Apple made it harder to change Hulu subscriptions because of a tweet

Apple made it more difficult to upgrade your Hulu subscription plan — say, to add live TV — after it realized the company was offering a way to automatically cancel subscriptions made through the App Store.

According to new emails revealed as part of Apple’s lawsuit with Epic Games, the company had given Hulu access to its subscription API but didn’t realize Hulu was using it to help people switch to Hulu’s billing system (and avoid Apple’s in-app purchases) until 2018 when the feature was mentioned in a tweet that caught the eye of a higher-up at Apple.

Hulu’s motivation for providing automatic cancellations should be clear. Why let Apple take a slice of every subscription and upgrade when you can keep more of it by directing a subscriber to your site and billing system? And why not make it even easier to do so by automatically canceling that pesky old subscription?

Apple has a problem with that.

The first email in the thread from Matt Fischer, VP of the App Store, to Cindy Lin, EPM of iTunes, sets the scene. Phil saw David Barnard’s tweet commenting on the unexpected feature and asked why Hulu would even be able to automatically cancel subscriptions in the first place. That Phil is likely Phil Schiller, the Apple fellow overseeing the App Store and someone both Fischer and Lin would want to have answers and results for quickly.

In the thread, Lin went on to explain that back in 2015, Hulu had access to the subscription cancellation and refund APIs that may have allowed it to enable the feature. Apple originally gave the streaming service access so it could support instant upgrades to a “[two] family set up” before Apple had developed its own upgrade and downgrade feature for in-app purchases.

Pete Distad, an executive in charge of Apple’s video business, and Carson Oliver, director of App Store Business Management, were aware of some issue with Hulu’s subscriptions. Interestingly, Distad was an SVP of marketing and communications at Hulu before he joined Apple. That relationship may not have helped, though. Oliver ends his email by writing, “I think we need to take immediate steps to protect against further misuse of the API.”

Hulu no longer has the ability to automatically cancel subscriptions and no longer offers in-app purchases. Upgrading your plan requires a trip to Hulu’s website or a phone call. Apple’s developer guidelines also now expressly forbid directing customers to subscribe in any way other than through in-app purchases.

It’s sort of funny that Apple seems to have found out about what Hulu was doing through a tweet, but also, here’s yet another example of how Apple’s hold over the App Store has tightened over the years, and how its relationship has changed with some of the biggest businesses selling their wares on its store.

In 2015, Apple was willing to take a smaller cut of its commission on Netflix and Hulu subscriptions if they were made through an Apple TV. But by 2018, it was considering taking action against the company to protect its control of in-app purchases. Some employees at Apple also apparently considered other drastic measures to keep Netflix in line when it was kicking up dust about in-app purchases in that same year.

Apple likely wants to keep video services using in-app purchases just as badly as the video services want to stop. Sometimes, they cut a deal — like the one Amazon received. Other times they use the available tools to their advantage… at least until Apple checks its Twitter feed.