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A battle between Apple and an app developer has caught Congress’ attention

An attempt to crack down on spammy, duplicative apps has Apple at war with ChowNow, which aids restaurants.

Apple CEO Tim Cook onstage with a wallpaper of app icons behind him Gabrielle Lurie / Getty

An awkward dispute between Apple and an app developer is spilling over into the nation’s capital.

The trouble stems from Apple’s decision this July to quietly update its App Store guidelines, largely to prohibit “apps created from a commercialized template or app generation service.”

It’s an apparent new ban on so-called template apps, and to observers it seems to be an attempt to combat spam. But it’s proven especially troublesome for ChowNow, which prepares fill-in-the-blank, online-ordering apps for small restaurants that don’t have large sums of cash or tech expertise. Its fear: Apple’s new policy would harm its customers and potentially other small businesses around the country.

In response, ChowNow tapped a band of lobbyists it hired earlier this year and took its message to Capitol Hill. It blitzed lawmakers on at least three key congressional committees about its woes. And it found a receptive ear in California Rep. Ted Lieu, who urged the iPhone giant in a letter sent this week to tread a little more carefully.

“It is my understanding that many small businesses, research organizations and religious institutions rely on template apps when they do not possess the resources to develop apps in-house,” wrote Lieu, a Democrat, in the note obtained by Recode. He urged Apple to “examine possible changes” to its guidelines.

A spokesman for Apple did not respond to emails seeking comment.

For ChowNow, the fear is that Apple’s new policy drive its customers — 9,000 local restaurants and counting — to catchall platforms like UberEats and GrubHub. And ChowNow’s chief executive, Christopher Webb, said that Apple’s recent App Store policy change would affect a much broader universe of companies, not just restaurants but also small nonprofits and other businesses.

“Apple now on a whim is picking winners and losers, and we think that’s unfair,” he said.

For the moment, at least, ChowNow believes the apps it has helped create for thousands of restaurants will remain on the App Store. Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, though, new template apps won’t be accepted, Webb said. The company last month announced it had raised $20 million in a Series B round.

Incidentally, though, ChowNow’s new lobbying campaign also illustrates the extent to which some tech companies believe they now have to weaponize Congress just to get the attention of — and force changes at — major tech giants, including Apple.

Take Spotify, which declared war on the iPhone maker in 2016, hoping to convince federal regulators that Apple sought to stamp out its competitors in music and other related industries. The feds asked questions and applied political pressure, though Spotify didn’t succeed in convincing lawmakers to drag Apple to Capitol Hill for a hearing.

In this case, ChowNow is hoping Congress can serve as leverage in its negotiations with Apple. Ideally, he said, Apple instead would institute a new system, blessing certain template app-makers with its official stamp of approval — while removing the rest, including the spammy, unwanted apps its policy sought to target in the first place.

Nevertheless, ChowNow is a startup that Apple might know: The iPhone giant featured, if briefly, ChowNow-created apps onstage during its annual developer conference in 2015.

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