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Apple continues App Store pruning as developer agreement emerges

It's been a confusing few weeks for developers of software for Apple's iPhone.

app_store_icon.jpg

First Apple purged the iPhone's App Store of "naughty" and "sexy" applications that offered users more than a peek at female bodies--or, presumably, male bodies, though somehow we never hear about those apps. (Note that the App Store imposes age restrictions on applications, allowing them to be locked out with the iPhone and iTunes' parental controls.) At the same time, Apple kept around salacious applications from such name-brand sources as Playboy and Sports Illustrated. That double standard infuriated some iPhone users.

Not long after a round of wireless-networking tools got yanked--but in this case, Apple could point to its long-standing rule against developers using "private frameworks," elements of the iPhone's operating system that it's reserved for its own use. (Keeping some "application programming interfaces" private for stability, security or performance reasons is a routine policy in the software business, although in most cases an OS developer can't enforce these rules the way Apple does on the iPhone.)

Then it emerged that Apple was also kicking off "minimum functionality" iPhone programs--cookie-cutter applications that did only one trick.

However well-intentioned, that sort of conduct--like Apple's earlier excesses of App Store oversight--would seem to fall outside the rules of the App Store. But it turns out that the rules allow just such a thing.

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a report on Apple's iPhone developer-program license. The San Francisco-based digital-liberties group obtained the confidential document after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with NASA, which shipped its own iPhone app last year, and it contains some interesting provisions.

As the EFF summary explains, and as the 28-page agreement (PDF) itself spells out, this agreement is more one-sided than the average software license. Beyond a variety of common-sense restrictions (for instance, an iPhone application must display "a reasonably conspicuous audio, visual or other indicator" anytime it's recording audio or video), it bans iPhone developers from disclosing the contents of the agreement or distributing their work to the public outside of the App Store, allows Apple to yank applications at any time and for pretty much any reason and caps Apple's potential liability in any situation at $50.

It's defensible to interpret Apple's intentions as curatorial--it wants its App Store to look as clean and polished as its real-world stores. But it's more than a tad impractical to suggest that the company can keep exercising such tight control as the App Store's inventory keeps increasing--it's now at 150,000 titles.

Developers of iPhone software, meanwhile, have to factor in the odds of their investment in an app vaporizing with a press of a "delete" key somewhere in Cupertino. On competing platforms, they can keep distributing their work through secondary channels--unless a phone vendor locks out those options, which AT&T just did on its new Android-based Motorola Backflip.

Users, however, may not care all that much about App Store politics, to judge from the iPhone's steadily-escalating sales numbers. And something tells me these App Store revelations won't do anything to stop sales of the upcoming iPad when it ships April 3.

Am I wrong? You can explain why in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 9, 2010; 11:48 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Mobile  
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Comments

I've always seen this as a gray area. Why do people think that Apple has to guarantee access to the App Store? Do programmers have some specific rights that other entrepreneurs do not?

What if I was a baker, rather than a programmer, and I wanted the local grocery store to sell my cookies? Couldn't the grocer say, "I'll only sell your cookies in my store if they are in packages of 12" or "I'll only sell the Oatmeal and Raisin Cookies, but not the Chocolate Chip"? If I don't want to live by those restrictions, as a baker, then I can go somewhere else. Or I can try to open my own place and sell what I want. Why does Apple owe it to programmers to have unlimited - and free! - access to the App Store?

I understand that the App Store is a huge market, and in some ways, the only one of its kind. But it is their market, nonetheless.

Dan

Posted by: BadDan | March 9, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Dan,

You have a point there. However, there is a significant difference between a programmer and an entrepreneur.

If one grocer refuses to sell the cookies, the baker could take them to another grocer. No big deal. However, in the software industry, if a developer invests in a package that is declined by the "storekeeper" when it's ready to go, it's a big loss to the developer.

The storekeeper is bringing in new rules. In most of the cases, developers with small or no reputation will have to keep the fear of rejection in their mind.

Thanks.

