Apple responds to App Store critics

Written by Alex Watson

August 12, 2009 | 14:02

Tags: #app-store #censorship #iphone

Companies: #apple

The iPhone is certainly bringing Apple commercial success, and its sales are being propelled by the success of the App Store. We're big fans of the games available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, but the App Store itself find itself at the centre of several controversies, which have resulted in a personal response from Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller.

Users of the iPhone and iPod touch can install Apps, but unless they "jailbreak" their devices, software can only be downloaded through the App Store - and to get into the App Store, apps need to be vetted. Many of the recent complaints focus on the fact that the criteria for being accepted isn't always clear. For instance, Apple rejected Google's Voice app on the grounds that it duplicated the features that come with the iPhone.

You can however, download many apps - calculators and note apps for instance - that also seem to duplicate the iPhone's features, and you can download a Skype app, which clearly duplicates the phone function. Commentators were quick to point the finger at Apple's US phone network partner, AT&T, but AT&T denied it.

The upshot was that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - the regulatory body in the US which governs telecoms - promptly decided to investigate, writing to Apple, AT&T and Google to ask them to explain themselves.

"The Federal Communications Commission has a mission to foster a competitive wireless marketplace, protect and empower consumers, and promote innovation and investment,” FCC Chair Jules Genachowski said in a statement. “The Wireless Bureau’s inquiry letters to these companies about their practices reflect the Commission’s proactive approach to getting the facts and data necessary to make the best policy decisions on behalf of the American people.”

Apple then invited the ire of the Internet by seemingly censoring a dictionary from the App Store because you could look up rude words with it, which violates the iPhone SDK Agreement which states that “Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind”

In a scathing critique, Daring Fireball's John Gruber took the company to task for its conduct: "Apple requires you to be 17 years or older to purchase a censored dictionary that omits half the words Steve Jobs uses every day he wrote. His criticisms drew a long email response from Phil Schiller:

"Let me start with the most important points - Apple did not censor the content in this developer’s application and Apple did not reject this developer’s application for including references to common swear words. You accused Apple of both in your story and the fact is that we did neither... Ninjawords is an application which uses content from the online wiki-based dictionary... Contrary to what you reported, the Ninjawords application was not rejected in the App Store review process for including common 'swear' words. In fact anyone can easily see that Apple has previously approved other dictionary applications in the App Store that include all of the 'swear' words that you gave as examples in your story.

"The issue that the App Store reviewers did find with the Ninjawords application is that it provided access to other more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries, words that many reasonable people might find upsetting or objectionable."

Schiller goes on to say the Apple wanted the dictionary app to have a 17+ rating, but at the time it was submitted, the App Store didn't support it, and as a result, the developer received the impression that it needed to censor its program.

While this may put Apple in the clear in terms of censoring a dictionary (which clearly puts them on the wrong side of the 1984 metaphor they're found of), Daring Fireball goes on to discuss how the episode highlights ongoing issues with the App Store and its review process. It does seem Apple is keen to listen to developers - Schiller apparently emailed another leading Apple developer and critic recently - but the recent troubles with the App Store highlight the growing pains of the iPhone and the problems of Apple's highly controlled approach to the App Store.

Does this lack of openness bother you? Would it affect whether you buy an Apple device? Let us know in the forums, and of course, you can always check out our reviews of iPhone games that have been allowed into the App Store.
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