Is This Any Way to Run an App Store?

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

In the latest example of Apple’s bungled and heavy-handed approach to its App Store approval process, Apple has begun to remove all apps with “sexual content” from the Store. As noted by TechCrunch (and since covered by numerous other sites including Macworld and my personal blog), affected developers received an email last week notifying them of Apple’s intent; the removal of apps began almost immediately thereafter. A CNET article claims that over 5,000 apps have now been removed.

As is typical for this sort of hot-button issue, reactions to Apple’s move have been sharply divided. Some applaud Apple’s decision; others view it as an unwanted and unnecessary intrusion. However, for this article, I want to step back from the smaller controversy surrounding “sexy apps.” Instead, I want to focus on what I believe is a larger more ominous issue: How Apple mistreats its third-party developers and how this ultimately stifles innovation on the iPhone.

Apple’s lack of guidance. Developing an app for the App Store can take a considerable investment of time and money. Yet, other than its (inadequate) license agreement, Apple offers no pre-submission guidance as to the probability that an app will ultimately be accepted. In particular, Apple will typically not respond to developers’ requests regarding a potential issue for a specific app. Only after the app is submitted will Apple reply.

This means that a developer can wind up spending thousands of dollars to create an app, only to have Apple reject it for reasons that could not have been anticipated. 

For example, as I covered previously, Chris Pavlou had to pay for the reproduction rights for the photos used in his Audio Match: Bikini Babes game — before knowing whether or not Apple would find the photos acceptable. The wording of Apple’s license agreement was too vague to determine with any certainty what Apple might do.

Bear in mind that these were relatively tame photos with no nudity. You can easily find equally-revealing photos in almost any issue of People magazine. We’re not talking about pornography here. Despite this, Apple initially rejected Chris’ app. Apple offered almost no feedback as to what revisions to the app, if any, would make it acceptable.

This lack of guidance from Apple is quite common. In such cases, the developer has no recourse other than to guess what changes may be required and resubmit the app. This can go on for weeks or months — until the app is either accepted or the developer gives up.

Apple’s inconsistent enforcement. Apple is under no obligation to be fair or consistent in the enforcement of its license agreement — even after an app has been accepted. Chris eventually got his Bikini Babes app accepted. He subsequently submitted a series of ten other related apps. All were ultimately accepted and have been in the Store for months. Last week, Chris woke up to discover that all eleven of them had been removed — victims of this latest purge. Regardless of what you think of the merits of his apps, this is no way to treat a developer. Chris played by all the rules and Apple gave him the shaft anyway — taking away a significant source of his income overnight.

Making matters worse, some apps with sexual content remain in the App Store — notably ones from “big” companies (such as Playboy and Sports Illustrated). While this may change over time, it makes Apple’s enforcement of its new policy seem inconsistent or outright biased.

Speaking of inconsistency, what about the fact that you can still purchase songs from the iTunes Store that have explicit sexual lyrics? What about the fact that you can rent R-rated movies from the iTunes Store? What about the fact that you can purchase game apps, such as Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars — that include “sexual content or nudity” “realistic violence” and “frequent/intense profanity.” Why is all of this just fine with Apple, but not a relatively innocent game that offers photographs of women in bikinis?

Apple’s unpredictable decisions and unclear policies. Despite various reports of guidelines informally communicated to certain developers, Apple has not yet posted any document on its Web site or otherwise indicated the specifics of its new policy regarding apps with sexual content. So there is no way of knowing exactly what the new policy is. Suppose you want to submit an app that teaches people how to swim, and it includes photographs of people in bathing suits. Will it be rejected? Who knows? If you were thinking of developing such an app, would you now think again and perhaps drop your project? I certainly would.

These problems extend beyond apps with possible sexual content. When I interviewed Wil Shipley (of Delicious Library fame) last year, he told me how he wanted to have a Delicious Library iPhone app with a barcode reader (as does the Mac version of his program): “The problem is that Apple won’t allow it. In order for me to do it properly, I’d need access to the camera’s APIs. So far, Apple has refused to permit this. Believe me, I’ve asked. But Apple has it locked down.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Wil was later surprised to discover that Apple approved the RedLaser app, despite that app’s use of the very same barcode reader technology that had been the basis for rejecting Wil’s app. Apple did this without any revision to the iPhone license agreement that might have indicated a new openness in its policy. In other words, Apple could still reject the next barcode-reading app that comes along. There is simply no way of knowing (although Will recently informed me that there has been an official policy shift in the last couple of months that opens up camera access to developers). 

Bottom line. Is this any way to run an App Store? Not as far as I’m concerned.

