App Store Accountability

Michael Gartenberg
3 April, 2012
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In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News reported that truckloads of unknown material from an Atari warehouse in Texas had been brought to New Mexico, destroyed, and buried in a landfill. The contents of that warehouse have long been the subject of intense speculation, but the most pervasive rumor was that they were unsold copies of the Atari game based on the movie E.T. To many, that event marked the death of the first generation of video game consoles and the beginning of a dark age in an industry, one that lasted until Nintendo entered the market a few years later.

What led to this unfortunate series of events? Simple. There was no quality control over the Atari 2600 ecosystem. Anyone could (and seemingly did) create content for a device that no one wanted, cared about, or showed interest in. Franchises were licensed and games released with no hope of actual sales.

I’ve been prompted to think about that story by the numbers game that the proprietors of some mobile app stores are playing. Apple leads the way with the largest collection of apps. But it seems that every day there’s another report about some other vendor passing one milestone or another in the number of downloads.

Such reports ignore one important point: Numbers, in the end, don’t matter—the quality and value of the apps do. This is a lesson that Atari should have taught the world, but many vendors of mobile apps seem to have forgotten it.

Curation Counts

Curating an app store isn’t just about maintaining quality. It’s about making sure that users see what’s appropriate for them. About a year or so ago I went to the Android Market to search on the word Jewish, looking for a Jewish calendar app. What I found was a number of Nazi and Hitler apps and themes. No matter what you think about free speech, a search term related to religion should not return hateful content designed to inflame.

To Google’s credit, the company pulled the offensive material due to “a violation of Android content policy.” Google clearly forbids content in which there are “promotions of hate or incitement of violence, pornography, obscenity, nudity, or sexual activity.” The key difference is that this type of material is far less likely to appear in Apple’s App Store in the first place, as opposed to being removed after the fact.

Is Apple perfect? No. Mistakes will happen in any curation process that involves human beings. Things that shouldn’t be allowed will be, and things that should be permitted may be denied at first.

When the discussion of curation comes up, a lot of people like to throw around the US’s First Amendment (Apple is based in the US). But of course, the First Amendment is about the government stifling free speech. (Much to my parents’ chagrin, I’m not a lawyer, but even I know that much.) The App Store is privately owned. Apple can admit or remove whatever apps it wishes to, and there’s no legal argument against it doing so. Apple is no different than a religious school that chooses to teach creationism alongside evolution. You might not like those choices, and, of course, you have the right not to patronise those institutions or app stores. But that’s life in a free market.

Quality Control

It’s good to have a lot of content for a platform. A platform that lacks diverse and interesting content is doomed to fail. But, going back to game consoles again, in the post–Atari 2600 world, most game platforms simply didn’t let just anyone make games for their consoles anymore. Third parties needed to get their content approved. It was a way to make sure a glut of mediocrity wouldn’t kill the platform.

It’s unfortunate that some developers have had a hard time getting their apps approved, or have had them approved only to have them removed later. But I think Apple has shown a great deal of flexibility about the approval process since the App Store first launched. In the long run, the market will agree and will support Apple’s curation process— or it will find somewhere else to buy. (The Android Market remains one of those places.)

Personally, I’ll accept the curation process, knowing that it means I’m less likely to be offended by the apps I download and use and that they’ll deliver the quality and functionality I expect.

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