Apple to iPhone Developers: Don’t Compete With Us?

If Apple really won't allow apps that resemble its own onto the iPhone, it's terrible news for everybody. Including Apple.

By  |  Saturday, September 13, 2008 at 12:14 pm

Back in March, I attended one of the more exciting Apple press events I’ve ever been to–the one in which Steve Jobs and company unveiled their plans for the iPhone SDK and App Store. Jobs showed off the iPhone platform, introduced the App Store and explained how it worked, noted that it would be the only way to distribute iPhone applications, and said that Apple would make the final decision on which apps were and weren’t acceptable.

Here’s a brief highlight reel from the March event at Apple headquarters, with Jobs touching on some of these points:

When I heard Jobs say that Apple wouldn’t distribute each and every iPhone application that developers wrote, I thought to myself that such a policy was both inevitable and logical–but that it also had the potential of hobbling the platform, if Apple’s approval process was unclear or too motivated by self interests or the interests of carriers. I’m realizing now that I wasn’t anywhere near paranoid enough about the implications of what Steve Jobs said.

Since the App Store debuted in July, Apple has apparently listed then delisted (then relisted then delisted) Netshare, an application for tethering the iPhone to a laptop as a modem. I can’t get too irate, since the app seems to clearly violate AT&T’s terms of service. It listed, delisted, and relisted Box Office, a movie review app. I haven’t seen an explanation of what happened there, so I’ll reserve judgment. It listed then delisted the infamous It listed then delisted the infamous I Am Rich $1000 application. I was kinda amused by the prank but understand opposing viewpoints. It nixed an app called Pull My Finger. I wouldn’t go to the mat to defend it.

But the latest hubbub involving the App Store’s refusal to list an application concerns Podcaster, a program for listening to podcasts. According to the developer, Apple told him that the program was rejected because it duplicates functionality that exists in iTunes. (Only partially true, apparently: Podcaster would have let you download podcasts directly to the iPhone, bypassing iTunes–which would have been extremely handy.)

Telling a developer that his app has been rejected for duplicating features in an Apple application would seem to be another way of saying that iPhone developers aren’t allowed to compete with Apple.  If so, that’s disastrous for developers and disastrous for iPhone users.

And, potentially, disastrous for Apple. Way back when, if software distribution for the Mac had been handled via a Mac App Store with a don’t-duplicate-Apple-products policy, Photoshop might have been refused distribution on the grounds that it was too similar to MacPaint. A Mac platform that hadn’t gotten Photoshop might well have been a Mac platform that died some time in the mid-1990s or so.

As iPhone developer Fraser Spiers says, Apple’s policy of rejecting applications only after they’ve been submitted means that anyone whose written an app that gets nixed has wasted his or her time. (Daring Fireball’s John Gruber also has insightful comments.) If that app was porn or malware, no problem. But as far as I can tell, Apple has not published any clear statement of acceptable and unacceptable applications. And telling a developer that he can’t duplicate functionality in an Apple application isn’t just ridiculous; it’s a policy that the company hasn’t articulated until now.

Unless, that is, you count the “Unforseen” item in Apple’s original list of limitations as giving it carte blanche to reject any application at any time for any reason:

Strangely enough, I’m not entirely pessimistic here. Apple’s actions to date with the App Store have involved repeated instances of it apparently not understanding its own policies, and therefore allowing applications in and then deleting them, or deleting them and then allowing them back in. There are other applications in the store that come as close to duplicating Apple efforts as Podcaster apparently does–such as Evernote, which is sort of a Web-enabled version of Apple’s Notes apps. I’m hopeful, therefore, that the Podcaster rejection was a weird fluke that Apple will undo shortly.

The company should also publish a detailed list of policies relating to App Store acceptance, so both developers and users know what’s kosher. It should have some sort of mechanism for developers to gain tentative approval for an application’s function, so they don’t waste time writing something that Apple would never accept. And the company just has to make clear to the world that it won’t reject apps because they’re vaguely similar to its own efforts–or, for that matter, very similar.

