Apple finally lays out App Store rules - and makes clear it's still in charge

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010; 10:25 PM

Apple is still keeping tight control over the universe of programs for the iPhone. But at least it's shedding a little more light on why some apps make it and others get left out.

That's the net effect of two unexpected moves from Apple on Thursday. First, it repealed a prohibition on developers converting software written for other smartphones to run on its iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Second, it finally documented the hitherto inscrutable rules governing whether a new program will make it into its App Store.

The changes take some of the risk out of developing programs for the Cupertino, Calif., company's mobile devices - the App Store is the only easy way for users to add non-Apple software to the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, so a rejection amounts to a death sentence for an iPhone app.

Although the revised rules give developers more room to work with, they leave enough space for Apple to reject a program for any reason it sees fit.

In other words: No, you're still not going to see Adobe's Flash Player running on the iPhone or the iPad anytime soon.

You might, however, see Flash games and applications show up on the iPhone faster. That's courtesy of a seemingly minor change announced in the third paragraph of Apple's short news release:

"In particular, we are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code."

That wonky language will open the door for developers to convert Adobe Flash applications to run on the iPhone - not the same as the Flash Player running on the iPhone - using the tool kit Adobe shipped earlier this year. It should also be easier to convert programs written for Google's increasingly widely used Android operating system.

Translated from developer-speak, it means that Apple no longer demands an iPhone-first development policy. A software shop can ship a program for Android or any other smartphone operating system, see if it works, and then "port" it over to the iPhone - instead of having to write the application first for the iPhone and hope Apple approves it.

Another change in Apple's developer agreement will soften an in-app advertising policy, allowing developers who want to subsidize a free app with advertising revenue to use Google's AdMob service instead of Apple's iAds.

As for the "published" App Store Review guidelines, you need an Apple developer's log-in to read them. But a friend sent along the text of this 3,020-word document; it makes for some interesting reading.

Many of these rules are common-sense guidelines: An app can't crash, lie about its functions, steal a user's data, violate a user's privacy, encourage a user to harm other users, rely on internal iOS features that Apple hasn't documented for public use, and so on.

But then there are these other clauses among the 113 listed in the document; my take on each follows.

"2.11 Apps that duplicate apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them."

But what if a new app is better than a flock of existing ones?

"2.12 Apps that are not very useful or do not provide any lasting entertainment value may be rejected."

Using flexible words like "very" or "lasting" gives Apple enormous latitude in enforcing this.

"9.3 Audio streaming content over a cellular network may not use more than 5MB over 5 minutes."

Here, Apple seems to be throwing a bone to its wireless partner, AT&T.

"10.3 Apps that do not use system provided items, such as buttons and icons, correctly and as described in the Apple iPhone Human Interface Guidelines and the Apple iPad Human Interface Guidelines may be rejected."

Apple's new iTunes 10 for Mac OS X - which arranges its window-close buttons vertically, not horizontally like a normal Mac app - would apparently flunk this clause.

"14.1 Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm's way will be rejected."

I'm not sure how an app version of my (sometimes mean-spirited) blog would fare.

"14.2 Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary."

Oh, never mind - I think.

"15.3 'Enemies' within the context of a game cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity."

This seems to rule out shipping an iPhone game in which you hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.

"19.2 Apps may contain or quote religious text provided the quotes or translations are accurate and not misleading. Commentary should be educational or informative rather than inflammatory."

Presumably, a Koran-burning app wouldn't be acceptable either.

The most important parts of the review guidelines, however, come in the surprisingly non-lawyerly text at the top that lays out Apple's general thoughts. For instance:

"We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don't need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn't do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.

"If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you're trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don't want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour."

But if you read nothing else in the document, focus on this one paragraph:

"We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court justice once said, 'I'll know it when I see it.' And we think that you will also know it when you cross it."

(That section also counsels developers to take their case to Apple's Review Board, not the public: "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps." But so far, making a fuss in the media has been one of the only ways to reverse an App Store rejection.)

The simplest interpretation of this document's litany of rules is that Apple wants to legislate its way out of Sturgeon's Law - the oft-quoted maxim that "90 percent of everything is crud."

That is a laudable goal. But in a world populated exclusively by fallible human beings, it's an impossible one. Not everybody can be above average, even if they all use iPhones.

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