Can Apple be trusted with the App Store?

In the App Store, Apple is legislator, judge, jury and executioner. Apple makes the rules. It has the final say on which apps you can officially purchase, download and use on your iPhone or iPad. And more importantly, Apple can change its mind at any time and make an app disappear – even to promote Apple's own apps at the expense of a competitor and even if that competitor is a small company that depends on it for its survival the App Store.


While the world is examining the power of Silicon Valley, the status quo gets a new look. The presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) actually believes that Apple should be broken: "Either they walk the platform or they play in the store," she said. The edge in March. The Supreme Court recently launched an antitrust case against Apple. And a recent scandal in particular has raised the question again: is Apple moderating the App Store fairly?

Apple is fully aware that it is in its sights: this week the company has published a new web page with the title "App Store – Principles and methods"Defending the stewardship of the company over the store. The App Store offers" equal opportunities for developers, "Apple argues, going so far as to list all apps that compete with its own services (including Google Maps, Facebook Messenger, and Amazon) Music) that are available for free in the App Store.

But Apple's defense is full of holes. Yes, Apple has its App Store guidelines and review process, but after a decade it is clear that the company does not consistently enforce or often choose to enforce it when it benefits Apple. Even for the apps that are allowed in the store, developers still have to fight against Apple's own services. Spotify – as the EU antitrust procedure makes clear – can never be the standard music app on an iPhone. In addition, Apple's 30% discount means that if Spotify sells subscriptions through the App Store, it has to charge customers more just to break. Apple's rules also prevent customers from directing customers to their websites in the app so that they can subscribe without having to pay Apple those costs.

The most recent example of these problems is Apple's seemingly useful timed prohibition of apps that allow parents to control and follow what their children can do on a phone. On April 27th, The New York Times reported that Apple accidentally started banning or limiting "at least 11 of the 17 most downloaded screen time and parental control apps", around the same time that Apple debuted its own version of that idea in iOS 12. "Apple has approved our software for more 37 times over five years, "said a representative of OurPact The edge. "So what they are doing now is retroactively enforcing these limitations that have not really been in place."

According to Apple, removing these apps was just a matter of ordinary: the company responded to the Times article by explaining that those apps had just broken the rules. Apple has renewed the App Store policy in 2017 to prohibit consumer-class apps from using an extremely powerful feature, known as mobile device management (MDM), to enable parental control. MDM is generally used by corporate and school IT departments to manage employees' devices, and Apple argued that it would be "incredibly risky … for a private, consumer-focused app company to control MDM about installing a customer's device "due to privacy issues when a bad actor found his way to a child's iPhone.

Apple is not completely out of this. In 2010, a company called EchoMetrix, which offered parental control software to parents to monitor their children's internet traffic, was caught passing that data on the other side of its activities: Pulse, the arm of the company in the field of market research.


But if Apple is so concerned about the privacy risks of MDM software, why did it offer that feature in the first place, these prohibited parental control apps approve years before it changes the policy in 2017, and they still can't delete after which change was made? Because OurPact – one of the now prohibited apps – is documented, Apple has approved it Use MDM apps dozens of times over the years, including 10 updates in 2018. "From day one, MDP contains the very first version of OutPact that we sent to the App Store for review. We have clarified questions for the App Review team about our use of MDM, "notes Dustin Dailey, senior product manager at OurPact. Other apps such as Kidslox and Qustodio also saw their updates being rejected from the summer of 2018 when – again coincidentally – Apple's Screen Time feature was first announced. (The two companies have since has filed a complaint about the antitrust against Apple.)

In the meantime, the developers of these apps have joined forces request an Apple API that would allow them to offer those services again in an Apple-approved format, even as far as suggesting real specifications for what that might entail. After all, they claim that if Apple is really committed to a "competitive, innovative app ecosystem", the company must put its money where it keeps its mouth shut and make these services compete. However, this does not seem to work: according to Dailey, Apple was told by the company that even if they found another approved method to make the app work, the app blocking function itself was fundamentally problematic for Apple.

The timing of Apple's enforcement is just not good for Apple, even if the company insists it is a coincidence, as an Apple spokesperson said The New York Times. (When The edge Some of these inconsistent policies wanted to clarify, Apple declined to comment further.)

Meanwhile, Apple continues to allow many MDM apps in the App Store, such as the business-oriented Jamf Now or any number of MDM solutions available at the academic level to manage iOS devices for students. Why does Apple allow employers to leave their customers 'data vulnerable or school to endanger their students' data, but not allow parents to make similar decisions with devices they have purchased for their children?

The most friendly explanation is that Apple truly believes that using these APIs is an unacceptable risk for consumers and that companies and schools can use them because there is no other story or because those larger institutions are better equipped to use it. risk of going.

But it's a representation that is weird for this one type of app, and it doesn't take into account that almost every app and service we use carries the risk for bad actors. Facebook can remain in the app store, despite the many security breaches that have corrupted user data, and Amazon can request your credit card number without having Jeff Bezos steal it. So for Apple to say that these parental control apps are too high a risk, it feels like a random line in the sand, and it is not clear why we have to trust large companies not to steal customer information than these now prohibited small copies .

In the best case, Apple & # 39; s stewardship is not consistent here; in the worst case, it is biased in favor of its own services. Neither of these reasons says anything positive about Apple's ability to successfully manage or manage the App Store in an honest manner. (Apple & # 39; s former app approval chief says he "really worries" about his behavior.) It all emphasizes the biggest problems with Apple's walled garden, namely that you live or die from the whim of Apple . Even if you are a developer who has been building an app for years, the whole thing can be pulled away from you in an instant, simply because Apple has changed the game rules.


Apple is well aware that its leadership in the App Store is under attack, and it already seems to be making movements that seem less restrictive of competition. Take Valve's Steam Link app, which made its surprise debut almost a year after it was mysteriously blocked for & # 39; business conflicts with app guidelines & # 39; finally did (despite the fact that it worked in the same way as other LAN-based external desktop apps that you could already download) from the store). The approval came just days after the Supreme Court's decision that Apple should close an antitrust case about monopolistic practices in the App Store.

Next week, the company has its greatest chance of convincing developers that it will treat them fairly. Monday marks the start of the company's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), where Apple is announcing its annual pitch to developers about why they should create apps for the Apple platform and where Apple is expected to release new software and hardware.

For many, the most important feature in iOS 13 may not be a new dark mode or an undone motion. Instead, it will be a promise that Apple will let you build a business without worrying that a new rule will make it suddenly crumble.

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