Is This Any Way to Run an App Store?

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.