Taken together, these policies tell a potential iPhone developer that an app may be rejected from unexplained reasons, that an accepted app may later be removed for reasons that are inadequately defined and that Apple’s behavior may be inconsistent and unpredictable in general. And there is nothing you, the developer, can do about it. Because the App Store remains the only legitimate place where a developer can offer an app to iPhone users.

How can this not lead to at least some worthwhile and innovative apps never seeing the light of day? I only half-jokingly suggested on Twitter that if I developed an app that had the astounding ability to safely tele-transport people to any location on earth, Apple might well reject it because it used an “undocumented API.” Apple seems more concerned with its excessive control over the iPhone and its App Store than providing its customers with the best possible apps.

Yes, many wonderful and innovative apps make it to the App Store despite all of these problems. And many users remain blissfully unaware that these problems even exist. And some may claim that all of these examples add up to only a tiny minority of the total number of submitted apps; so we shouldn’t make too big a deal of it. Regardless, none of this should excuse Apple’s arrogant behavior. And it shouldn’t prevent us from asking Apple to do better.

Comments

sippincider

If the “1984” commercial were made today, which side would represent Apple?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

It would be tough for any of the affected developers to sue Apple, but I’d love to see one of them convince a state AG to investigate. At the root, this App Store only policy boils down to the enforceability of very restrictive developer and end-user agreements, which rely on the courts. It would be a very appropriate matter to try to drag a state AG into.

But I think at this point, if you just expect Apple to act like a giant douche, you’ll never be terribly disappointed. Or surprised for that matter. What sucks the most for me is that I have a 5-phone family plan moved to AT&T with two iPhones and 18 months on the contract. If this had gone down last summer, I never would have pulled the trigger on that move. Things just seemed to be trending toward more open on the iPhone front.

Lee Dronick

I just took a look around the iTunes Store and searched using “erotica.” I found a lot of adult audiobooks and podcasts in the store, but no apps “popped up” in the search results

working dog

Sorry, I have to disagree.
Firstly, I think Apple should be given some leeway in developing something very new and colossal in scale, scope, vision and execution.
We may not agree with all of their decisions and some of them may seem a little clumsy or heavy handed, but they are inventing a pretty huge game on the run, so we should forgive them the occasional fumble.
Having said that, I applaud the decision to excise the puerile pap from the app store. Some years back, my favorite car mag decided to accept ads from purveyors of “adult” services.
Suddenly, my enjoyment of the finest in automotive art was tainted with cheap, tacky and tasteless ads for equally tacky and exploitative services ? I stopped buying it. Likewise, I was appalled when juvenile booby-shaking apps started to appear - and take over - the entertainment section of the app store.
Apple has every right to manage the “apple” experience - as does any other medium or private enterprise.
Should my local theatre be criticised for not showing porn? Should my favorite restaurant be told what food to serve?
They are protecting their brand and for me, maintaining standards that I enjoy and appreciate in all apple products - taste, style and quality.
That glop is freely to available elsewhere, and there are plenty of other avenues for open software/app development.
If Apple’s business plan turns out to be truly flawed, it will fail… probably…

waterboy

We may not agree with all of their decisions and some of them may seem a little clumsy or heavy handed, but they are inventing a pretty huge game on the run, so we should forgive them the occasional fumble.

Always consider the situation.  When you’re Brett Favre in overtime, one single fumble can be pretty significant…

The problem is Apple has set up the App Store (their product) as the sole gatekeeper for software for the iPhone (MY owned product).  It’s worse than buying a TV that only lets you watch the manufacturer’s channels!

The solution is for Apple to loosen their control and let software be available from outside sources (a model which has worked since at least 1977).

As long as Apple keeps the split ownership/control paradigm (their store censoring my hardware) it’s going to be a dance of death.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

If Apple?s business plan turns out to be truly flawed, it will fail? probably?

I’ll tell you something. It probably won’t fail. It will probably remain wildly successful. There was a cute girl at the gym on the cardio machine next to me with her iPhone. No chance I could have convinced her that her phone (like mine) is a cruel joke. As supposedly knowledgeable consumers gathered here and at various Mac and tech sites, we’ll each make much more conscious choices than everyone else. And we will be defined much more than everyone else by those choices.

I think one day unless you are just really damned uninteresting, you will be personally and profoundly affected by a stupid Apple App Store decision. They make too many of them and they are too all over the map to miss anyone who is paying attention. From this point forward, that’s on you, not Apple. You should have seen it coming.

Peter

We may not agree with all of their decisions and some of them may seem a little clumsy or heavy handed, but they are inventing a pretty huge game on the run, so we should forgive them the occasional fumble.

