Blog Post

Why the App Store Police Need More Muscle — Not Less

Apple has been repeatedly criticized for over-policing its App Store by arbitrarily enforcing a litany of rejection policies only slightly less decipherable than a David Lynch film. But as I discuss in my weekly column over at GigaOM Pro, in not weeding out the garbage and offering a library of only top-notch apps, Apple may be blowing a tremendous chance to differentiate itself and remain on top.

In the latest App Store snafu, a rogue developer managed to infiltrate Apple’s walled garden and push his suspicious-looking titles into 42 of the top 50 seller slots of the App Store’s e-books category. Thuat Nguyen and his offerings were publicly frog-marched out of the App Store after he reportedly hacked into users’ iTunes accounts to make fraudulent transactions for relatively pricey apps, boosting those titles onto the hit lists.

The incident is just one more piece of evidence that Apple isn’t effectively minding the App Store, which teems with knock-offs, third-rate me-too offerings and just plain junk. The success of a novelty fart simulator in late 2008, for instance, so inspired developers that Apple approved 14 me-too offerings in one day alone. Which doesn’t do much to stoke the confidence of consumers when they’re trying to browse a store that stocks a ridiculous 200,000 items on its shelves.

The odd thing is that the marketing message of protecting the consumer and delivering elite products are underpinnings of Steve Jobs’ empire. Jobs notoriously boasted that the iPad offers “freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash you battery. Freedom from porn.” And Apple has long made a point of contrasting the vast number of malware threats Microsoft Windows faces with the few attempts to threaten Mac OS. But as the Nguyen incident demonstrates, the Phone’s locked-down ecosystem isn’t keeping customers free from either garbage or fraudulent titles that may threaten their safety.

The folks in Cupertino have a well-earned reputation for producing top-notch offerings, but too many iPhone apps are anything but top-notch. Meanwhile, Android already has some real competitive advantages over Apple’s mobile operating system, especially in the U.S., where it isn’t tied to a single carrier. If Apple doesn’t differentiate itself with a vastly superior App Store, it may find itself on the wrong end of a two-horse race.

Read the full post here.

Image courtesy Flickr use RightIndex.

19 Responses to “Why the App Store Police Need More Muscle — Not Less”

  1. Absolute power absolutely corrupts. The App Review Team already has enough power to corrupt, and corrupt they will. Your suggestion, while well-intended, will create more harm than good for the entire developer community and user base.

    What we need is outsiders participating in the app review process, not just Apple’s folks alone.
    Need proof that more power does no good? Read our recent experience with them:

    Let the free market forces do the job, it is what made this country great in merely 200+ years, not tyranny.

    • Colin Gibbs

      I didn’t say that my suggestion would be fair, Boon, just that it would make the App Store more appealing to consumers.

      And I’m not sure how you can equate employing a bigger filter with “tyranny.” Top-notch retailers like, say, Neiman Marcus aren’t tyrants — they’re successful retailers who discriminate when it comes to what they choose to stock. Which, it seems to me, is a great example of capitalism.

      • Hi Colin, I think employing a bigger filter up front would be bad for the consumers. The problems you mentioned just need a different type of filter, not necessarily bigger filter.

        If you don’t like Nieman Marcus, you can go to Nordstrom. But if you like and own an iPhone but you don’t like the App Store has to offer, you are stuck. Employing a bigger filter is dangerous and tricky to implement properly. The app review process as it is is already ridden with problems. The filter should be implemented not by giving the app review folks more muscles but by putting in place different type of filtering mechanisms for people to weed out apps that are either malware or deemed by users to have no values at all. We have the believe in the ability for the market to self-organize, giving the app review team means more muscles means giving them more power and more power can easily turn into tyranny. The current process is tyrannical as it is because you simply have no way to appeal or challenge a decision made by the app review team.

  2. iphonerulez

    How is Apple being fair by vetting “me too” applications? Shouldn’t every developer have a right to get into the App Store even if their app is a near duplicate of another app. It could be slightly better in some way. If you’re complaining about the App Store, then what about the Android Market where anybody can put up anything for downloading. There could be 10,000 fart and flashlight apps and it would be perfectly OK. Are you saying that Apple should have some numerical cut-off point for a particular type of app? Like only the first 10 fart apps and no more after that? That also doesn’t sound quite fair for developers. The App Store will never be PERFECT. Critics will always find some flaw in the vetting process. At least Apple is trying. Nobody does anything about controlling the Android Market and yet people think that’s a good thing.

    • Colin Gibbs

      No, I don’t think any developer has a right to be distributed through the App Store, IPR. Just like no shoe manufacturer has a right to be distributed through Macey’s or any other retailer.

  3. +1 to najeeb and D. Chartier.

