Apple does the right thing when striving to keep its App Store free from promotional trickery - but fails to shed light on the process and, as a result, damages its reputation.
Earlier this month, the Apple App Store removed the popular AppGratis application from its shelves. Then, last week, the App Store censors delivered a decisive blow by suppressing AppGratis' push notifications to installed apps.
Apple's reason for the ban: "… the app circumvented App Store rules preventing applications promoting other apps and direct marketing."
AppGratis CEO Simon Dawlat took to the airwaves, loudly protesting his innocence. The aggrieved entrepreneur criticized Apple's arbitrary and inconsistent approval process and "out of the blue" removal of AppGratis. He launched an online petition that gathered 571K signatures in just a few hours. He convinced Fleur Pellerin, France's Minister of Digital Technologies, to run to the wounded company's bedside and join the protest. Minister Pellerin added a bit of saber-rattling, calling Apple's actions "brutal" and hinting at plans to ask the EU to examine the takedown.
But then the PR tide turned. An AppGratis document leaked to Business Insider by a "source in the developer community" hints at the company's unspoken business model: AppGratis will raise your app's rating in the App Store – for a fee.
Specifically, AppGratis gives developers an estimate of where in Apple's App Store rankings an App can land based on how much the developer is willing to pay… [The] document shows AppGratis estimates a ~$300,000 buy will land an app in the top five slot in the US version of the App Store.
$300k is a lot of money for a small app developer, but the promise is that the higher ranking will result in increased revenue that will more than cover AppGratis' "service fee".
Before the e-dust could settle, Dawlat posted a long-winded blog entry that I assume was meant as a rebuttal. Here's an excerpt:
People have "accused us" of gaming the top. But the reality is that with or without the "rankings," our community will still drive millions of installs for the apps we feature. Independently from the App Store. We have never based our business on ranking exposure, because we've always expected Apple to chime in at some point, and change that.
He then went on to announce AppGratis' "crazy cool" old-yet-new direction [emphasis mine]:
And even more exciting, we're back to our roots. A crazy cool daily newsletter with millions of subscribers, that will very soon be complemented by the newest and nicest HTML5 WebApp you'll ever see. Two things we fully own, and that no one can take away from us. So when I stated a week ago that the reports of our death were greatly exaggerated, I wasn't kidding. Not kidding at all. AppGratis is just getting started.
Because from the bottom of our hearts, we know we add value to this whole ecosystem.
And we intend to keep doing just that.
To shed light on this complicated situation, let's use an analogy. And since this about a French company, Apple will be represented by Carrefour, the hypermarché giant -- something like Walmart, but less polite. If you ask to have your groceries packed up, the cashier throws a plastic bag at you and tells you to do it yourself. You'll be playing Simon Dawlat.
You approach Carrefour with your unique line of heirloom yogurts made from free range goat milk. It's an interesting product, but is Carrefour obligated to give you shelf space? Of course not. The store may be inelegant and the staff is rude, but the company has its standards. Carrefour offers to take you on if you agree to its rules concerning shelf displays and promotional activities.
One day, a store manager notices the coupons you've enclosed in your yogurt packs. These coupons promote other products that Carrefour stocks, offered at lower prices when purchased on-line. When asked about it, you finally admit that, yes, some of the other manufacturers pay you to include their coupons with your yogurt. Carrefour management throws a plastic bag at you and tells you to pack up and go home. Their store, their rules.
(The analogy is both transparent and flawed. There's no perfect physical retail analogue for AppGratis' virtual schtick -- getting paid to bubble an app up the App Store rankings. And the App Store doesn't have a great real-world analogue, either. The App Store's raison d'être is to make iPhone and iPads more valuable; it's not a business in itself. But you get the idea.)
To touch on the obvious, Apple isn't obligated to publish AppGratis or any other app, regardless of a developer's adherence to the rules.
As for the rules themselves, I read through the App Store Review Guidelines, bracing myself for Apple's usual hauteur. What I found was a personable, (mostly) well-written document that addresses a number of complicated issues while (mostly) avoiding the opaque legalese found in the licensing agreements we all stopped reading long ago.
The rule that's most pertinent to the AppGratis case is this [emphasis mine]:
If you attempt to cheat the system (for example, by trying to trick the review process, steal data from users, copy another developer's work, or manipulate the ratings) your Apps will be removed from the store and you will be expelled from the developer program.
There seems little doubt that AppGratis crossed this line: Its business model is precisely one of artificially enhancing an app's ratings.
This isn't a new issue. In September 2012, Apple added a clause (section 2.25) to the Guidelines:
Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected.
A good deal of discussion ensued, most of which made clear what awaited AppGratis and others such as FreeAppADay, AppoDay, Daily App Dream, and App Shopper. As explained in a PocketGamer post [emphasis mine]:
The wording is typically vague, but clause 2.25 appears to give Apple carte blanche to put any app that promotes titles from a different developer out of action.
At the moment, we understand Apple's likely prime targets are pure app promotion services, such as (but not necessarily including) FreeAppADay, AppoDay, AppGratis, Daily App Dream and AppShopper, amongst others.
That clause 2.25 was introduced more than six months ago puts Dawlat's claim that Apple acted "out of the blue" and Minister Pellerin's accusation of "brutality" in a different light: Dawlat had ample notice of Apple's intent.
(Minister Pellerin might now be wondering if her staff performed sufficient research before letting her run to Dawlat's rescue…or maybe not. Half-baked technopolicy is becoming politics-as-usual in France. Last year, the newly-elected government ran afoul of high-tech entrepreneurs when it announced legislation that would greatly increase taxes on their equity gains, only to beat a hasty half-retreat, leaving the tax question muddier than ever. Perhaps the AppGratis snafu was perceived as an opportunity to earn back some of the lost credit, especially when portraying the situation as a French David vs. an American Goliath.)
Ultimately, Dawlat's cry of foul will probably be seen as disingenuous and tiresome, not to mention a wasteful distraction… Do the critics of the App Store approval process consider the noise level that approvers must endure? To get to the current 700,000 apps, the company has to scrutinize more than 3,000 new entries a week plus revisions of existing apps. Mistakes will be made. Some apps will be approved only to be yanked when their scheme becomes obvious. Developers will be incensed, and Apple, sensibly, has anticipated the backlash:
If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.
So it's case closed, right?
Not quite. There remains the problem of perception.
I can't provide a link to the Guidelines in this Note because the document is only accessible to dues-paying developers (of which I am one). There's nothing mysterious, secret, or dangerous about these words, they provide no competitive insight that could work to Apple's disadvantage. Charging a developer just to read the rules gains nothing, and contributes to Apple's negative image. Attempting to keep them out of the public eye is insulting and futile – developers freely leak and comment on the content.
Far worse is that Apple appears to have a policy (with very few allowances) of refusing to publicly explain its App Store decisions. I realize that some judgments are ineffable, matters of taste, as explained in the Guidelines:
We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, "I'll know it when I see it". And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
Apple isn't wrong to reserve the right to make such decisions. Although insiders may depict the company as obsessive control freaks, "normal" customers seem to appreciate Apple's efforts to keep the App Store a Clean, Well-Lighted Place.
But maintaining a stony silence when imposing a judgment call is a bad choice, it distances developers, and it inevitably triggers controversy. A few words of explanation would invite respect for having courageously taken a difficult stance.
As already discussed in a recent Monday Note (Apple is Losing The War - Of Words), I find the company's refusal to engage in more public debate harmful and disrespectful. While the AppGratis incident in itself isn't overly important, it could be an opportunity for Apple to reconsider its ways.