Posted by: aminde | March 9, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

Dan,

The issue is not Apple's rightful choice to restrict what goes in the store, its that what you can get in the store is incredibly unclear and often contradicted. Add to that Apple changing its mind in vast numbers with no warning and you have a huge business risk you can't really mitigate. Why users should care about this is that it drives app quality down, you can afford to risk a few hours on an app that might get rejected or might (as 3 of ours have) make it into the store, make money then suddenly vanish with no notice. Our business was not harmed by this because none of the rejected or removed apps required substantial investment to create, they were simple, funny easy to use 99cent apps (and trust me none of them would make your grandma blush) as we begin to invest larger amounts of time and money in an app we now have to make sure we are going to have a good market for most of the work with minimal porting to other platforms because we just can't be sure that we won't be blindsided. The net effect is that higher priced, higher quality apps are just too much of a risk to develop for iPhone unless you are a large company that has a personal relationship with someone at Apple. As a well diversified and tiny development company, we are actually just fine despite these setbacks, but I fear that users will start to see better stuff over there on the lesser phone.

Posted by: staffordworks | March 9, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

Apple invested a substantial amount of money to develop both the iPhone and iTunes. They had no guarantee of success. They can set whatever rules they want, as capricious as they might be. Developers of apps get to take advantage of Apple's large investment and potentially make some money, or at least have some fun with an app. If the developers don't like the rules for using Apple's investment they can go play somewhere else.

Posted by: rogernebel | March 10, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

How does it work if you pay for an app and apple removes it do you get your money back?

So am I really just renting apps from apple?

More weaksauce from the black turtleneck

Posted by: stikyfingas | March 10, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

Highly proprietary business such as Apple always fail. Time is the only issue. And Hubris? Can you say Toyota?

Apple is a pioneer, but by unintelligibly manipulating developers and customers, they are sowing the seeds as it were. Hubris is a seed which yields a very nasty plant.

Posted by: therev1 | March 10, 2010 9:17 AM | Report abuse

I do not think the real problem is Apple's tight control of their store, its that they set it up so that other sites can not offer things for the iPhone, and so is ATT. I thought Congress addressed the locked up phone issue, why is it legal to lock any cell phone, other than a few network interfaces which might damage the cell phone providers network if not checked. It clearly should be illegal to lock out games, and other products from a phone I own so that ATT or Apple can increase their profits.

Posted by: Muddy_Buddy_2000 | March 10, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

rogernebel: "They can set whatever rules they want, as capricious as they might be."

Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with the body of law known as "right of first sale".

Apple has ZERO business dictating what happens inside devices that are not owned by them.

When you purchase a product, it belongs to YOU, not the company that made it, and they have NO right to tell you how to use YOUR product.

Posted by: frantaylor | March 10, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

What people need to understand is that the iPhone is the centerpiece of Apple's narcissistic vision of the future of computing. They would love nothing better than to have every single computer in the world under their direct control, and revocable certificates give them exactly that capability. Apple can unilaterally choose which programs will run on an iPhone, and they can revoke this "privilege" AT ANY TIME -- even after you have purchased an application. Microsoft tried to do this at the OS level with signed drivers, but even Microsoft cannot come close to Apple's level of hubris. If this model of locked-down applications spreads to the mainstream computer world, that will be the end of open computing.

I am a registered iPhone/iPad developer, but I cannot bring myself to ship applications for this platform. Even if I could guarantee that my application would be approved after I spent months developing it, I feel like I would be contributing to the "big-brothering" of the world of computers. This licensing mechanism is simply repellent.

Apple was such a brilliant failure for so many years that they were seen as a paper tiger. But hey, folks, those fangs are real...

Posted by: jerkhoff | March 10, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I fear we are seeing the future of computing.

In the space of a generation, we've 'progressed' from completely open PCs that anyone could program as they wished, to now Apple's closed monstrosity that, even if you own the hardware, you still need Apple's "permission" to run your own program.

But once the infrastructure is set up to allow centralized corporate control of your computer, it's only a small step for the Government to assert a greater role (for the usual reasons: "think of the children", "to prevent terrorism", and eventually "to ensure our Nation's cyber-security").

Within a generation, will a government stamp of approval on your software be required? The rise of closed, centrally-controlled architectures certainly takes us in that direction.

Posted by: 12008N1 | March 10, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

@BadDan, @rogernebel: There's a difference between things you have a *right* to do and things that you *should* do, based on a reasonable grasp of your own long-term self-interest. (Put another way, the Post would be well within its rights to wrap this site in user-hostile DRM, but we'd be idiots to do so.)

