On Farting iPhones: Where should Apple draw the line?

Since the App Store’s launch back in June, I’ve had mixed feelings about the overall level of quality of the applications for sale. Knowing that Apple has control over what does and does not make it in to the store initially had me with the mindset that they should indeed do a bit of quality assurance. If they already said they’d control the floodgates, then I just assumed they should make sure only quality stuff made it through the door.

But yesterday, news of an interesting event sort of shifted my mindset on things.

The basic gist of the story is that a completely legitimate application was submitted to Apple for inclusion in the App Store, only to be reject:

We’ve reviewed your application Pull My Finger. We have determined that this application is of limited utility to the broad iPhone and iPod touch user community, and will not be published to the App Store.

Yes, Apple rejected an app that turns your iPhone in to a farting machine. Watch the video and you’ll see there is plenty of “utility” in this application…infinitely more than something like a beer simulator or a glowing ruby.

But arguing over whether farting or beer drinking with your iPhone is really not the issue…though that would certainly be an interesting conversation. The real issue here is where can Apple consistently draw the line? And should they even draw a line at all?

Apple lets just about anything in to the iTunes music store as well as the Downloads area of Apple.com. So why would they opt to have such a stronghold on the App Store?

The Arguments

One argument for Apple controlling things more tightly is that they’ve got the iPhone’s image and experience to control. The idea being that letting any Joe Blow put together an app and then have it available on the iPhone could, indirectly at least, have an effect on the end user’s overall experience and perception of the iPhone and Apple. Unfortunately this argument got thrown out the window pretty much on day one. The number of seemingly pointless/junk apps was overwhelming (ie. 3 different flashlight applications). So if this is Apple’s argument, it’s lame and clearly not something they’re sticking to.

Another argument for tight control over the store is security. With GPS capabilities and most people having a high concentration of personal data on a phone, Apple doesn’t want anything in their store that could potentially compromise someone’s personal safety or cause some huge number of lawsuits. In general, I do agree with this. There’s no reason Apple has to let applications with security risks in to their store. Unfortunately a number of applications that have been rejected doubtably were “security risks.”

The most interesting argument though is this issue of “limited utility”, the reason the Pull My Finger app was declined. Citing limited utility as the reason for declining an application is about the equivalent of not allowing a band’s album to be sold in the iTunes music store because Jobs thinks the band sucks. I think most people would agree that regardless of their like or dislike of a band, it would be ludicrous for Apple to decide what music should or should not be allowed in the store. Which is the same thought process I’ve now had for the App Store.

Regardless of the fact that I think having three flashlight applications or four different beer simulators is just plain pointless, I do not think Apple should play gatekeeper to what people will find utility with. If someone is willing to pay $1,000 for the I Am Rich application, they should be allowed to. If I want 18 different farting noises on my iPhone, why on earth should I not be able to? Who is Apple to decide that a farting iPhone has limited utility? (If that isn’t an interesting question…I don’t know what is)

On top of Apple controlling what the end-user can download, the people that are more directly affected by this are the developers. With no clear or consistent set of guidelines for what can and cannot make it to the store, developers are taking quite a gamble with their time and resources to develop something that could possibly get flat out rejected by Apple. In fact, some developers are already backing out of developing something for that very issue.

So while Apple’s intensions of keeping the apps in the store useful may be pure, they are also keeping potentially great ideas from ever getting developed at all.

So what is the answer here?

While I disagree with Apple rejecting apps for limited utility, I agree that dozens of the same simple applications would hurt more than help. So instead of letting the App Store become a free-for-all of flashlight wielding, beer drinking, fart machines, Apple should let developers release applications on their own that can be downloaded from anywhere else the same way apps for OS X can be downloaded anywhere.

If it’s legal trouble they are worried about, they could easily throw some Terms together that the end-user has to agree to before they install the app on their iPhone.

Your thoughts?

I’m really curious what you guys and gals think. What are reasons for and against Apple controlling apps? What are some solutions? Let me know in the comments.

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