The problem with this is that you have developers who are actually trying to earn a living here.  Apple has 40 billion dollars in the bank.  Most developers and companies have significantly less.  So yanking an app has an effect on developers.

I’m seeing estimates of $50K to $150K to develop an iPhone app.  How would you like to invest $50K only to have Apple yank your App and say, “Sorry.  We changed our mind.”  How forgiving would you be after you just wasted fifty thousand dollars?  My guess, not very.

You wonder why there are so many crap apps?  Because nobody is willing to invest the time, effort, and money to develop something more serious.  It’s just way to risky an investment.

JulesLt

I think the answer is simply to allow for different stores (i.e. through the sale of root level certificates). That would allow Apple to remain the trusted & family friendly main store, and main route most developers would choose to use (as gives biggest audience for least effort) without causing problems at the edges - i.e. let parents lock their kids into the official store.

And yes, I’d be intrigued to know whether what they’re doing is even legal in certain territories (i.e. changing a contract after agreement - and accepting an app must count as some form of agreement).

They’ve already faced problems with making changes to Fairplay restrictions outside of the US (i.e. that it represented a change of contract after purchase - illegal in some European territories). I wouldn’t be surprised if someone could dig up something similar, or go for restraint of trade.

(A store may have the right to no longer sell your item, or never sell it, but if it’s the only store in town, and it had previously sold your goods, then by excluding you from the market, that’s definitely a predatory action).

On the other hand, this may all be another example of Apple’s appalling communication, as they work out a way to manage offensive or sexist content.

Lars Pallesen

I couldn’t care less about the loss of any puerile booby-wobbling bikini-girl app in the Appstore. (Hint: you’ll also find a web browser in your iPhone!).

But Landau is right in pointing out a more general cause for concern when it comes to Apple’s arbitrary way of handling the app approval proces. The lack of clear guidelines for what is OK and what’s not is bad enough for developers as it is. But what I find even more alarming is that your app can get approved only to get kicked out later when Apple changes their minds about a certain category of apps, as has happened with the “overtly sexual” apps.

What this means for developers is that you can never be sure that an app is worth investing any amount of time and money in. It may never be approved for the Appstore, or it may be expelled after a week or a month when Apple has a change of heart. This kind of random execution is no way to treat developers for your platform, plain and simple. It only leaves them with uncertainty and doubt.

It was “overtly sexual” apps this time. Who is next to go? Apps that duplicate functions of Apple’s own preinstalled iPhone apps? E-book reader apps, say?

The way Apple is running their Appstore now there’s just no way for developers to know. And that’s bound to cause a backlash, Apple.

Ted Landau

Update: The situation gets worse.

Today’s New York Times covers this story, with quotes from Phil Schiller:

? ?We obviously care about developers, but in the end have to put the needs of the kids and parents first.”

[This is is just Apple’s attempt to spin the story. The choices didn’t have to be so black or white. There were better ways to handle this. In any case, I don’t think the “needs of kids and parents” were seriously being threatened here.]

? When asked about the Sports Illustrated app, Mr. Schiller said Apple took the source and intent of an app into consideration. ?The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format.”

Is he kidding? So apps with sexual content remain okay if they come from a “well known company”? What hypocrisy!

other side

There was a cute girl at the gym on the cardio machine next to me with her iPhone. No chance I could have convinced her that her phone (like mine) is a cruel joke.

Her computer is probably a Windows Vista box from Best Buy or Wal-Mart.

And she very likely drives a Toyota.

Just the kind of customer Apple wants.  Buy the buzz, not the facts.

ctopher

As I usually do, let me take the other side of this argument. As an Apple shareholder, I like the walled garden. The cute girl at the gym believes that her iPhone won’t be taken over by spyware or viruses. She may or may not want your App, but she knows that her phone does more than any other and she’s overwhelmed by the choices she does have.

She’s not looking for depth of catalog, she just wants do what most people are doing. Reading Sports Illustrated, texting, surfing etc.

Apple will piss off developers, but not the big ones. And big ones have a lot at stake, so they don’t want to produce buggy, marginally useful apps. OK, the marginally useful part isn’t true, they’ll produce any app that pushes their brand.

But Apple isn’t about nurturing the little guy any more than Microsoft or Sony wants me to be able to develop and market a game for their platform that they don’t know about.

You think its a computer. Apple sees it as an appliance.

The iPaq is fading into history, the iPhone is not.

Seems to be working. Keep up the good work Apple.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I’ll have to send this suggestion @FakeAPStylebook on Twitter. When quoting Apple’s VP of marketing, he is to be cited as “Phil Schiller (yes, that’s actually his last name).”

