Posted on March 1, 2010 at 2:13am EST. More.

iPhone Apps: Two Kinds of Approval

Apple recently removed about 5,000 apps from the iTunes App Store on the grounds that they featured “overtly sexual content.” John Gruber believes that Apple is trying to protect its image:

I think what Apple was getting squeamish about wasn’t the sexy apps themselves, but the cheesiness that the sexy apps (and their prominence in best selling lists) was bestowing upon the general feel and vibe of the App Store. One thing I wasn’t aware of before the recent crackdown was the degree to which these apps were seeping into various non-entertainment categories. E.g., like half the “new” apps in the “productivity” category featured imagery of large-breasted bikini-clad women.

The App Store is never going to be like Apple’s retail stores, and Apple knows it. Apple’s retail stores, branding-wise, convey an image sort of like between the Gap and Banana Republic — friendly premium. The App Store is more Old Navy, or maybe even Target. But these sexy apps were casting the App Store into something junkier, bordering on the skeevy.

This interpretation makes the most sense to me, too. In fact, I sympathize. When I gave my brother an iPod touch for Christmas, I showed him the App Store, and was mildly embarrassed that the number one app that day was a fart sound effects generator.

Unfortunately, the App Store’s role as the one and only way to distribute an iPhone app means that we have a dilemma. To carry something in a store is an implicit endorsement, so any store owner should have the right to decide what products to include. However, a healthy economy for apps requires a free market. Rejecting apps for subjective reasons makes development more risky than it needs to be.

Technical Requirements vs. Community Standards

The source of this dilemma is that the app review process serves two distinct purposes: to approve apps for iPhone and to approve apps for the App Store. If separated, the dilemma can be resolved.

Suppose you have developed an app and submitted it to Apple. It complies with all the technical requirements of an approved app: it sticks to the Human Interface Guidelines, it doesn’t use any private frameworks, it doesn’t execute downloaded code. However, it fails to meet Apple’s community standards: it contains overtly sexual or politically controversial content.

Enforcing technical requirements is for the benefit of the platform. Enforcing community standards is really only about the App Store.

Kick ‘em to the curb, but no further

In theory, Apple could inform you that your app is permitted to run on iPhone OS but will not be included in the App Store. This could happen in at least two ways:

They could maintain iTunes as the sole distribution method for apps, but designate your app unlisted. Nobody will find it in the store by browsing or searching, and it won’t appear in the top seller lists. However, it will be reachable by direct link. Apple will still manage the hosting and payment processing, but if you want anybody to find it, you have to market it yourself.

I obviously don’t know how the store is set up, but I bet Apple could do this relatively easily. (I’ve already discovered that an iTunes reviews page is accessible via direct link as soon as you submit an app, before the review team has had a chance to see it.)

Alternatively, if Apple wants to completely wash their hands of these dirty apps, is to provide developers with a digitally signed IPA file. You distribute the file yourself; users install your app by dragging the file to iTunes. If you want to charge, you have to roll your own payment and registration system, just like desktop shareware developers do.

This method seems less likely, mostly because it adds a big loophole for those who want to circumvent the App Store for other reasons. On the other hand, if all developers had the option to sell outside the App Store, I think it would be an overall good for the platform. But now we’re going off on a tangent.

Obviously, everybody would rather be part of the iTunes App Store than operate outside of it, but if given a choice between “outside” and “nowhere” I think outside is a clear winner. Separating the notion of “approved for iPhone” and “approved for the App Store” would benefit Apple and developers.