Apple control freakiness

Apple has the best taste in the world. It also has the tightest sphincter. This isn’t much of a problem as long as they keep it in their pants, for example by scaring employees away from saying anything about anything that has even the slightest chance of bringing down the Wrath of Steve or his factota. (How many bloggers does Apple have?)  But they drop trow every time they squeeze down—you know, like China—on an iPhone application they think might be “objectionable”.

I see by Jack Schofield that they’ve done it again, but this time they pissed off (or on) the wrong candidate: an app (from Exact Magic) that flows RSS feeds form the EFF. Sez Corynne McSherry in an EFF post, “… this morning Apple rejected the app. Why? Because it claims EFF’s content runs afoul of the iTune’s App Store’s policy against ‘objectionable’ content. Apparently, Apple objects to a blog post that linked to a ‘Downfall‘ parody video created by EFF Board Chairman Brad Templeton.”

Brad’s a funny guy. (He created rec.humor.funny back in the Net’s precambrian age.) He has also forgotten more about the Internet than most of us will ever learn. Check out The Internet: What is it really for? It was accurate and prophetic out the wazoo. Brad wrote it 1994, while Apple was busy failing to ape AOL with a walled garden called eWorld.

Apple’s App Store is an eWorld that succeeded. A nice big walled garden. Problem is, censorship isn’t good gardening. It is, says Corynne, “not just anti-competitive, discriminatory, censorial, and arbitrary, but downright absurd.” Or, as my very tasteful wife puts it, unattractive.

Also kinda prickly, if you pick on a porcupine like the EFF. Hence, to contine with Corynne’s post,

iPhone owners who don’t want Apple playing the role of language police for their software should have the freedom to go elsewhere. This is precisely why EFF has asked the Copyright Office to grant an exemption to the DMCA for jailbreaking iPhones. It’s none of Apple’s business if I want an app on my phone that lets me read EFF’s RSS feed, use Sling Player over 3G, or read the Kama Sutra.

Not surprisingly this followed, on the same post:

UPDATE: Apparently, Apple has changed its mind and has now approved the EFF Updates app. This despite the fact that the very same material is still linked in various EFF posts (including this one!). Just one more example of the arbitrary nature of Apple’s app approval process.

There’s a limit to how long (much less well, or poorly) Apple can keep sphinctering App Store choices. I’m betting it’ll stop when the iPhone gets serious competition from equally appealing phones that can run applications that come from anywhere, rather than just from some controlling BigCo’s walled garden.

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  1. PXLated’s avatar

    Isn’t the general consensus that once 3.0 comes out with parental controls this will loosen up?
    Trouble with “when the iPhone gets serious competition” is that’s a long way off it would seem. They’re 50K apps ahead.

  2. Griff Wigley’s avatar

    Hey Doc, this makes me glad I waited for the Android phone (G1): “…equally appealing that can run applications from anywhere…”

  3. Chris Adams’s avatar

    PXLated: that’s not clear – many of the rejections have violated Apple’s stated terms and the main problem developers have is that there’s no communication or appeal process to go with the massive delays (which are also bad for fixing bugs when a patch gets a multi-week siesta).

    Based on what’s happened so far, the only improvement from the parental controls is that an app which retrieves content from the internet will need to list an NC-17 rating (and take the consequent sales hit) or run the risk that some Apple reviewer will find a way to and then reject the app because they found something naughty.

    What would fix this would be opening up the approval process, mandating clear communication over problems and having an effective appeal procedure. Or leaving the censorship business to repressive governments and simply checking for malware and trusting their users to decide what they like as they’ve successfully done with Mac software for the last 25 years.

  4. Matthew’s avatar

    I appreciate the argument, but in the context of Apple’s historical emphasis on user-experience and what the mobile category will mean to the Apple going forward, I find most of the complaints leveled at Apple over aspects of the iPhone temporary hiccups, nothing more.

    It’s not a stretch to suggest that the iPhone is going to be as defining a product as the original Macintosh. It’s unreasonable to expect Apple to get everything spot-on with a product as important to the company’s future right out of the gate.

    Given relative infancy of the iPhone, this is a situation that calls for a measure of patience and foresight.

    We’ll see Apple dial in the App Store, by adding parental controls, for example. We’ll see many of the UI complaints addressed, such as multi-tasking, when processor speeds meet Apple’s expectations for performance.

