App Store rules: Olive branch or air cover?

There were plenty of reasons for Apple to cough up 113 App Store rules for developers, starting with the feds and Google.

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
6 min read
Apple doesn't willingly give up  information about itself outside orchestrated press events. But Thursday the company published detailed rules for iOS developers.
Apple doesn't willingly give up information about itself outside of orchestrated press events. But Thursday the company published detailed rules for iOS developers. James Martin/CNET

It's been more than two years since the App Store opened, and Apple has for the first time published a real set of rules for its army of third-party iOS developers.

On Thursday, Apple surprised many by posting significant changes to its developer license agreement (PDF) along with rules for those creating applications for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Most notably, Apple relented on the kinds of tools developers can use to create apps, which means Adobe's Flash compiler is back in, and changed its mind on how ad networks can be integrated into apps.

The 113 rules--penned in a tone that'll be familiar to many who watch Steve Jobs keynotes or read those e-mail responses he purportedly sent to customers--are direct, and on occasion slightly exasperated. When describing how Apple thinks about apps in general and why the company so closely guards its App Store gates, the introduction states, "If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store."

The tone comes across almost as if Apple didn't really want to publish these rules at all. So why did it? The timing is certainly curious, since Apple rarely gives up information willingly about anything related to how the company works. The fact that regulators were sniffing around Apple's policies was likely a motivating factor. The FTC started asking questions in June about why certain developer tools and ad networks were banned from use in apps.

The gradual opening of the tightly guarded reviews process began a year ago. Last August--more than a year since allowing third-party apps--was the first time Apple went public with its App Store approval process, but that was only because the Justice Department wanted to know why it had rejected Google Voice from the App Store. In response, Apple illuminated the main cases for app rejection: buggy software, apps that crash too much, use of unauthorized APIs, privacy violation, inappropriate content for children, and anything that "degrades the core experience of the iPhone."

Though that did shed light on how Apple's app reviewers were evaluating the thousands of apps received each day, it failed to offer real clarification for the tens of thousands of developers. From then on, when apps that seemingly fell into those categories were still approved, and others not, many were quick to publicly point out the hypocrisy.

The guidelines published Thursday clearly aim to cut through the confusion by offering specifics about what kinds of apps Apple wants, what it doesn't want, and the standards of professionalism it expects.

Gray areas and imperfect rules
But Apple's rules acknowledge that gray areas remain, and that app reviewers will continue to use their own judgment. Apple says it will continue to reject any "content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, 'I'll know it when I see it.' And we think that you will also know it when you cross it."

The document also says up front that the rules are not perfect and not final, but "a living document" that could change at any time, and if a developer doesn't like that his app was rejected, he should take it to the app review appeal board instead of turning "to trash us in the press."

Some of the rules are oddly specific, and it's not hard to assume they came from apps previously submitted to the store. Some of the more interesting rules:

  • Apps that duplicate apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them. ("We have enough fart apps," according to Apple.)

  • Developers "spamming" the App Store with many versions of similar apps will be removed from the iOS Developer Program.

  • Apps that use location-based APIs for automatic or autonomous control of vehicles, aircraft, or other devices will be rejected.

  • Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary (thanks to the experience of Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore).

Morality plays
Apple also is attempting to tackle some fuzzy areas of morality by discussing the kinds of content that's disallowed in apps:

  • Nothing useless or not entertaining.

  • Apps that are primarily marketing materials or advertisements will be rejected.

  • Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster's Dictionary as "explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings," will be rejected.

  • Apps that are intended to provide trick or fake functionality that are not clearly marked as such will be rejected.

  • Apps that encourage excessive consumption of alcohol or illegal substances, or encourage minors to consume alcohol or smoke cigarettes, will be rejected.

  • Apps with app icons and screenshots that do not adhere to the 4+ age rating will be rejected.

  • Apps that appear confusingly similar to an existing Apple product or advertising theme will be rejected.

  • In general, the more expensive your app, the more thoroughly it will be reviewed.

  • Apps portraying realistic images of people or animals being killed, tortured, or injured will be rejected. (There are plenty of apps like this already on the store.)

  • "Enemies" within the context of a game cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.

  • Apps may contain or quote religious text provided the quotes or translations are accurate and not misleading. Commentary should be educational or informative rather than inflammatory.

By publishing specific things to avoid, Apple provides a path for developers who say they've been walking around blindly because they don't know exactly what is or is not allowed on the App Store. But why this is coming now and not a year or two earlier could be about more than just interest from federal regulators, especially when viewed in light of the events of the past few months.

Android, antennas, and other assaults
Sure, the FTC came calling, but Apple is also probably feeling the heat from Android. The Android Marketplace can now count 100,000 apps for download, and has an app development process with few rules. Google's Android philosophy is the opposite of Apple's curated approach. Google says that if people don't want your app, they won't buy it. Apple says people shouldn't have a bad experience on an app on its store in the first place. Apple isn't relenting on standards or softening its approach, but being more clear is a good way to get on developers' good sides.

It's also possible that Apple is tired of getting, as the new App Store rules put it, "trashed in the press." Though the company has previously responded to cases of apps being incorrectly rejected or accepted on a case-by-case basis, it's clear that with 250,000 apps and counting, the company just can't continue to operate the App Store that way. With thousands of apps coming in, its reviewers have made mistakes and the recourse many developers chose was to bash the company publicly or talk to a reporter.

But things got even worse for Apple this summer. The poor antenna design of the iPhone 4, and Apple's initial response to customer complaints (known as antennagate) was a difficult thing for Apple to deal with, precisely because the company isn't used to that kind of shocked and angry response from its customers, or its legions of fans.

Much of the antenna disaster was rooted in the way Apple responded to customers' initial concerns ("don't hold it that way"), and would have turned out differently if the company hadn't avoided accepting some responsibility for so long. So it's not a stretch to think Apple is trying a new approach this time and being a tiny bit more transparent in hopes of retaining the good will its built up in the last two years with its successful mobile platform.