So: Do you think Apple's making a good business decision in running the App Store this way?

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | March 10, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I think that your question is good but inadequate. The road to Hell is paved with good business decisions. Even if this is good for Apple's own narrow interests, is this really good for the rest of us? Do we really want to live in a world where our every move is controlled by a centralized security organization?

Posted by: jerkhoff | March 10, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

Yet another reason not to buy Apple. Remember when Apple was what the trendy people bought to be anti-establishment? Anyhow, I prefer not to overpay for shiny, not necessarily well functioning Apple products. My iPod randomly stopped working, so I bought a Zune. My brief stint as an Apple product owner is over, never to be repeated.

Posted by: futbolclif | March 10, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

For all these people complaining about the restrictions on the App Store there are two solutions:
1) Don't buy an iPhone. Buy an Android phone, which is more open.

2)Jailbreak your iPhone. Then you can shop for apps without the App Store restrictions.

Posted by: wiredog | March 10, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

The reson Apple shouln't be allowed to set whatever rules they want is that, at least as regards the iPhone and its apps, Apple and AT&T are making money from their free use of the public airwaves. This issue is akin to "net neutralty", where free use of a public asset (the internet) imposes certain restrictions on the commercial entity that is selling that asset.

Posted by: bshields2 | March 10, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

"How does it work if you pay for an app and apple removes it do you get your money back?

So am I really just renting apps from apple?"

I'm not sure about that. I have a version of a certain classic game that was available for free for a while, but eventually was yanked because someone else owned the rights to the game (and wanted to put out a paid version). The unauthorized app is no longer available from iTunes, but it remains on my iPod to this day (despite regular syncing). I'm sure Apple could have removed it, but it hasn't done so.

If Apple deleted a paid app, I think they would have to give refunds. Look at what Amazon did when it took removed Kindle versions of "1984" because of a licensing dispute. People were understandably angry about the removal, but they did get their money back. Whether or not it's a legal obligation (I'm not sure), it would be (even more of) a PR fiasco if they didn't.

Posted by: Janine1 | March 10, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

It's weird that you would link to the regular TechCrunch web site instead of the TechCrunch articles on washingtonpost.com

Posted by: subwayguy | March 10, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

@stikyfingas, @Janine1: I should have addressed the issue of "what happens to yanked apps" in my first reply. As it so happens, I had one such "disappeared" app on a review iPhone, PhoneSaber (yeah, laugh all you want); the App Store kept prompting me to upgrade to this app's Lucasfilm-sanctioned replacement, but I declined and the old program remained in place and functional.

@subwayguy: First, I usually post links from where I first read a story, which in TechCrunch's case is usually right on their site (I subscribe to their RSS feed). Second, our presentation of TechCrunch stories is... somewhat inelegant. Don't ask me how, but illustrations and even paragraph breaks somehow vanish before the story gets to this site.

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | March 10, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

You are not wrong. As long as Apple delivers the best overall smartphone experience to many users, it can jerk them around some.

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | March 10, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Dan, what is your understanding of how Apple can do this pruning? There seem to be various remedial actions they can carry out. Do they have the power to delete any application on the phone, remotely, as long as your iPhone is turned on? Have they done this? It could be necessary for security breach reasons to have this functionality. Or if they refuse to sell the application in future in the store, and they then leave users with copies out there in the wild. Is this what they did with the "tethering" application they first approved after the iPhone was launched and then discovered (through AT&T) that it caused them network problems (and competes with their 3G dongles)? In that case the user has the app indefinitely as I do with some WiFi finders. However they could also intentionally or un-intentionally upgrade their next OS version so it no longer functions with thatwithdrawn app. Then users are in a conundrum. Once they discover their old app no longer works, do they try and revert back to their older OS (TimeMachine backups etc.) but lose the functionality of new OS?

Could they delete pruned apps from both your backup computer and then iPhone whenever you go into iTunes and check for (and download) updates?

A related question: If you have apps on your iPhone or Touch, are you licensed and able to run it on your new iPad, especially if an app has been pruned? Consider whether you will you be able to backup your Touch, de-authorize it and then restore to an iPad. No doubt many people will move from a Touch to an iPad, and a few from an iPhone to a iPad in the coming year. They will not want to re-purchase their app and will want to keep pruned apps.

Posted by: OttawaForester | March 11, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

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