Apple has been boasting of its app-friendly ecosystem for years, starting with its tagline, “There’s an app for that.” Apple users are offered a wide variety of high-quality apps from a single store. But the process for developers has always been rocky in one way or another, and recently a large, ugly rock has reared its head.
TechCrunch wrote a very in-depth article at the beginning of June detailing who has been rejected from the App Store and why. Some of the problems seem to have first been reported in the iPhone Dev SDK forums, but of course the problem is that some of Apple’s app reviewers are human – some are strict and adhere to the rules, while others are more lax. The system is often easy to criticize for its appearance of favoritism: While one indie developer on the iPhone Dev SDK forum said their app was rejected for having rewards for sharing on social networks, they rightly pointed out that King.com’s Candy Crush Saga gets away with the same thing.
There are two inherent problems at the center of this controversy: incentivized social sharing and incentivized video advertisements.
Incentivized social sharing
The problem:Apple claims that per section 3.10 of the App Store Review Guidelines, apps may not require their users to share content on social networks, though that’s a very specific application of a very non-specific rule. The problem Apple sees is that consumers are being annoyed by bad social media messages pestering them to download or use an app on an Apple product, and that reflects poorly on Apple, even though they did not develop the app.
The solution: Instead of outright banning incentivized social sharing, one of the oldest tricks in the book for engagement and word-of-mouth marketing, Apple should instead institute quality standards and write them out in their Review Guidelines for everyone to see. Developers will be able to see what is expected of them, and consumers will have a benchmark and a place to file complaints against offending apps. In the meantime, developers need to tighten their social media practices. Crying that “Candy Crush does it” will only land on deaf ears; be better than Candy Crush.
Incentivized video advertisements
The problem: Apps are monetizing by offering their users a video to watch in exchange for some in-app incentive. The developer is then paid by whoever wanted the video to be seen – usually, another app. This is a problem for Apple in multiple ways. First, and most obviously, they are cutting in to Apple’s profits; Apple has its own ad network (iAd), and while they tolerate other ad networks, it’s no secret that they would like to keep all that profit in house. Second, video ads face the same problem that incentivized social sharing faces: They irritate the customer. They are loud, startling, and often bog down an internet connection.
The solution: If Apple wants to do something about this, then they needs to put specific language in the Review Guidelines stating explicitly what they want. If they don’t want video ads, they need to say so. If they don’t mind video ads but rather have issues with how the ads are incentivized in the app, they need to write that out. More realistically, if Apple doesn’t do anything, developers will have to figure out new, creative solutions to either skirt the issue of video ads, or come up with a better form of advertising altogether.
The bigger picture
Apple benefits from having some amazing apps in its ecosystem, built by great developers and organized by intelligent, caring community managers. They have every right to control their ecosystem as they like, since it is their company and their creation. But that doesn’t make every decision right.
In an “Mobile Mavens” response article on Pocket Gamer, Charles Chapman, the director and owner of First Touch Games wrote that it’s reasonable for Apple to change its regulations: “[Apple] creates a very nice (walled) garden for us all to plan in, and if it wants to change rules of entry then it is entitled to do so. There are plenty of other gardens for us to play in if we don’t like it.” But are there other gardens?
Sure, Apple’s hardware is (arguably) rivaled by other companies’ products, but it is unfair to compare the app ecosystem to any other. Since they control the hardware, there are standardized screen sizes and device responses. Consumers spend more on iOS apps than they do on Google Play, both on initial app prices and on in-app purchases (see Distimo’s report from May 2013). Sure there are more consumers with Android devices, and even more apps being downloaded from Google Play than the iTunes App Store, but the iTunes App Store still generates vastly more revenue than Google Play. To compare the two stores isn’t just to compare apples and oranges (pun intended), but to compare Hot Dog on a Stick to a lemonade stand.
Since so much of Apple’s user experience is in the hands of apps developed by third parties, the company has a right to be skittish. But instead of lashing out at random and expecting the industry to jump at shadows, Apple needs to put actual rules in place, make them public, and allow for debate. Otherwise developers might one day decide that other platforms are more attractive – and Apple will be the only ones who lose.
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