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Apple, Google kneecap 'universal' content rating for apps

Mobile-app makers have a new way to rate their apps through a program created by the CTIA and ESRB, but not everyone is on board with it--including two of the biggest mobile-application platforms.

Smartphone-app makers have a new way to classify age-specific ratings for their software using an already-popular program, but some of the biggest players in the mobile-app business are not on board with its launch.

Wireless-industry trade group CTIA and the Entertainment Software Rating Board today formally announced a system that lets developers assign a rating to their game, letting users and parents get an idea of its content before download or purchase.

Under the free program, developers designate what types of content are in the software. That information is turned into an age-specific rating assigned by the ESRB, which the developer can then note when sending its software to a participating storefront. The ratings then show up to let buyers know what's in a title before hitting the buy button.

Among participants in the new program are carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile USA, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless. The only noncarrier in on the launch is Microsoft, which is already using ESRB ratings for games on its Windows Phone 7 Marketplace that were ported over from other platforms.

Notably missing are Google and Apple, whose mobile operating systems collectively are used by the majority of U.S. smartphones by market share, according to Gartner figures. Both companies already have in place age-specific ratings designations for apps that developers self-assign.

In Apple's case, all software also goes through a review process to make sure it adheres with its content guidelines. Also not on the list of participating launch companies is Research In Motion, which currently has its own set of content guidelines for the BlackBerry App World but has no specific age designation.

The fact that some of the biggest players are not a part of the program from the get-go means that the ESRB system does not have the kind of cachet it has in the PC and console world, where a single game gets the same rating from one system to the next. The differences in these mobile-content rating strategies makes for cases where one game may be rated for a different age group between two platforms, even if the content is the same.

Issues around these inherent policy differences bubbled up earlier this year, when several government officials asked Apple, Google, and RIM to remove applications that alerted users to police checkpoints. RIM complied, as did Apple, eventually. Games, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter, as their ratings are typically assigned by content, and then by various age group, adding complexity.

The CTIA and ESRB say the most popular apps will be tested to see if the ratings match up with the content, with the ESRB then being able to overrule and reassign a rating, as it sees fit. Developers are then obligated to update their rating, if content is added that would somehow change the original designation.

The new rating system comes nearly 18 years after the introduction of such a program for video games on PCs, consoles, and handheld portables. The developer-funded ESRB was formed as a self-regulatory arm in the mid-1990s, a time when the video game industry faced scrutiny from the government over what content games contained and how age-appropriate they were.