Mute App: Startup to Shutdown

Nick Kuh
Nick Kuh
Oct 22, 2018 · 7 min read

Apple’s Cull of Digital Health Apps

Hey there. I’m Nick, creator of Mute. I’ve been building iPhone Apps since 2009. This is a brief account of my startup journey as an App Developer trying to do some good, to build an app with purpose that helps families and friends to fight phone addiction.

Unfortunately, after 4 years my startup journey came to an abrupt end a few days ago. Apple removed my app Mute from the App Store on Saturday. It appears that Apple are now shutting down many (all?) screen time tracking apps now that they’ve added screen time tracking into iOS 12.

UPDATE: After you’ve read this article you might want to check out my new blog post with an update to my story here — Apple Called…

I made a short summary video below.

Mute is (was) a screen time tracking app with goals. Like a Fitbit for digital detoxers. Mute tracks how much and how often you check your phone. It also tracks the time when you don’t use your phone and congratulates you for hitting digital detox goals.

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Mute 1 screenshots

Mute 1 was my MVP (Minimum Viable Product) launched in January 2018. It was missing many bells and whistles that I had planned to include but I wanted to take the lean startup approach and see if I had built a tool that people would find value in. So I stripped it’s features down to the bare minimum — stats tracking, goal settings and positive messaging. eg.

Sweet Nick! That’s 2H33M break from your phone — Digital Detox Goal Smashed! 🔥

Mute pings users with these kind of positive push notifications. It only ever messages them when they are actively using their phones.

The response to my app has been amazing. One journalist described Mute as the App that cured her phone addiction. I regularly receive emails from users who use terms like life-changing after using Mute to change their daily phone habits. Mute averages 4.7 out of 5 with reviews like the following:

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Mute is the most worthwhile product I’ve ever worked on. Ironically Mute has been featured by Apple numerous times on the App Store homepage in a Time Well Spent feature category.

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One of many Apple features

And a few months after launch Apple invited me into their London HQ as they wanted to help me take Mute to the next level. Here’s a snippet from the email they sent in April this year.

Your app, Mute — Screen Time Tracker, was recently submitted to the App Store and we were really impressed! It has the potential to become a great app.

We would like to invite Glued To Ltd to attend a one day workshop at our Apple training facility. The purpose of the session will be to give you everything you need to take your app to the next level.

After attending the Apple workshop and as the positive feedback continued to flood in I decided to dedicate the last few months to working full-time on a big Mute 2 update. I was literally a week away from launching a Mute 2 beta when I got the following email from Apple 2 weeks ago.

We are writing to let you know about new information regarding your app, Mute Screen Time Tracker, version 1.84, currently live on the App Store.

Upon re-evaluation, we found that your app is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines. Specifically, we found:

Performance — 2.5.4
Your app is misusing background location mode for purposes other than location related features and functionality.

To ensure there is no interruption of the availability of your app on the App Store, please submit an update within 14 days of the date of this message. If we do not receive an update within 14 days, your app will be removed from sale.

My heart started to sink on receipt of this email. I replied to Apple asking for more information and demonstrating in both a video and email how Mute makes use of user location to allow users to tag home/work/school locations so they get a clear picture of where and when they use their phones each day. It displays this data in a day-by-day playback UI. Apple simply ignored my questions and now, 2 weeks later followed through with the removal of Mute from the App Store and no further details.

Apple have killed my app and killed my startup. That’s how it feels. I’ve spent years fine tuning a product that helps people with phone addiction to break their daily habitual phone checking. Everyone who uses my app gives it permission to access their location to be able to run continuously in the background. Mute is highly transparent about this. Users retain full control of Mute’s location access and can switch it off anytime they choose in Apple’s settings.

The continuous background location access puts some people off of course, but 90% of users who download my app decide to trust it with always on location access (ie get through the full on-boarding process) and of the 50,000 app downloads Mute has received in the last 9 months 15,000 of those people Mute in the last 24 hours. This is really high retention — especially for a free app. There’s a lot of trust between Mute and it’s users. Mute asks for the bare minimum when it comes to on-boarding and explains very clearly that it can only function by running in the background and is very transparent that the app works hard not to kill your battery.

Apple know full well that the only way a 3rd party app can track when the phone is locked and unlocked is by running continuously in the background. I wish it was possible to do it in a different way but that is the only way.

So essentially asking developers of screen tracking apps to remove background location functionality will render these apps useless. They just won’t work anymore.

It turns out that Apple have sent a similar email to many other app developers of screen time tracking and parental control apps. I believe that Mute is one of the first to go but expect others to disappear from the App Store in the coming weeks as their notice period expires.

I know this as I’ve been recently contacted by other apps facing a similar fate.

When Apple added screen time to iOS 12 I didn't see it as blow. I felt positive that Apple were taking phone addiction seriously and taking bold steps to address it.

As a parent I’d seen how addictive my teenage son was finding games like Clash of Clans and Farmville. And as an experienced App Developer I knew the behavioural psychology tricks that games and apps use to keep players coming back day after day.

So I’m happy to see Apple building screen time stats and downtime into the core iOS. As such Mute 2 has moved in much more of a habit changing direction. I’ve been working on awesome habit-breaking features that compliment Apples built in tools. Features like the Daily Mute — see how long you can stay off your phone each evening compared to your friends. And challenges and awards like Nightime Ninja (staying off your phone all night) and Mindful Morning — breaking the habit of checking your phone as soon as you wake up.

Right now I feel pretty burnt out and despondent at Apple’s hypocrisy in making this move to cull all 3rd party screen time tracking apps.

But I have loved working on an app that has helped so many people including myself to break phone addiction. It’s helped to open my eyes to the importance of taking regular time out from my phone. The importance of tech-free human connection that social networks will never replace.

On a final note if you’re a tech company building products with purpose and are on the hunt for an experience App Developer or CTO do get in touch as I appear to have a little free time on my hands now 🤟

Now you’ve reached the end of this post you might want to check out my new post with an update to my story 🤟🤠

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