Apple pulled an app called AppGratis from the App Store last week.
Usually, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Apple removes apps from the store all the time.
But this case made headlines because AppGratis is an extremely popular service that a lot of people use to discover new apps for their iPhones.
AppGratis’ iPhone app was especially useful because it curated a list of apps people would enjoy and provided download links directly to Apple’s App Store. It also offered one paid app for free each day and the company worked directly with developers to promote certain apps.
Following AppGratis’ ban from the App Store, its CEO Simon Dawlat took to the company’s blog to explain what happened from his perspective. Dawlat wrote that his team had worked closely with two of Apple’s developer relations representatives to make sure AppGratis met the App Store guidelines.
Everything seemed fine.
Then, out of the blue, a third Apple employee reached out to Dawlat to say AppGratis was removed from the App Store. The news came just a few days after Apple already approved the iPad version of AppGratis, which does the same thing as the iPhone version.
According to an official statement from Apple, AppGratis was removed for violating two clauses in the guidelines all developers must follow if they want their apps published in the App Store. Those clauses say apps can’t mimic the App Store’s basic functions or use push notifications for advertising and marketing purposes.
But AppGratis is not alone. According to AllThingsD, the AppGratis story is just the start of Apple’s “crackdown” on other apps that mimic the App Store’s discovery function. And there are a lot of them.
We spoke to several developers who make app discovery apps similar to AppGratis, and their story paints a picture of how Apple is very inconsistent in the way it chooses to enforce its App Store guidelines. Some developers would only speak anonymously, fearing Apple’s supposed crackdown would target their app next.
Most of these apps are still in the App Store today, despite having nearly the same functionality as AppGratis. Others have been rejected before they could make it to the App Store. And in most cases there has been almost no guidance from Apple on how developers can improve their apps to comply with their rules. Most developers just get a canned statement suggesting the developer go back and read guidelines.
It’s a story that crops up every few months or so. AppGratis is just the latest example, but we saw a similar double standard when Twitter’s video-sharing app Vine was allowed to stay in the App Store after it was discovered that it was easy for users to find pornographic content. That also happened shortly after Apple removed photo-sharing 500px from the App Store for the same offence.
Two weeks ago, Apple rejected an app called AppMyWorld, an app curation service similar to AppGratis. According to AppMyWorld’s founder Will Von Bernuth, Apple rejected the app citing the same clause it gave AppGratis.
Von Bernuth tried to ask Apple questions about what he can do to get his app approved, but Apple kept referring him to the same guidelines with no additional advice. Meanwhile, plenty of AppMyWorld’s competitors live on in the App Store.
AppMyWorld is now in limbo and Von Bernuth isn’t sure if he should continue making changes to the app with the hope that Apple will approve, or just give up.
“I think the most frustrating part is not knowing what the issue really is and whether or not this means we should go forward,” Von Bernuth said in an interview.
“That’s the problem,” said another developer who wished to remain anonymous. “You can’t contact Apple and say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing and thinking about.’ There’s no way you can get validation.”
Based on interviews with developers, it seems like there are two distinct types of app discovery apps out there.
The first type is largely editorial, meaning writers and editors curate lists of great apps along with reviews and direct download links. These services generate revenue through Apple’s iTunes affiliate program and receive a small cut of each purchase. The consensus among developers seems to be that app recommendation apps with an editorial focus are OK with Apple.
No one knows for sure though. A strict reading of the App Store guidelines shows that Apple can theoretically remove any app that curates lists of apps to download.
“Who knows what Apple is going to do with that clause,” one developer said, referring to rule 2.25 in the Apple’s guidelines that bans apps that are too similar to the App Store. “They can find fault with pretty much any app like this.”
It gets a bit more dicey with the other type of discovery app, the type where developers pay the company to promote their app on a service like AppGratis. Several developers speculate this is the biggest reason why Apple removed AppGratis –– it can cause an artificial inflation in Apple’s official App Store rankings.
AppGratis’ CEO Simon Dawlat declined to comment for this story.
Dan Porter, the former CEO of OMGPOP, backed up the “inflation” theory a few days ago in a guest post on AllThingsD. Porter wrote that apps like AppGratis can boost app downloads and make them appear in the “Top Free” or “Top Paid” sections of the App Store, therefore prompting even more downloads.
Porter said a lot of apps were able to buy their way into the top charts by paying AppGratis for promotion, which likely disturbed Apple because it took away from the democratic nature of the top apps lists.
Still, since Apple won’t be clear on why it decides to remove certain apps and keep others, the developers are left to speculate.
Some developers pointed out that Apple sent mixed signals when it added a feature to the iPhone’s operating system that lets apps to link to other apps in the official App Store and share revenue with Apple. The move spawned several apps similar to AppGratis.
The feature is also used in popular apps like Facebook, which sometimes shows ads asking you to download a third-party app through a link in your News Feed. Facebook brings in revenue from this. So does Apple. So does the developer.
So it’s odd that Apple would create such a framework for all these parties to generate revenue from the App Store, yet crack down on the apps that make it their only business. And it’s especially odd that Apple is so inconsistent in the way it policies such apps, leaving developers with nothing to do but hope they survive the axe.
On the other hand, developers say Apple has two consistent tips that could keep recommendation apps safe: use social connections on Twitter or Facebook to recommend apps or use location to tell users what apps people around them are using.
Apple would not comment for this story and reissued its previous statement that AppGratis was removed for violating the App Store guidelines mentioned above.
Apple isn’t alone in its practice cleaning up its app selection. Google updated its Google Play Store for Android apps this week and reportedly booted about 60,000 “low-quality” apps from its system. Google’s app reviews process is a lot less stringent than Apple’s, so there’s bound to be a lot more junk.
There are also plenty of Android apps similar to AppsGratis in the Play Store, but there’s not as much incentive for developers to make them since Google doesn’t have a revenue sharing program like Apple does.
BlackBerry also allows similar apps in its store for BlackBerry 10 devices. Alex Kinsella, BlackBerry’s senior PR and social media manager, said in an interview that the company has a team of evangelists that work directly with developers to help make sure their apps meet guidelines and get featured in the BlackBerry World app store.
“There’s a high level of contact,” Kinsella said.
Meanwhile, Apple’s app review process remains largely a mystery. Some developers seem to get access to a human being, while most are stuck dealing with automated responses.
Evgeny Tchebotarev, the COO of photo-sharing app 500px, had to go through a tedious process when Apple pulled his app because the company determined it was too easy to find explicit sexual content on it.
Eventually, Tchebotarev was able to get in touch with Apple’s VP of developer relations, a rare feat for most developers. After that, the 500px team was able to make the specific changes Apple wanted and was back in the App Store in about a week.
“It’s a frustrating experience,” Tchebotarev said. “It pretty much came as a shock to us when we were removed.”