Tits and Apps

So with this whole thing where Apple has removed and banned like 5,000 “sexy apps” from the App Store, I think I’ve figured out the reason why, including why they’re granting exceptions to established names like Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and Victoria’s Secret. It’s about branding. Let me just state right here up front that I don’t agree with or like how they’re doing this. I’m just trying to make sense of it.

It’s easier, though, to first run through what this is not about.

I’ve seen a lot of speculation that the exceptions are about money. I.e. that Apple wanted to ban the sexy apps but left the big-name ones in because they don’t want to lose their 30 percent cut of the money these apps generate. That doesn’t hold water, though — a slew of apps that have been banned were top sellers, established brand names or not. If it were just about revenue, Apple would have left them all in the store.

Henry Blodget speculates that the established brand-name exceptions are about setting up deals for iPad apps from the companies behind them. But that’s just a variation on the “it’s about the money” argument. Again, if Apple’s interest here was about money, they wouldn’t be banning any of these apps in the first place. Apple is not going to be hard up for iPad apps and content. If anything, I suspect the problem with iPad apps will be just like that with iPhone apps — too many of them, not too few.1

Another iPad-related theory — suggested by several DF readers via email — is that it’s about the education market. The idea being that Apple wants to sell iPads to schools and therefore wants anything even remotely objectionable out of the App Store. But institutional iPads will be managed devices, just like “enterprise” iPhones are today. Students using a school-owned iPad won’t be able to install apps from the App Store, so it doesn’t really matter which apps are for sale.

Lastly, if you think about it, it’s clearly not about banning porno and bikini-clad-semi-porno from the iPhone entirely. MG Siegler writes:

Apple is going through all this trouble of removing these apps, and creating more work in scanning for the next sexy apps to reject, when built into every iPhone and iPod touch is not one, but two huge entry points for explicit material — and both are apps made by Apple themselves. The first, I alluded to above: iTunes. There are no shortage of films and TV shows with nudity and sexual content (along with violence and everything else) that are available on iTunes for purchase on the device. The same is true for explicit music.

But the second app is far worse: Safari. Each iPhone and iPod touch has a web browser that is more than capable of accessing any site on the web with a few clicks. This includes sites with hardcore pornography, or anything else a teenage kid can dream up. Apple is going through all this trouble to block sexy apps (which have never contained nudity, by the way, just sexy pictures), when they offer one of their own that makes it much easier to find far more sinister content.

Siegler is correct that MobileSafari is completely open to anything and everything published on the web. But he draws the wrong conclusion. Apple isn’t futilely trying to ban this sort of content from the iPhone. They’re just removing it from the App Store. Think about a physical world analogy to the retail Apple Stores. There’s all sorts of software (and hardware) you can buy and install for Macs that Apple would never sell in their stores.

The purest representation of the Apple brand is Apple’s own remarkably small (for a company of its size) lineup of products. Retail Apple Stores (and Apple’s web store) are a slightly expanded representation of its brand — they sell many third-party products, but they are carefully selected by Apple itself.

The App Store is looser. The vast majority of the 150,000+ available titles would not be there if Apple were managing the App Store the way they manage their retail stores. It’s good that it’s looser. It almost has to be. (It’s pretty hard to find people complaining that Apple allows too many titles into the App Store.)

But, still, Apple sees the App Store as an extension of the Apple brand. That’s why flat-out pornography has never been and never will be allowed. You can walk into a Barnes and Noble and buy a copy of Maxim, but you won’t find a copy of Hustler. Not because Hustler wouldn’t sell, but because selling pornography goes against the Barnes and Noble brand.

I think what Apple was getting squeamish about wasn’t the sexy apps themselves, but the cheesiness that the sexy apps (and their prominence in best selling lists) was bestowing upon the general feel and vibe of the App Store. One thing I wasn’t aware of before the recent crackdown was the degree to which these apps were seeping into various non-entertainment categories. E.g., like half the “new” apps in the “productivity” category featured imagery of large-breasted bikini-clad women.

The App Store is never going to be like Apple’s retail stores, and Apple knows it. Apple’s retail stores, branding-wise, convey an image sort of like between the Gap and Banana Republic — friendly premium. The App Store is more Old Navy, or maybe even Target. But these sexy apps were casting the App Store into something junkier, bordering on the skeevy.

What iPhone users choose to access through MobileSafari doesn’t reflect on Apple. But what is listed in the App Store does reflect on Apple. What you see when you peruse the App Store effectively is the App Store.

So what I see as hypocritical about Apple’s decision here is not about the fact that you can access the same sort of content via MobileSafari, but rather about the exceptions granted to Sports Illustrated, etc. I see why: Sports Illustrated, Victoria’s Secret, and Playboy are not just strong brands but also quality brands. But who’s to say some new brand couldn’t be just as good? The best apps in all sorts of categories across the board in the App Store are frequently from new companies, building new brands. It’s no more fair for the “hot chicks in bikinis” category to be occupied solely by existing major brands like Sports Illustrated/Victoria’s Secret/Playboy than it would be if the, say, photo manipulation category were occupied solely by Adobe and Corel, or if games were only allowed from companies like EA.

If Apple’s going to allow any of these apps, they ought to allow all of them. They should be evaluated by content, not by the names submitting them. If Apple doesn’t want these apps boogering up the best-seller lists in various categories across the App Store, they should assign them all to a single category. (Tough job: finding a name for that category.)

The other thing that bothers me, and ought to bother Apple, is the obvious capriciousness with which these apps were removed. These apps were allowed for about a year and a half. Some developers were prospering by them. And then, boom, they were gone. The reason Apple ought to be concerned about this is that it unsettles all developers — even those whose apps and ideas for future apps were nowhere along the lines of girls-in-bikinis. What developers see here isn’t Apple managing its own brand. What developers see is that the App Store is a shaky foundation upon which to build a business. One day you’re prospering, the next day your app is gone. There are awesome iPhone OS apps that aren’t being built because developers don’t trust Apple not to yank the carpet out from underneath them.

Apple sees the App Store as an aspect of its brand. Developers see the App Store as the entirety of the Cocoa Touch platform. This is a significant conflict. Developers, if rejected from the App Store, can freely deliver whatever content they choose through MobileSafari — but you can’t reuse compiled Cocoa Touch apps that way. The work invested in a native app can only be recouped through the App Store.

It’s entrepreneurism to be willing to take your chances in the market. It’s healthy skepticism to worry about being locked out of the market after you’ve already invested heavily in building your product.

  1. The cynical take on these exceptions, if you don’t buy my branding argument, is that Apple might have decided not to antagonize those companies with large, talented, corporate legal departments. ↩︎