By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 6:09 pm
[UPDATE: While I was working on this post, Apple decided to approve the Tweetie update in question after all, as I suspected it would. Good news. But I think the post remains relevant.]
[WARNING: Actually, I don’t swear in this post, but there are 150+ examples of one particular bad word in it. A very, very bad word. Mostly with asterisks, but three uncensored instances at the very end. Cover your little ones’ eyes; keep this post out of U.S. states with laws against public cursing. Thank you.]
This is just embarrassing. A new version of Tweetie, the most popular Twitter client for the iPhone–and probably the best-regarded one, too–has apparently been rejected from Apple’s App Store on the grounds that its trends feature, which can display popular Twitter hash tags, showed a hash tag that happened to be the F-word at the time that the app was in for review at Apple. Never mind that the trends feature isn’t new to Tweetie, and that other iPhone Twitter clients have it. Or that every Twitter client may display dirty words if they show up in Tweets. Or that there’s no imaginable obscenity that the phone’s Safari browser isn’t capable of displaying if you know where to go, or happen upon examples accidentally.
Apple’s decision to effectively give the App Store a monopoly on iPhone software distribution put the company in a position of huge responsibility. I’m not saying it needs to accept every app submitted to the store, or even that it’s unreasonable to have guidelines of taste. (Me, I wouldn’t slit my wrists if fart apps disappeared, nor would I defend to my death their developers’ rights to have them distributed by Apple.)
But Tweetie is an important application; the trends feature is simply reporting popular hash tags, whatever they may be; it’s ludicrous to hassle developer Loren Brichter over this. Apple doesn’t have an obligation to distribute everything, but it does have an obligation to behave like a serious company. Or, alternatively, to run its app store the way it wants but allow third-party app stores to compete without require that their customers hack their phones.
(And by sayng Apple has an obligation to behave seriously, I don’t really mean that it can’t choose to be pigheaded and unreasonable–it is, after all, Apple’s damn phone. I simply mean that companies that behave unseriously for extended periods run the risk of driving their customers into the arms of their worthy competitors.)
All this is puzzling in part because Apple doesn’t seem to contend that iPhones are G-Rated zones. You can fill ’em up with all kinds of depravity if you choose, some of it purchased from Apple itself. Here’s the iTunes listing for the George Carlin album that introduced his “Seven Dirty Words” bit, seemingly praising George’s use of the F-Bomb, not to mention words that are more offensive to more people:
You can also buy movies like Martin Scorsese’s Casino, which (according to this fascinatingly NSFW Wikipedia entry) contains 398 F-bombs (one every 27 seconds!).
And if you search for the F-word on iTunes, you get results. Lots of ’em. One hundred and forty-nine of them, to be precise. They’re not censored if you make the decision to buy the content and install it on your iPod or iPhone, but iTunes asterisks ’em.
[WARNING: All swear words are censored in this upcoming graphic, but asterisks and all, it’s probably more offensive than any uncensored image you could ever muster in Tweetie. And it’s all stuff that Apple cheerfully sells.]
How many examples of these songs were among the billions of tracks Apple has sold? How many times do they get played on Apple devices each day? The math would be scary. Or, at least, dirty.
The thing I really don’t understand is that the offensive word which Tweetie cannot run the risk of displaying, and which iTunes censors in song titles, seems to be just fine when it appears in the name of a group.
[FINAL WARNING: There are three uncensored swear words in this next image. And, inexplicably, two censored examples of the same word.]
So as far as I can tell, the rules in the iTunes Store are thus:
1) iPhone Apps not only can’t use the F-bomb, but can’t run the risk of displaying it;
2) Song titles that use it will be asterisked in search results;
3) By all means, use it in your group’s name. Hey, it’s a free country…
If that is the situation, it would be nice if it were publicly codified–one of the issues with the App Store is that so many of its rules seem to be unwritten.
Getting back to Tweetie, and removing my tongue from my cheek: In the App Store’s brief history, there are multiple examples of Apple making goofy and capricious decisions, then getting it right on the second (or sometimes third) try. I’m guessing that the Tweetie update being rejected was a bad call on one employee’s part, not an example of corporate policy being properly applied, and that the app will make its way into distribution soon. But wouldn’t it be nice if the words “mystery” and “absurdity” never again came up when discussing Apple’s iPhone policies?