It’s Not the Control, It’s the Secrecy

Craig Hockenberry, back in July 2009:

We need better rules for the types of applications that are allowed in the App Store: the wording in section 3.3 of the license agreement is just too vague.

It’s likely that Apple’s legal team prefers to handle marginal cases on an ad hoc basis. But that’s a system that won’t scale and whose cost will quickly outweigh the benefits. How many lawyers will be needed when there are a million applications in the App Store? […]

As iPhone developers, we have one company making these policy decisions: Apple. The lack of transparency in their decision making process makes it impossible for us to know what’s acceptable and what is not. For all we know, the rules are being made up (and changed) as we go along.

Inexplicable App Store rejections seem to be less common this year than last, but uncertainty remains the core problem. Consider the Mark Fiore political cartoon app in the news this week. If it is Apple’s policy not to allow any political satire in the App Store, that’s terrible. If that’s not Apple’s policy, and some individual App Store reviewer rejected Fiore’s app mistakenly, that’s terrible. Either way, something terrible is going on. But worse than anything related to this specific case is the bigger picture: we don’t know.

Apple might think they’re coming out ahead by not publishing their actual rules, because the current situation leaves them tremendous case-by-case discretion. But, as I’ve stated before, what Apple is losing are iPhone OS apps that aren’t being made in the first place by developers who aren’t willing to take their chances. Remember: the more effort involved in implementing any given idea for an App Store app, the greater the risk that the effort would be for naught if the idea winds up violating one of Apple’s unpublished and heretofore unknown rules. The more work involved, the greater the chances that it won’t be built in the first place if its prospects to actually be published are uncertain — and the best ideas are often the ones that take the most work.

Consider: There is nothing in the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement that mentions “public figures” or “ridicule”, but Fiore’s initial rejection letter informed him the app was rejected because it “contains content that ridicules public figures.”

There are two very different schools of App Store criticism.1 One holds that there should be no rules based on content. I think Wil Shipley has best expressed this school:

Call me a proponent of free markets, but I think Apple needs to have a clearly-documented policy for approving submissions to the iPhone App Store, and it should be:

  • Publish all software submitted to Apple, as long as the software isn’t actively harmful to users, illegal, and does not violate Apple’s agreements with cell phone vendors.

  • Period.

The other school of criticism is that it’s acceptable for the App Store to have stringent rules — to run the App Store more like a game console platform than a computer platform — but that those rules need to be published and stated clearly. When unforeseen gray areas arise, Apple should make a decision and then clarify the rules. When Apple changes its mind, it should change the corresponding rules accordingly.

If it’s not clear, you can count me in with the second school. My stance here is as much pragmatic as philosophical, insofar as the first school is never going to get its way. The first-schoolers may well be right — it’s worth noting that Shipley isn’t just arguing that Apple should do this because it would be good, morally, but because it would be good for Apple financially and in the marketplace long-term — but Apple is clearly going to sink or swim with a very tightly controlled App Store.

I think I see what Apple is trying to do with the App Store, and the potential upside for the company is tremendous. They’re carving out a new territory between the game consoles (tight control over content and experience) and computers (large number of titles, open to development from anyone). Think of the iPhone and iPad as app consoles. (Consider too, the possibility of an all-new iPhone OS-based Apple TV. TV apps! Using iPhones and iPads as controllers.)

There’s a sweet spot on the curve where Apple maximizes its control and developer goodwill — not maximizing one or the other, but both. The tight control is, on its face, offensive to many “developers”, in general. But it’s the ambiguity regarding the App Store rules that is hurting Apple’s standing among the subset of developers Apple should be concerned about — developers who are interested in building apps for a tightly controlled high-quality platform.

Keeping the rules secret may make things easier for Apple, but it’s weakening the platform. Clarity is a sign of strength. If Apple’s leadership wants the tight control, they should accept the amount of hard work that would go along with managing it openly.

  1. Not including the abolitionist position that there should be no App Store at all, or that it should be optional. ↩︎