They’re Exactly What You’d Call “Guidelines”

My iPhone buzzed once on my desk alerting me to a new notification. My turn in Words With Friends, perhaps? Or maybe Google sent me a news alert? Disappointingly, it was neither; instead, Hipstamatic sent me a push notification promoting something new in their store. A minor annoyance, of course, and one that can be fixed with a toggle switch in Settings. It was an ephemeral imperfection with my phone, but it seemed like the kind of thing Apple wouldn’t allow. Sure enough, section 5.6 in the App Store Review Guidelines [1] notes that apps can’t use push notifications “to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind”.

While I had that document open, I began picking through some of the guidelines, noting that I could think of apps that violated many of the sections. There are developers that spam the store with nearly identical copies of applications, apps that are nothing more than a UIWebView, and a number of others. This is my shame list. It documents a number of egregious oversights, inconsistencies and irritations by Apple and by (some) developers alike.

Section 2: Functionality

2.9 Apps that are “beta”, “demo”, “trial”, or “test” versions will be rejected

For some reason, however, separate “lite” or “free” versions are allowed. A quick search for “lite” yields multiple pages of apps, including some approved within the past month. This is not a new rule, yet it is consistently ignored. Apps like Twitterrific and Astronut approach this the correct way: by offering an in-app purchase of the full version.

2.12 Apps that are not very useful, are simply web sites bundled as apps, or do not provide any lasting entertainment value may be rejected

Google’s applications are almost universally websites-in-an-app. Facebook is treading this fine line. These are not low-key, independent developers, but some of the most-downloaded apps on the store.

2.20 Developers “spamming” the App Store with many versions of similar apps will be removed from the iOS Developer Program

Oh really? Kosher Penguin’s apps, for instance, are almost exclusively of this kind. They were approved for sale between July and September of 2011 and are still available. Terrible.

2.22 Apps that arbitrarily restrict which users may use the app, such as by location or carrier, may be rejected

I already pointed out that the official Daily Show app can be purchased in Canada, yet the video content — the reason most people would buy the app — only works in the US. One could argue that the app itself is not restricted by location, or that it isn’t “arbitrary” because it’s a licensing issue. I disagree. The app should not have been approved for sale anywhere but the United States, or the international version should not give the impression that there is video content available.

Section 5: Push Notifications

5.5 Apps that use Push Notifications to send unsolicited messages, or for the purpose of phishing or spamming will be rejected

5.6 Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind

I already whined about this on Twitter. Glaring and repeat offenders include Hipstamatic, Soundhound and one of Jamie Oliver’s apps, apparently. While Push Notifications are arguably never unsolicited as users are required to explicitly allow receiving them, the spirit of these notifications present themselves as unsolicited spam.

Section 8: Trademarks and Trade Dress

8.5 Use of protected 3rd party material (trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, otherwise proprietary content) requires a documented rights check which must be provided upon request

In a past article, I noted multiple instances of Google profiting from applications on the Android Market that use third-party trademarks without permission. Apple’s store isn’t entirely clean of this, though it’s decidedly less pervasive. For example, LightBike 2 is an obvious knock-off of Tron, the intellectual property of which is owned by Disney. Yet it’s been offered for sale since May in defiance of this policy.

Apple is currently attempting to get an incredibly weird Steve Jobs doll removed from the market, citing California law that protects the image and likeness of public figures. But one can add Justin Timberlake to your photos with an app. The photos are almost certainly unlicensed, and the concept of the app is legally dubious at best.

Section 10: User Interface

10.1 Apps must comply with all terms and conditions explained in the Apple iOS Human Interface Guidelines

10.6 Apple and our customers place a high value on simple, refined, creative, well thought through interfaces. They take more work but are worth it. Apple sets a high bar. If your user interface is complex or less than very good, it may be rejected

I’d need time on a geological scale to list all the apps that violate these guidelines.

Section 12: Scraping and Aggregation

12.3 Apps that are simply web clippings, content aggregators, or a collection of links, may be rejected

See 2.12 above for applications that are just framed websites. This guideline is so vague that it could include RSS readers.

Section 15: Violence

15.1 Apps portraying realistic images of people or animals being killed or maimed, shot, stabbed, tortured or injured will be rejected

There are a large number of realistic first-person shooters available on the App Store from developers small and large.

So what was the point of this post? Was it to point out that things are not always consistent? (Now that I’ve noted that nugget of wisdom, I’m sure I could knock you over with a fucking toothpick) Was it to show that Apple is some draconian overlord, or that developers are stupid, or that the App Store is a cesspool of vile, barely-usable and irritating apps?

No. Rather, it’s to note inconsistencies and problems with the current process of app approval in relation to Apple’s own guidelines. Overall, Apple has proven that it can maintain a safe, easy and convenient place for users to buy apps. They’ve done a fairly good job. There are just a few chinks in their armour.

  1. An Apple Developer account is required to view this document. To allow for easy reading, I’ve mirrored a copy here (PDF), which is broadly similar to the one Engadget mirrored if my copy disappears for some reason.