Apple on Thursday published a set of rules about the types of content that aren’t allowed in the iOS App Store, answering questions that have been bugging software developers and customers for years while introducing some new ambiguities.
Still, it’s an important step. By publishing the guidelines, Apple mobile customers will be able to know what they can and can’t get on an iOS device versus, say, an Android phone. Also, third-party programmers will have a clearer sense of whether or not to invest in developing an app, whereas before they were subject to rejection without knowing what they weren’t allowed to do. However, some developers think parts of the guidelines could be more clear.
“By no means is what they put out today perfect,” said Justin Williams, developer of Second Gear software, who quit iPhone development last year. “There are some vague areas. But compared to where we were yesterday, it’s a big improvement.”
Apple CEO Steve Jobs has described the App Store as a “curated platform” that is regulated to ensure a high quality, secure experience for customers. IPhone, iPad and iPod Touch get third-party applications through the App Store, and Apple must approve any software before it can be sold through the store. Unless you hack your iOS device, the App Store is the only way to get additional native software.
The regulated App Store model deviates from the traditional experience of owning a PC, where customers can typically purchase and install any software that’s compatible with their computers. Critics have argued that by curating the iOS platform, Apple tightly controls the mobile devices that customers own as well as the developers who create software for them.
Additionally, by not publishing the guidelines on its iOS app review policy, programmers were left guessing as to what they were allowed to create, potentially putting a bottleneck on their innovation. Publishing the list of app review guidelines — a step that Wired.com called for Apple to take in a previous editorial — addresses this potential problem of self-censorship.
“Hopefully it will give developers increased confidence when starting projects,” said Jamie Montgomerie, developer of the Eucalyptus book-reading app, which was approved by Apple after its controversial rejection. “I suspect there are a lot of interesting apps that were never made because people were scared of the approval process.”
Apple’s seven-page list of guidelines (.pdf) splits reasons for app rejections into 11 categories. Reasons for rejection range from technical to editorial offenses: Apps that crash will be rejected, for example, and apps that defame people in a mean-spirited way are rejected, with the exception of political satirists and humorists.
“We hope they will help you steer clear of issues as you develop your app, so that it speeds through the approval process when you submit it,” Apple said in a statement Thursday about the app guidelines.
The publication of the guidelines is a major step toward transparency for a company as opaque as Apple. Since the App Store opened in 2008, critics scrutinized the App Store for its undisclosed editorial guidelines, which resulted in seemingly arbitrary rejections of a wide variety of applications.
For example, Apple in 2009 rejected an app called Me So Holy, which enabled iPhone users to edit their self-portraits to look like Jesus Christ. However, Apple that year approved Baby Shaker, a game that involved shaking a baby to death. Apple later pulled Baby Shaker, admitting its approval was a mistake.
Because of its unclear app approval system, some developers gave up on making content for the App Store because they couldn’t be sure that an app would be a wise investment of their time and money. Second Gear developer Williams said he quit iPhone development last year because Apple didn’t disclose its policies.
“One of the big reasons I got frustrated was I didn’t like the black box review system, which is basically you’re submitting your apps to the review process and you have no idea what the review process is,” Williams said. “I think [Apple publishing guidelines] is a good step towards being more up front and honest about what the criteria is.”
However, Williams noted that there was still room for improvement, as several parts of the guidelines are still unclear. For example, one clause in the guidelines reads apps will be rejected if they duplicate functionality of other apps, “particularly if there are too many of them.” Williams said it was unclear how many is “too many,” and such vagueness could discourage developers from competing with other apps in the App Store.
It also remains a question as to whether Apple’s App Store is now allowing Adobe to join the iOS scene. In addition to publishing guidelines, Apple said in a press release that it was “relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to crease iOS apps, so long as the resulting apps do not download any code. This change was not detailed in Apple’s guidelines, but some are speculating that Adobe’s iPhone Packager, a tool to automatically convert Flash software into native iPhone apps, will be allowed — whereas before third-party app creation tools were banned. Wired.com’s Epicenter will have more to report soon on that aspect of Apple’s App Store revisions.
Brian X. Chen is author of an upcoming book about the always-connected mobile future titled Always On, due for publication Spring 2011. To keep up with his coverage in real time, follow @bxchen or @gadgetlab on Twitter.
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Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com