Apple's App Store Review Guidelines Offer Shades of Gray

Apple published its App Store Review Guidelines, meant to give app developers clarity when building for the company's mobile products. But many of its rules still seem arbitrary.

Apple has published its new App Store Review Guidelines. The question is whether that'll curb the arguments that periodically erupt over the suitability of certain App Store apps.

The document, released Sept. 9 and almost instantly published on tech blogs such as Gizmodo, details the requirements for developers who want to create the next Plants vs. Zombies or Angry Birds. Written in the folksy vernacular that defines much of Apple's corporate copy, the introduction breaks down the "broad themes" that define an acceptable app:

  • "We have lots of kids downloading lots of apps, and parental controls don't work unless the parents set them up (many don't). So know that we're keeping an eye out for the kids."
  • "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."
  • "If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you're trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don't want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour."

Other "themes" seem deliberately vague:

  • "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."
  • "We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don't need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn't do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted."

The Store Review Guidelines are "a living document," the introduction concludes, and "new apps presenting new questions may result in new rules at any time."

Apple apparently reserves the right to reject games that feature "realistic" violence and weapons, enemies that target a specific demographic, and Russian roulette. Apps that "are primarily designed to upset or disgust users" will be rejected, along with those that feature "excessively objectionable or crude content." Adult content is also a big no-no.

With the App Store's expansion-research firm IDC predicts it will reach 300,000 apps by the end of 2010-controversies have predictably risen about some developers' products. In February, for example, several third-party developers found their explicit apps banned from the storefront. In that incident, one developer reportedly received an email, signed by "iPhone App Review," that stated one of his applications contained "Content that we had originally believed to be suitable for distribution. However, we have recently received numerous complaints from our customers about this type of content."

In a Feb. 22 article in The New York Times, Apple's head of worldwide product marketing Philip Schiller confirmed that the company had received complaints from groups who found some content "too degrading and objectionable" and decided to yank those apps from the store. Apple has justified its taking-down of certain apps by pointing to a clause in the iPhone SDK agreement, which states, "Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind."

Some developers objected, questioning the consistency of Apple's policies and bans; others openly demanded the company offer a more transparent reasoning behind some of its app decisions. The fact that apps from established entities such as Sports Illustrated were allowed to remain in the App Store, despite featuring content similar to that of the pulled apps, was another cause for third-party consternation.

Apple further muddied the waters by retracting some of its decisions. In April, the company rejected a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist's app from the store for satirizing political figures, only to restore it in the face of protests.

Apple's competitors have taken not-so-subtle digs at the company for its App Store controversies. "We're giving the developers the respect they deserve in our use of transparent and uniform policies," Brandon Watson, Microsoft's director of developer experience for Windows Phone 7, wrote in a June 7 posting on The Windows Blog, "that still give developers the necessary information and flexibility to explore creative sales and marketing models."

Over the summer, Microsoft posted a full list of its policies on the Windows Phone for Developers Website. Those policies are similar to the ones present in Apple's App Store Review Guidelines, with predictable bans related to violence and explicit content.

In any case, Apple seems to be taking steps to formalize the app-approval process-even if many of its "rules" remain firmly arbitrary. "Thank you for developing for iOS," reads the conclusion of the App Store Review Guidelines. "Even though this document is a formidable list of what not to do, please also keep in mind the much shorter list of what you must do."