So, after reading the NYT story and knowing the background about the recent WSJ story, does anyone doubt that Steve Jobs is mentally ill?

Apple is a company that until very recently, I really liked. They have been acting lately like they know they are in front of the narrative and are taking advantage of that knowledge advantage to the direct detriment of long time developers and users. It is difficult to package the App Store narrative (one legal source, Apple) into something that regular people understand without a lot of deep analysis. Apple simply counters with “we’ve chosen kittens over Pit Bulls” and that ends the argument with many/most who don’t have the time or energy to dive into the mess.

@JulesLT… “Sexist”? Seriously?

brian gillespie

Other than Google Voice, I have never really cared about the App Store rejection policies before. In fact I temporarily had my phone jailbroken until Google released the web app. I totally get why Apple wants to control the App Store.

But feel compelled to comment after this so here goes. So much ado about nothing, waah! For Goodness sakes quite whining. Anyone who wants to have a suggestive or suedo-porn app make a damn web app. The iPhone has a perfectly good browser in it, so make something that works on that. Don’t ask Apple collect your money for you so you can peddle your masturbation material on the iPhone.

I’m now deleting (without listening) your current and future episodes on MacNotables because your ruining your interviews with this one subject.

Ted Landau

I totally get why Apple wants to control the App Store.

I totally get it too. What I don’t get is why people such as yourself go along with Apple here.

And it’s not just about “pseudo-porn” (as you phrased it). For example, I have a Terminal app on my jailbroken iPhone. I understand that not many iPhone users will care about this particular app. But my point is that the app exists; I like having it and I use it.

So why exactly should I prefer a situation where Apple does its best to prevent me from having this app on my iPhone? I understand why it might be in Apple’s interest to do so. But how is it in my interest?

brian gillespie

Go along? It’s their product, what choice do I have other than choosing another product. Even with it’s (few) limitations, it’s the best phone out there for me.

Now what makes you think that your interests or mine, or Cali Lewis’ or the dozen other tech pundits carry weight? Of the 20 million iPhones sold this year how many people do you think care about your native background app, my Google Voice App or the fact that you now need to get your daily dose of T&A on the browser? 50,000, 100,000, 1 million? Not a significant amount. Not enough to make Apple give up the experience of the many to appease the few.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@brian, Yours is the attitude that emerges from people who don’t understand the economics of the long tail. For every skin app developer that is frothing with anger right now because they’ve lost thousands per month in revenue, there are obviously (assume a $2 price point do the math) thousands of customers affected. Apple yanked a free swimsuit catalog app too.

Let me explain the economics of the long tail to you. While the very popular products may now represent 50% of sales, the less popular products, in aggregate, represent the remaining sales. With time in a system that lets people find the niche things they want, the popular products are still disproportionately popular, but represent less of the total. What this means for policy running stores like Amazon or Apple’s App Store is that when you get heavy handed and snuff out niche products, you necessarily create a lot of animosity, in fact, a disproportionate amount of animosity. This is because there is tremendous value in available choice, over and above the combined value of the actual choices. In the case of Apple, which has set up a de facto monopoly on sales of iPhone apps, there is no legal choice for people who want niche products Apple will not approve.

I think we’re in the early stages of the uprising. But I also think that with each clumsy misstep that Apple takes, it creates new, vocal critics. At the same time, the defenders of Apple issue the same tired, shrill apologies and explanations, like equating swimsuit catalogs with porn. I used to think the apologists were just dishonest. But now, I think you’re probably the kind of people that get upset seeing a stray bra strap or an exposed midriff. Uncle Steve will protect you!

Ted Landau

what choice do I have other than choosing another product.

Well, for starters, instead of describing my comments as “whining,” you could say you agree with what I wrote. If enough people did that, and kept applying pressure to Apple, we might eventually get Apple to change its policy. A long shot perhaps. But better than doing nothing.

brian gillespie

instead of describing my comments as ?whining,?

Come to think of it that was rude of me, but at some point it does becomes whining. I thought that point had come.

Yours is the attitude that emerges from people who don?t understand the economics of the long tail


You’re assumption is incorrect. I like a good Chris Anderson lecture as much as the next guy, but we’re talking about insignificant unnecessary clutter. It’s not really the long tail, but dirt on the bottom of the long tail. It may be 5000 apps but they’re crap from a few prolific literers. The couple swept up inadvertently like the swimsuit company will get back in.

JulesLt

Sexist - yes.

