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Apple's new App Store rulebook (FAQ)

CNET breaks down what the new rulebook means for developers making applications for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, and the people who buy them.

App Review Guidelines

There are just Ten Commandments, but making an iPhone app means complying with the 113 rules Apple handed down Thursday.

Two years after the launch of the App Store, Apple suddenly unveiled a set of policy changes to its iOS developer community that more clearly spells out what the company is looking for in third-party apps but mostly what it is not looking for. Up until now, Apple has largely had developers guessing at what they could and could not implement within their applications.

As part of the change, Apple introduced a new "living document" called the App Store Review Guidelines that details everything developers are unable to do within applications. To go along with that, the company made tweaks to several sections of its developer license agreement to ease up on the use of third-party development tools allowed in the creation of apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.

Though the changes to the App Store rulebook mainly apply to developers, they do impact what kinds of apps are available App Store customers. Here is a closer look at what happened Thursday and what it means.

What are the major changes?

Apple made just a few changes to its developer license agreement (PDF), but they were significant. Most notably, Apple relented on the kinds of tools developers can use to create apps, meaning Adobe's Flash compiler and similar tools are no longer banned. Apple also changed its mind on how ad networks can be integrated into apps, so Google's AdMob is also back in.

That there exists an official, documented App Store policy for developers to consult before diving in to creating an app is a huge change. Prior to Thursday, Apple's App Store rules were boiled down to five vague guidelines: no buggy software, no apps that crash too much, don't use unauthorized APIs, don't violate users' privacy, no inappropriate content for children, and nothing that "degrades the core experience of the iPhone."

The list Apple published Thursday includes 113 rules that govern everything from technical info to location data, privacy, religion, sex, media content, trademarks, and more. The rules about the kind of apps that are allowed range from the strangely specific ("No Russian roulette apps") to the amusingly vague ("Nothing useless or not entertaining"), and many appear to be derived from apps Apple has already rejected. The full list of rules is available here.

Who is impacted?

These changes mainly affect developers who are currently creating applications or planning to add content to existing ones. For a team or company that might be in the middle of development, these new rules affect what they can and cannot put into their application in the way of content. With some companies spending in excess of six months and several thousands of dollars getting applications ready, these rules could cut everything short.

More importantly though, these new rules could have a very big impact on content that has already made it through Apple's approval process and into the App Store as applications. Apps that have content that does not fit within the new guidelines could simply be pulled, or Apple could ask the developers to change what they've already made to fit in. This is especially true of violent games, which Apple very clearly spelled out as being off limits, despite a wealth of titles that include graphic violence such as hunting games, or first person shooters.

Why now?

It's a good question. It's actually been two years since the App Store opened without any kind of official documented guidelines for developers, and suddenly it just appears one day. Apple rarely gives information about its internal processes unless extenuating circumstances call for it--see the press conference called to address Antennagate earlier this summer as a prime example.

There are couple things going on here: The FTC has been sniffing around since Apple put the kibosh on developers using certain kinds of programming tools and third-party ad networks in their iOS apps. It's not hard to connect the dots between the feds asking questions about Apple's App Store rules and the sudden appearance of such a document.

It's also possible that Apple's feeling competitive pressure from Google and its proliferating Android platform. While there are 250,000 iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad apps, there are now 100,000 Android apps available for a variety of smartphones and tablets. Google's known for a more "open" approach, allowing developers to submit anything they want, Apple has long taken a strict gate-keeper approach to the kinds of apps it allows on its platforms. The publishing of the App Store rules today could be an attempt on Apple's part to appear more transparent.

Are these rules currently in place?

Yes and no. As of Thursday, these guidelines became effective immediately, however they are not rules. Apple simply refers to the App Store Review Guidelines as "guidance and examples across a range of iOS development topics," and that the rules are "intended to assist you in gaining acceptance for your app in the App Store, not to amend or remove provisions from any other agreement."

That means the only real "rules" are contained within Apple's various developer agreement, which includes the Registered Apple Developer Agreement, and the just-updated iOS Developer Program License Agreement.

Still, Apple is keen to note that the activities outlined within the App Store Review Guidelines missive will end up getting your app rejected. Many of these things are based on common sense like not making apps that crash, do something other than described, or that steal user information. Many of the items also reiterate the information from other Apple agreements like the Guidelines for using Apple Trademark and Copyrights and Apple's Human Interface Guidelines for the iPhone and iPad.

How does this compare to the rules from competitors?

In all four cases below, the companies have a very clear list of what can and cannot be done. Out of the bunch, Google's Android is the most open, with very few stipulations or specifics on what applications cannot include or do with the phone hardware. The two most stringent are Microsoft with its Windows Phone 7 platform, as well as HP's Palm WebOS, which go into great detail on what can go into an app--right down to things like how much blood splatter you can have in a game.

Android, WebOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 logos

Android Google's list of don'ts for the Android is short and sweet with very little ambiguity. There are only 11 items listed on the don't list, including basics like no pornography, no hate speech or apps, no viruses, or anything that could cause a copyright fracas.

WebOS Palm not only tells you what it doesn't want in an app but will go as far as telling you the varying degrees of how close you can take it. For instance, you can have "artistic" nudity in your application, though it requires adding a disclaimer. It also needs to be "occasional" and not frequent. The document does the same for violence, listing various acts that are OK, and off limits depending on what they are and how often they've been used.

BlackBerry RIM's approach to the rules that restrict what can and cannot be offered in its BlackBerry World applications marketplace are encapsulated within a list of 10 general topics. While seemingly simple, some items gloss over what is considered obscene or inappropriate, as well as how apps work with various phone functions--something Apple has a slight edge on in having a more limited array of hardware.

Windows Phone 7 Like Apple, Microsoft has a very clear section of items (PDF warning) covering things like hate speech, trademarks, violence and nudity. Microsoft goes into quite a bit more detail than Apple on what can be included in both the sex and violence sections, right down to certain types of violence like strangulation and setting "people or creatures on fire."

What is the review board and how does it work?

The review board is responsible for taking a second look at iOS apps that for some reason or another are rejected by Apple's App Store reviews team.

It's actually not new. We first found out that Apple had a reviews process in August 2009 (after the FCC asked Apple to explain why it rejected Google Voice from the App Store), and that it had established an executive review board to take a second look at apps that owners feel were unfairly rejected.

On Thursday Apple included a new link on its developer resource guide a form e-mail that allows developers to explain why their app should be reconsidered. It's not totally clear who reviews the appeals. Last August, during the Google Voice/FCC dustup, Apple said the board was made up of senior management responsible for the App Store who meet weekly to determine review process policy as well as take a look at applications that "raise new or complex issues."

See also:
• Apple bows to pressure, makes nice with developers
• Apple relents on Flash-derived iPhone, iPad apps
• Google's AdMob delighted with new Apple policies
• App Store rules: Olive branch or air cover?
• iPhone apps that wouldn't get approved today
• Adobe resurrects Flash-to-iPhone app tool