    Let’s let the market decide winners and losers. Regarding me-too apps, the practice of “embrace and extend” plays an important role in innovation and the creation of popular services, let the market decide if real value has been added.

    Apple (and other platform providers) should focus energy on discovering and preventing malicious activity and providing visibility tools to help end users help themselves.


  4. Gazoobee

    Since the article is short on concrete actions that Apple could possibly take over the issue, how about this:

    1) remove all apps that are “books” and not apps and put them in the iBook store instead.

    2) remove all apps that are really just websites (like those wallpaper apps that simply direct you to a site, or the bikini apps that just direct you to a site, etc., etc.)

    3) encourage developers who submit apps like those above (and anything else that fits similar categories) to instead make web-apps, and then have a section of the store that’s just for web-apps so they actually get promoted.

    Those are three easy steps that almost anyone would agree with. These alone would turn the 200,000 apps into something more like 60,000 apps and remove 80 or 90 percent of the real crud.

    Allowing us to filter the store would also work wonders, but that ain’t going to happen as long as capitalism reigns supreme.

  5. Ah.. but, Apple still takes their 30% cut for an app that you buy and return within 90 DAYS (screwing the developers who have to pay the extra 30%). Where else can you return software that you’ve installed, ever? Thus it’s not in Apple’s financial interest to keep out the “me too” apps. To Apple, it’s just great if you buy one crappy app, then return it and buy a “me too” app… five times a day. I half-jokingly wonder if they have their own minions buying and returning apps, just to make money from the developers? Reputation for quality??? Hello???

  6. Joseph A. Del Russo

    Take a look at “Pokemon Portable Edition Touch” produced by a developer called “Brain Dead Apps” As a father, and more importantly a prosecutor, I was totally offended by this sham application. It is dramatic evidence that the App Store Police are understaffed, underfunded, inept, or just plain indifferent. I bought this app for the relatively outrageous price of $12.99– without my typical scrutiny, in a Thanksgiving attempt to give my eight year old something to do during our hours long ride to relatives.

    The strong implication is that it is a Pokemon game of some sort. Its not. It a 1 page splash screen with some goofy “sounds”. This app has over 250 1 star reviews and 55 shill 5 star reviews.

    I reported them to Apple (it took quite a lot of pointing and clicking to even figure out who to report this to and how to get a refund— which I did get) and explained unambiguously that they are likely committing a crime, and most certainly a civil fraud. In New Jersey, this would arguably be the crime of “theft by deception”. .

    Unfortunately, I had to get back to with my own assortment of case here in NJ, so I forgot about my unpleasant holiday purchase. Colin, your blog post reminded me of the fact that I can never trust the Apple App Police and must always scrutinize any purchase, even from corporations that have such marketplace credibility like Apple Inc.

  7. David Chartier

    The Nguyen incident didn’t really have anything to do with apps or app quality. A developer compromised 400 iTunes Store accounts and bought his own apps with them—because those 400 users had really weak passwords. This could happen to any users on any platform or OS; if your password sucks or you’re too lazy to use tools to help you make strong passwords, you’re going to open yourself to security threats.

    It isn’t Apple’s job to police apps and make sure they’re offering unique features or not ripping each other off. That’s for the market to decide.

    • Colin Gibbs

      You’re right that it’s not necessarily Apple’s “job” to police its App Store, David. But it would help consumers tremendously if it did a better job of it.

  8. this knockoff/me-too criticism is out of place. what do you want apple to do? compare features of every application with existing applications and say one is a copy of the other? that would be the death of the appstore. i don’t want to spend months working on something and later Apple to say that it is a me-too app. There are several me-too businesses in the world, not all of them survive. for apple to police that would not only be practically impossible, but also detrimental to the growth of the app economy.

  9. charles

    Sorry but I consider this pretty sloppy journalism. The issue of having crappy apps in the store is entirely different from somebody stealing user id’s.

    “But as the Nguyen incident demonstrates, the Phone’s locked-down ecosystem isn’t keeping customers free from either garbage or fraudulent titles that may threaten their safety.”

    This is a junk statement.
    The is no evidence that any apps stole information or did anything out of the ordinary. They may have been worthless but they weren’t dangerous.

    The issue was that the vendor was able to log in to folks accounts and buy his own apps to pump up the numbers. Again no evidence that the iTune store was hacked. The UID’s were likely compromised by phishing or some other social engineering.

    Should Apple maybe be more aggressive on the security to help folks protect there information? Sure. But considering they have 150 MILLION accounts, a few hundred is an insignificant number.

    Apple not a perfect company by any means and deserves to be called out when they have issues but they also deserve to have the problems accurately reported.

    • Colin Gibbs

      That’s one of the points I’m trying to make, Tim: Apple doesn’t produce apps distributed through its App Store, but it could differentiate itself if it held the store to the same high standards it employs for the stuff it churns out itself.