It could also resolve just about every issue relating to app approval by ending its monopoly on iPhone application distribution. You gotta think there are ways to do this without introducing apps into the iPhone ecosystem that would take down AT&T’s network or spread malware–presumably third-party e-commerce companies like Handango would kill for the ability to become authorized iPhone app stores, and would behave in an entirely responsible fashion if they had that option.

I believe that Apple will eventually open up iPhone app distribution–in the long term, it simply makes too much sense for everyone involved not too. I just wish I had a better handle on when it might happen. Not very soon, I’d guess.

Meanwhile, as a podcast fan who doesn’t sync his iPhone all that often, I very much wish that iPhone users, rather than Apple, had the ability to judge for themselves whether Podcaster is too similar to iTunes and therefore unnecessary.

 
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23 Comments For This Post

  1. Ken Says:

    “It nixed an app called Pull My Finger. I wouldn’t go to the mat to defend it.”

    That’s how those in power always do it: they start by going after the people and organizations which most people would never publicly defend. They’re building precedent here.

    “If that app was porn or malware, no problem.”

    That sounds like a big problem to me! Can you find even two people who agree on a definition of “porn”? Federal judges can’t. I sure don’t trust a corporation to do it for me.

  2. Carl Says:

    In the AppStore, they came first for the Netshare,
    And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t in need of mobile internet;
    And then they came for the I Am Rich,
    And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t rich;
    And then they came for the Pull My Finger,
    And I didn’t speak up because I already had gas;
    And then . . . they came for my app . . .
    And by that time there was no one left to speak up.

  3. I second Ken Says:

    “First they came for the Communists,
    and I didn’t speak up,
    because I wasn’t a Communist.”

    Any time you give a corporation a free pass on censorship and control, it is eventually going to come back to bite you in the ass. Right in the ass. Right smack dab in the ass part of the ass.

    Remember that this is the company that SUES their fan journalists for helping hype their products.

    Abuse of their market position was 100% predictable. They have always done it and will always try to.

    People are just confused about them because they like the shiny products their nice engineers make. But the company itself is cut-throat and ruthless.

  4. I second Ken Says:

    Whoah, I wrote my response before Carl’s showed up.

    There ya go…

  5. Harry McCracken Says:

    Ken and Carl–I respect your take on things but don’t entirely agree; I’m enough of a libertarian to believe that Apple has the right to impose standards of taste on iPhone apps if it feels like it. You and I and everyone else, of course, have the right to buy into the iPhone ecosystem or not to buy into it.

    I even think Apple has the -right- to make silly and inconsistent rules about apps like Podcaster if it so chooses. I just think it’s incredibly shortsighted.

    If I were arguing in favor of Pull My Finger, though, there’s an easy case for it: The iTunes Store is rife with music, movies, and TV shows that are far less tasteful.

    As for porn, maybe the standard should be that anything that’s acceptable in the form of a song or a movie/TV show should also be OK as an app. I can’t figure out an argument for different sorts of content having different policies.

    Thanks for contributing,

    –Harry

  6. AK Says:

    I disagree with the author — I don’t think that Apple will ever open up distribution for iPhone apps. They realize it’s a cash cow, and that distribution could be a huge cash cow. I think the real question is whether or not they’ll move to a similar system on Macs. A can see them LOVING having the control over what does and does go on people’s iPhones. Apple is a very controlling company, and make policies that move toward control — not away from it.

  7. Dave S. Says:

    AK: I agree with what you mean by there being a theoretical incentive for Apple to keep it closed, namely being that they will consistently have that 30% share, but they don’t have to much to open it and still keep most of the app market. Let me explain. Let’s say, for example, that if you distributed your application through the App Store, they would not only cover the payment processing (like Paypal), bandwidth coverages of downloading the app, as well agree to promote your application through their sites and demos, I think most people would go that route. However, a small hole for reguar folks to add third-party applications, by doing something like adding a particular XML url to the App Store client to look for more download database locations (like a SourceForge for iPhone apps, for example), would make a world of difference. Sure, most people wouldn’t want to through the hassle of setting up another store, but there would be many who would consider it worth it. Also, potentially, Apple would offer a guarantee that any application distributed through its official channel would be tested for Malware and stability, giving consumers an incentive that third party channels could not neccessarily give. I think that this kind of model would give developers enough of a reason to stick (mostly) with the App Store but still leave room for outsiders. For example, I know several musicians who have music in the iTunes music store. Apple does not pay them anywhere near the best rate of cash return per song download, but they still do it because that place has the biggest distribution.