    Clearly, many of these improvements are not going to happen fast enough to please everyone, and there are going to be a handful of cases where Apple gets it wrong. Such as when an Apple employee incorrectly or mistakenly flags an App submitted for inclusion in the App Store.

    Ttemporarily getting on the wrong side of a handful of developers among tens of thousands is not worth painting the company with a broad brush. Particularly when there’s a precedent for reevaluating ambiguous App rejections.

    Apple will get most of the wrinkles ironed out. But they’re not going to change the company’s culture because the App submission process irks a few individuals.

    But first things first: perfect the iPhone experience for the intended customer. That means tightly controlling all aspects of the transaction. This is classic Apple, and not at all a surprise.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Chris, you’re right. In the long run (which will be short, hopefully), smartphones and other Net-connected handhelds will become open data devices rather than maker- and/or carrier-controlled closed ones.

  6. Greg Furry’s avatar

    I wonder about the app store. Everyone (the geeky types anyway) said similar things about the itunes store. Wouldn’t work. Wasn’t open, used proprietary format, etc… I would wager that 90+% of iphone users don’t know or care anything about the app store other than it has lots of cool things there for them to put on their iphones. Sure this is important stuff but does it matter to the success of the app store?

  7. Steve W’s avatar

    Welcome to the wonderful world of convergence devices. Here is a topic for your next blog:

    1) Obscenity is not protected under the First Ammendment.

    2) The Supreme Court has blocked attempts by Congress to prevent the distribution of obscenity over the Internet.

    3) The Supreme Court has upheld laws prohibiting the distribution of obscentiy over the telephone.

    4) The iPhone is BOTH an internet device and a telephone.

    5) The Supreme Courts test for obscenity: “I know it when I see it” – Justice Potter Stewart in “Jacobellis v. Ohio”.

    So, what’s an App Store to do?

    1) Should they use the “I know it when I see it” test, or some codifiable standard?

    2) Should they rule some Apps “wi-fi only” or should the require that all Apps be “3G safe”?

  8. Jim Stead’s avatar

    Censorship is when an overriding authority (governments, warlords) prevent you from speaking your piece *anywhere* within their jurisdiction. There are plenty of places for speech or porn; private individuals and companies are not required to provide a platform for you just because you want it. Make your own.

  9. Doc Searls’s avatar


    Apple has taken on an enormous responsibility here: bringing the phone industry into the 21st century (to name just one sisyphean task at which they’ve excelled). For this they deserve much gratitude, if not also praise. They have done many things well with the iPhone itself, and some things poorly. This is one of them. Obviously they made a mistake in this case, and corrected it. Meanwhile, the EFF’s concerns are well-taken and important. Apple being itself is not a good enough reason to be silent about censorship (or bad policy), nor is being among “a few individuals” or “a handful of developers.”

    As for painting Apple with a broad brush, I’ll cop to that. Hey, maybe their taste isn’t “the best in the world” after all.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Greg, I think the App Store could succeed even if it were not the only place one could get apps for the iPhone. And I suspect that, once the iPhone gets better competition, especially from more open platforms, it will reposition the App Store as the most trustworthy place to get apps for the phone.

  11. synthmeister’s avatar

    So Apple shouldn’t have removed the “Baby Shaker” App from the app store? And BTW, those other “open” app store aren’t as open as you might think.
    And the Apple app store is actually further ahead of the competition then the original iTunes store was at a comparable point in time. The other app stores have a huge mountain to climb, and that mountain is going to get bigger with OS 3.0 and when China comes online.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar


    Color me strange, but I don’t want to have to go to an app store to get an application for a device.

  13. Mimi Hui’s avatar

    Ok Doc,

    You got me. I’m in HK recovering from what might be Swine Flu (no joke) and this blog entry just made me crack up. fantastic! Glad you’re not too highbrow to want to use sphincter + Apple in the same sentence.

    btw, this just came to my attention. Apologies if it’s a repeat but wanted to share.


  14. Mahallo Media’s avatar

    “4) The iPhone is BOTH an internet device and a telephone.”

    It’s so true :))

  15. Ben’s avatar

    Yep, hopefully the long-run will be short until the control gets loosened up. Still, I think Apple is playing it pretty smart here, keeping control of their apps until they have reason to change. And as you mentioned above, they’ve brought the phone industry into the 21st century, so we should probably cut them a little slack 🙂 I’ll be eager to see what happens.

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