iPhone App Store Puts Apple in Sticky Situation

Apple's App Store is a runaway success, but controversial applications may force the company into decisions that run counter to the free market spirit that makes the App Store so popular.

Since the debut of the Apple App Store in July 2008, iPhone and iPod touch owners have been able to access a rapidly increasing number of applications, ranging from free apps like Skype to low-priced mobile games and myriad other programs. The App Store's rise to prominence has not been without controversy, however. The latest minor uproar concerned an application that allowed users to access sexually explicit photos.
The application, "Hottest Girls," disappeared from the App Store on Thursday, though the development team behind the app, Allen the Geek, wrote on its Website that the application had "sold out" and it pulled the app to prevent its servers from crashing. "Those who already have the app will still be able to use our app," posted the ATG development team. "To answer the question on everyone's mind: Yes, the ... images will still be there when it is sold again."
But the story doesn't end there. As similar applications began to appear on the App Store, Apple told CNN that, despite a rating system informing consumers about the content of applications (Hottest Girls received a 17+ rating for, in Apple's words, "frequent/intense sexual content or nudity), the company would not distribute applications that contain inappropriate content, such as pornography.

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"The developer of this application added inappropriate content directly from their server after the application had been approved and distributed, and after the developer had subsequently been asked to remove some offensive content," Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told CNN. "This was a direct violation of the terms of the iPhone Developer Program. The application is no longer available on the App Store."

Apple found itself in the media spotlight earlier in the year for similarly controversial, if less sexually explicit, applications, including the infamous "Baby Shaker" app and a "Me So Holy" application that allowed users to take photos of themselves or friends and paste their head onto the body of Jesus. Days after the Baby Shaker controversy broke, Apple announced the billionth application had been downloaded from the store.
Michael Oh, president of Apple specialist Tech Superpowers, said Apple has a fine line to walk when it comes to regulating the content on the site. "I'm not sure exactly where they should be on this," he said. "If you look at desktop application development and distribution, there's been this very specific separation between the manufacturer of the system and the developer."
By hosting its own application portal, Apple puts itself between the developers and the consumer market. "Apple has obviously developed the App Store with a revenue stream in mind, but they have put themselves in a position where they're between the software developer and customer, so they can be a gate, even if they're not saying it," Oh said. "There's going to be increasing pressure on them to restrict [applications]. It is a free market, and it's part of capitalism and making software that people want."
However, Oh said Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, might be able to put a human touch on what is essentially a question of regulation in the face of corporate responsibility. "This is potentially one of those places where Apple needs to make an announcement, and maybe Jobs has to say the software market needs to be open," he said. "In looking at Apple's history, it's always easier for that type of announcement to come from a person. That's the reason that Apple is so loved as a company."
No matter what controversies arise in the near future, and no matter how Apple negotiates this tightrope of an issue, one thing remains certain: The App Store, boasting 50,000 applications, and the runaway success of the iPhone and iPod touch mean the App Store is in for a flourishing future. "The selection is really where it gets an A+," Oh said. "In term of the App Store, it's always delivered what I've asked it for."