    Also, I agree with Harry when he states that Apple really has no compelling moral reason to open the App Store. If we, the consumers, are “stupid” enough to keep using the iPhone/iTouch under such restrictive conditions, then it’s our fault. No one accuses GM or Ford of being immoral when they make crappy cars and people buy them. Fraud and theft, in my personal view, are the two main reasons for Government to step into the marketplace. By the way, the fact that there is no government agency hovering over Apple’s DRM policies is EXACTLY why establishments like Technologizer and other news sources dedicated to consumer reporting are **so important**.

  8. mare Says:

    You gotta think there are ways to do this without introducing apps into the iPhone ecosystem that would take down AT&T’s network

    The real reason PodCaster was rejected might very well be that. If a lot of people are downloading podcasts over 3G the network might become very congested. Unlimited data is fine but if everybody is downloading potentially large files all the time things might go awry.

  9. Harry McCracken Says:

    Good point, Mare, I did wonder whether the bandwidth required for Podcaster was an issue–but if it was, why didn’t Apple say so?

    –Harry

  10. FSF Says:

    Stop buying proprietary software/hardware. Even mobile windows phones allow you to run anything, and openmoko is even more open.

    STOP BUYING PROPRIETARY SOFTWARE, THEY WILL GET YOU EVERY TIME

  11. stonemirror Says:

    There’s been a huge (and unrestricted) third-party developer ecosystem from Palm OS-based devices, and has been for quite a while.

    I’m not aware of anyone’s Treo actually managing to bring down any carrier’s network.

  12. zato Says:

    The iPhone was not made for losers, so why whine about it?
    Go back to your PC games, egoist/haters.

  13. Barrowman Says:

    Quite right stonemirror.

    Bearing in mind AT&T are not the sole provider for iPhones not every carrier in the world has the same concerns (especially those that charge for extra data) about tethering or downloading, something that most other 3G phones manage to do (along with proper Bluetooth transfer etc) without a problem, yet for some reason, people buy into the ridiculous reasoning that Apple would upset too many people and business models by having these features and thus cripple their product yet their far bigger cellphone manufacturer competitors are allowed to implement these features without much fuss (however badly!)

    People annoyingly just quote this absurd nugget from SJ, without really thinking about it, It’s just typical of Apple’s sense of importance that they think their product is capable of doing (ie bringing down the network) what hundreds of millions of other products aren’t, and it’s just typical of our Apple-mania that we don’t object.

    I wonder if we’d buy the line, that Apple hasn’t unlocked the video feature in their iPhones camera because if we were recording our own movies, we’d be less likely to use iTunes? Or if we were sending movies, we’d be using up more data?

  14. Katrina K. Says:

    Yeah, this is pretty false outrage. Here’s a cool cell phone. Great! Hey, you can buy games and apps for it. Great! The manufacturer exerts editorial control over the kind of games and apps submitted for eventual distribution by said manufacturer. HORROR

    …please.

    We’ve certainly happily bought consoles, which have precisely the same dynamic. Just because the development kit is $100 instead of $10,000 doesn’t mean there’s some new God-given Right handed to developers that they can publish whatever they want.

    Course, you can still distribute on his own. It’s just sour grapes that you can’t be published on the iTunes store, something Apple doesn’t owe you by any means.

