The App Store Police Need More Muscle — Not Less

In case you missed it, a rogue developer infiltrated Apple’s walled garden about a week ago. Thuat Nguyen and his offerings were publicly frog-marched away after he reportedly hacked into users’ iTunes accounts to make fraudulent transactions for apps that boosted his suspicious-looking titles into 42 of the top 50 seller slots of the e-books category.

Apple, predictably, offered a lame non-apology apology, failing to say directly whether fraud had occurred and telling customers to monitor their credit-card statements to make sure they hadn’t been victimized. Very helpful, that.

Coincidentally, the tepid response was issued the same day Distimo reported that Android Market apps are more than twice as likely to be free compared to iPhone apps. Over half the offerings were free titles, according to the mobile analytics firm, while only 28 percent of iPhone apps could be had for no charge.

Such a pricing disparity would indicate that Android’s storefront is the flea market to the Apple’s Saks Fifth Avenue. iPhone and iPad fanboys have certainly stoked the flames of that argument, claiming Android Market is a warehouse of inferior free apps that pale compared to the gems that make it through Apple’s notorious filter.

But that isn’t really the case. The Android Market unquestionably teems with third-rate offerings and lousy copycat apps, and it offers precious few ways for consumers to find the app that best suits their needs. The App Store, though, isn’t much better: Apple’s filter has proven ineffective in weeding out cheats and knockoffs built to piggy-back on the success of more valuable offerings, leading to a storefront where spam apps often fill the most-popular lists. 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 fuel the confidence of consumers when they’re trying to browse a store that stocks a ridiculous 200,000 items on its shelves.

The marketing message of protecting the consumer and delivering elite products are underpinnings of Steve Jobs’ empire. Apple consistently touts the benefits of its locked-down app ecosystem and 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 shows, the App Store isn’t as locked-down as Apple would have us believe.

And it’s not like more effective policing of it would be all that difficult. Yes, Apple sees hundreds of new submissions every day, but putting each one through its paces to validate its legitimacy would take a low-level staffer only a few minutes. A tester toying with Nguyen’s wares would likely have noticed that they appeared to violate copyright laws, for instance, underscoring a problem that has long plagued the App Store. And it’s likely that only apps from lesser-known developers and publishers would have to be vetted. So while App Store margins are undoubtedly small, Apple could easily afford the increased payroll given the revenues the business generates. Sure, some developers would squawk (even more than they already have) if Apple were to clamp down harder and begin to throw out the trash, and some libertarian-minded techies would certainly protest a more active gatekeeper. But the folks in Cupertino have a well-earned reputation for producing top-notch offerings, and too many iPhone apps are anything but top-notch.

More importantly, Android continues to close ground on iPhone OS though, and its line of supporting handsets seems to improve every few days. The platform 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.

Question of the week

How discriminating should Apple be in approving App Store submissions?
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Colin Gibbs

Colin Gibbs

Mobile Curator Gigaom Network

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2 Comments Subscribers to comment

  1. Paul Sweeting Monday, July 12, 2010

    Excellent piece, Colin. I wonder how Apple’s filtering system will evolve (or not) as more premium content finds its way into the App Store and the average price of paid apps begins to increase. If there were real money at stake for developers, pressure on Apple (and Google for that matter) to crack down on copy-cats and knockoffs might increase. But that would only work if the infrastructure and culture for such policing are in place.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Paul. It will certainly be interesting to see how the App Store evolves — I agree that more premium content will emerge (especially the enterprise stuff), but there will also be an increase in ad-supported apps (including plenty more crap). Apple has the benefit of being the sole distributor of iPhone apps, so it can do as it pleases. But I think there will be an opportunity for someone to step up and play the role of distributor of only top-notch Android apps.

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