While Apple CEO Tim Cook defended Apple’s stance, the move is a reminder that Apple is the only judge and jury regarding what’s acceptable in the App Store — but as mobile devices are integrated into more aspects of our lives, it’s getting harder to justify such tight control over their software.
The current state of the App Store is a great example of the risks of running a marketplace that becomes too big. It also shows that we can expect wide-ranging marketplace regulation in the near future.
The App Store as video game console
Before Apple introduced the App Store in 2008, companies could distribute third-party apps and web services without oversight; consumers could buy floppy disks, download software from the internet or connect to any website.
But with the App Store, Apple decided to control the user experience from approval to distribution. And it has been a massive economic success. There are more than 2.2 million apps in the App Store that have generated over 130 billion downloads.
In many ways, the iOS app ecosystem works more like a video game console than a computer — developers submit games and apps to the maker of the platform, which starts a review process to see if third-party content complies with guidelines. If so, developers may list their game or app on the platform.
The PlayStation 4 has been around for six years and Sony has approved 2,294 games in total, around 380 games per year. Due to the sheer size of the App Store, Apple has faced challenges that console manufacturers have never faced.
Review guidelines are poorly enforced
Apple has written the App Store Review Guidelines, a lengthy document intended to answer all questions about what’s acceptable — but those rules are not enforced consistently, and the App Store isn’t a level playing field, discrepancies I’ve pointed out in the past.
As an example: rule 4.3, titled “Spam:”
Don’t create multiple Bundle IDs of the same app. If your app has different versions for specific locations, sports teams, universities, etc., consider submitting a single app and provide the variations using in-app purchase. Also avoid piling on to a category that is already saturated; the App Store has enough fart, burp, flashlight, and Kama Sutra apps already. Spamming the store may lead to your removal from the Developer Program.
And yet, customers can find plenty of categories with app duplicates and companies trying to game the App Store. For example, I found 13 different VoIP apps released by four companies. Each company had multiple versions of the same app in order to pick different names, keywords and categories to optimize search results.