  15. Ron Fondo Says:

    “…if software distribution for the Mac had been handled via a Mac App Store with a don’t-duplicate-Apple-products policy, Photoshop might have been refused distribution on the grounds that it was too similar to MacPaint….”

    or, perhaps Ofoto, before it was sold back to Storm Technologies…

  16. serioussam Says:

    “The real reason PodCaster was rejected might very well be that. If a lot of people are downloading podcasts over 3G the network might become very congested.”

    1. There are streaming audio apps that use just as much bandwidth and are allowed.
    2. Apps can’t run in the background so downloading podcasts in the background isn’t going to happen.
    3. If they were concerned about bandwidth, they could restrict the app to wifi only.

    More likely is they want all the media to come through iTunes so everything can be kept in sync (content, listened/unlistened status etc.) However, it is also very likely Apple will be adding direct Podcasting to the iPod/iPhone in a future release but they want it to sync perfectly with iTunes. They might want to stop (unhappy) customers from buying something now that will be free and work better in a few months.

    I would rather let the market decide which are the best apps but Apple would prefer to decide for us. If you buy an Apple product, you’ll have to trust their decisions.

  17. julianT Says:

    I don’t think that the reason for Apple to reject an app like podcaster is because Apple is afraid of competition. In fact it seems obvious to me that any app that enables unfettered downloads onto the iphone will obviously be banned from the app store. I don’t have an iphone myself so maybe someone can enlighten me. For example can you download stuff using safari on the iphone like you do on the deskstop?

    Utube and Pandora allows you to stream and access content but not physically download right?

    However something like Podcaster allows you to download podcasts onto the iphone directly and since not all podcasts resides on Apple’s iTunes servers it means that any downloads via Podcaster could well be illegal material. Some pirate could even take a stolen pre-release cd track and put it up as a podcast for people to download for all you know. In fact this makes Podcaster seem awfully like a p2p client. The record labels as well as the telcos will be all over Apple if this happens.

    So I guess when Apple says that it duplicates the functionality of iTunes it really means the download functionality and not the competition part of it.

  18. Grover Says:

    People who try to apply civil liberties to a companies user agreements make me giggle at your stupidity.

    That being said, Apple is indefensible here. This is a move that will hurt them and has no percievable benefit. Even their most staunch supporters are crying foul on this one and with good reason.

  19. Marcos El Malo Says:

    @Julian:

    What do you mean by “physically download”? Have I been doing it wrong all these years? My laptop feels light in comparison to my friend’s. Maybe it’s the lack of physical bits?

    Back to the matter at hand: I agree this is a bad move on Apple’s part, but the open question is “Why?”. There is a history of Apple seemingly stepping on developers. Anyone remember Watson? Or the devs that made a widget engine before Apple came out with Dashboard widgets? Apple took a lot of flak each of these times. I think the possibility exists that in at least some of the cases with the App Store that Apple is trying to pre-empt such negative reaction. But the result is worse, imho. They can’t (won’t) divulge reasons because of their secretiveness about future products.

    I imagine that Apple will eventually get all this straightened out and create some semblance of sanity. But I think the damage has already been done. Apple has unwittingly become an Android Evangelist.

  20. ed Says:

    I’m the (3rd party) developer of an app that was rejected “for the potential to consume too much bandwidth”. The app will be allowed if it doesn’t do the downloading over 3G only WiFi.

    The foolish part is, this company already has an iPhone web application that consumes a similar amount of data. More in fact because of the extra overhead of the web app that doesn’t exist on the streamlined web app.

    To me, that’s a fine example of the foolishness of the approval process.

  21. ed Says:

    sorry, that was supposed to read “steamlined native app”

  22. Ryan Fox Says:

    http://www.rgbfilter.com/?p=202#more-202

    This article talks at length about Apple’s App store practices, and also features a video review of the banned app Podcaster in action.

    Cheers

    rye

  23. Indian exporters Says:

    Apple's behavior is becoming increasingly sketchy when it comes to approving apps. This is troublesome as I am currently working on a app I hope to get on the store. I'm curious to see how much longer hackers put up with this before there is a total backlash from developers. It is certainly making me rethink about creating apps for their devices.

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