I’m happy to defend their right to exist and be sold - it’s freedom of market, let alone freedom of speech - and I didn’t say that I didn’t like pictures of women in lingerie any less than the next man - but sexism has nothing to do with nudity. Selling pictures of women in bikinis is profiting from the objectification of women - that’s basic stuff.

And from a business point of view, if you have a lot of female customers, you don’t want to really send them the message that ‘you are now entering the sexist dork zone’. If 10% of your stock has pictures of women in scanties on the front, that’s what you’re doing.

(OK, I presume they also removed the presumably fewer men-in-pants apps).

For what it’s worth, the Long Tail theory has been resolutely trashed, by economists, looking at the evidence of online purchasing behaviour.

Despite easy availability, in fact we’ve seen a shift in purchasing towards the top sellers, with less money flowing towards the tail than in the old economy - the online world is unfortunately even more winner takes all.

(That’s in aggregate - there are obviously cases where long tail products are doing better - and the trend has been longer than just online - it was Walmart before Amazon, and the consolidation of suppliers is also a factor).

And to restate my position - I do think having a single store censoring content is an issue. Apple have merged Store and Market into one, and need to get out of that hole. They should just be managing the platform, on a technical level - that is control enough.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

So, JulesLT, Apple still has a sexist App Store. It’s just big brand sexism, and there’s apparently nothing wrong with it. But that is another debate, and I truly feel bad for you that you’ve bought into one particularly retarded feminist perspective (victimhood) with which many feminist scholars, such as Camille Paglia, would vehemently disagree. But men are just the collateral damage of that view. Think of the women in the supply chain of boobie apps who are a little worse off today because Apple was standing up for women’s rights!

The only way the Long Tail could be “resolutely trashed” is if sales of items on the tail past a very shallow point trend toward zero (and not a very small constant) and the presence of those items adds no value to the store. Amazon.com and even your local chain book store would seem to provide examples that the model has merit. The model recognizes that popular products can be very popular, while saying that in aggregate, the unpopular products are popular enough, and that they add an interesting dimension to the lineup. The model does not require that the “tail” proportion of sales or dollars or other measure actually increase with time.

My point in bringing that up, whether you or pick your empirical economist like the model or not, was that the developers were not the only constituency affected. This is not angry puritanical parents (and angry paleofeminist sympathizers) versus soft porn peddler developers. There are tens of thousands of iPhone users purchasing these apps. Who is speaking for them? Who is speaking for their obvious interest in being able to buy these apps, as cheesy as these apps may or may not be?

Oh, and a swimsuit catalog was banned. Are you frakking kidding me? How sexist is that? If an “explicit” category actually appears, will that catalog have to appear there? You all know how wrong this, and JulesLT, you even admitted you know that the single source issue makes all these wrongs happen! Yet you remain loyal and mostly uncritical. Strange.

JulesLt

Paglia’s just one of those people who spouts controversial opinions that even she probably doesn’t believe in -  and it’s got nothing to do with victimhood - I’m quite happy to defend any woman or man’s right to exploit whatever nature’s given them - individually that’s their choice. And it’s not as if I’ve never enjoyed them doing it either. I’m not suggesting anyone appearing in these apps is a victim.

Just the simple point that boobie apps are objectifying women’s bodies, and that’s sexism. 

The Long Tail theory definitely predicted that income would flow to the right - into the long tail - when instead it’s flowed left - the top products are taking a larger and larger share of the market and the income in that market.

I suspect a lot of this comes down to an underestimation of what’s actually involved in selling products.

And you’re misreading me if you think I’m uncritical or an Apple loyalist. My phone’s a Nokia. I can just understand that Apple want to control their storefront - it reflects on them. The problem is they shouldn’t be running this store (and it was obvious from the off that this kind of problem was going to arise).

Ciera

I’ll say what you people seem to be afraid to say.  Porn is mainstream these days, part of peoples’ lives, both women and men, and we enjoy it.

And the “objectification” idea is nonsense.

If Apple wants to censor what I can have on my hardware, then I will never, ever buy from them.

And parents don’t have the right to censor their children’s lives either.
Fortunately, they always fail.  : >

Anybody who’s grown up free since the advent of the internet knows that they were better off that way.

WoodIfICould

The problem here is that these “developers” were gaming the system. They flooded the iTunes stores with apps that are basically just delivery systems for a picture or a handful of pictures. They probably could have existed peacefully on the AppStore if they had restricted themselves to the in-app purchasing model. Instead, they chose to post all these “apps” as standalones because it was a way to take advantage of the AppStore interface. At the end of the day, Apple cares about the user experience…period. Any developer that tries to get in Apple’s way on that principle is going to get spanked. And there are five thousand apps for that.

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