’t.

My guess is a large percentage of Hey’s target market are iOS users. Basecamp thinks they’re entitled to Apple’s premium market without having to pay the piper.

Basecamp’s argument is odd. On the one hand, they disparage freemium products and unprofitable businesses, but they seem upset that other businesses want to profit. DHH’s logic is that there are in David and Goliath struggle against Apple. Ok, does that mean companies smaller than Basecamp get to use Hey for free?

I’d be curious how the actual numbers would end up if Basecamp allowed in-app purchases. My wild guess is that the vast majority of users would still purchase their subscription through Hey’s website. So Basecamp pays the 30% Apple tax on a subset of a subset of their users. If that’s an existential threat, you’ve got a bad business model.

Nonetheless, the optics aren’t good for Apple. Taking a 30% cut is on the high side of acceptable. Playing hardball with much smaller businesses is iffy at best. Apple clearly deserves some commission for building the platform and running the App Store. In App Payments and Apple Pay are better for me as the consumer.

Why not boycott iOS?

I’d have more respect for the Basecamp guys if they weren’t so whiny and didn’t want to have their cake and eat it too.

There are two viable boycott options for Hey.

  1. A fully featured response website. The biggest losses are a robust offline mode and push notifications, which Hey is light on anyway.
  2. A light version of the product that syncs via IMAP.

The majority of iOS users would hardly notice the difference.

If making apps for iOS is no longer profitable due to Apple’s 30% cut, users will leave iOS in droves. Apple knows this. That’s why Netflix is allowed a workaround: Apple isn’t willing to bet most people are more loyal to them than Netflix.

For all the cries of monopoly, there’s a cheaper and arguably better mobile platform. People buy iPhones because they want the walled garden. So many high end apps are iOS only because it’s still far more lucrative despite the Apple tax.

The bottom line

Hey is a fresh approach but way overhyped.

What Apple is doing here isn’t great, and it certainly raises questions about how to regulate the owners of digital marketplaces. But this needs a sober and reasoned approach.

DHH and Jason Fried are being drama queens. Put up or shut up. Start a trend and don’t have an iOS app, or play by Apple’s rules.