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SEPTEMBER 9, 2010 12:14PM

How will the App Store’s “new newsstand” be censored? We’ll know it when we see it

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For all of you out there in media-land who still think that the iPad represents salvation for old business models and who welcome the App Store as a new platform for distributing content, I recommend a reading of Apple’s new App Store Review Guidelines as helpfully summarized by Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. (It seems you have to be a registered Apple developer before you can actually read the guidelines in full, but they’re available at Gizmodo.)

Discussion of these guidelines in the tech press initially framed the move as a “relaxation” of Apple’s policies, because the company will now allow developers to use third-party frameworks and toolkits. But view the guidelines from the perspective of content publishing and “relaxation” is not the word that will spring to mind.

This item stands out:

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

(Gruber speculates that the my-way-or-the-highway tone of this and other passages suggests direct authorship by Steve Jobs here, and that sounds plausible, but who knows?)

Now, the App Store guidelines are designed by software developers for other software developers. The thinking is, this is our device, we want to protect our users, this ain’t no free-for-all, we’re going to police the hell out of this environment. And Apple plainly has a right to do that. It’s not the only approach to structuring a software ecosystem, but it’s certainly a defensible one.

Trouble is, the App Store is also being framed as the New Newsstand. The idea of Apple as the keeper of such a newsstand never sat right with me: I just don’t like the idea of my information diet being regulated by any company, let alone a company as tightly wound as Apple. Now Apple has made my unease explicit. In these high-handed words, the company is saying: We will ban whoever we want. And we won’t tell you what the exact standards are. You can guess; then we’ll decide.

The immediate retort here from Apple supporters — hey, I’m one, I love my Mac and my i-devices! — will be that I’m misunderstanding the purpose of the rules, they’re meant to bar wayward code, not wayward ideas.

But how, exactly, can anyone draw a line between code and ideas today? Who says where a software tool ends and a piece of “content” begins? We’re supposed to “know” this line “when we see it,” but I don’t see it at all.

Here are some quotes from the guidelines that Engadget highlighted:

“We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.”
“If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.”
“This is a living document, and new apps presenting new questions may result in new rules at any time. Perhaps your app will trigger this.”
“If it sounds like we’re control freaks, well, maybe it’s because we’re so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products.”

Now read these questions from the perspective of a writer or journalist or publisher, not a software developer, and tell me they don’t give you the willies.

It’s always seemed to me that Apple seriously underestimates how impossible it will be to sit as censor and nanny over a thriving content marketplace, if that is what the App Store is going to become. Look at the trouble it had with political cartoonist Mark Fiore: he had to win a Pulitzer before Apple would let him use its platform to practice his art, which happened to involve poking fun at public figures, something the App Store didn’t like. Such controversies will only multiply if the App Store becomes more popular as a content mart.

Now Apple is saying, explicitly, that it intends to draw lines, and those lines won’t be drawn beforehand — but hey, don’t worry, because we’ll just know it when we cross them!

Apple loves to maintain tight control of things. That’s been a hugely successful approach for its hardware business. It’s even a defensible position applied to software. But it’s a lousy model for a newsstand.

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Good post - thanks for bringing us this picture of the bizarre cult of control Apple is becoming.

As a website developer I know I can't ignore the iPad/iPhone for much longer, but I hate like hell to give Apple my financial support in their ventures as thought police.
I think your right in saying that control is ok for software but not for a "newstand". Then again, is there really a such thing as completely unbiased news?
You pegged this one. Any corporate entity that polices the "electronic newsstand" gives me the willies. I have enough trouble with Amazon, but this is worse, and you're helping me understand why I, a long-time Mac user, have been avoiding the iPad.

Journalists need to be all over this one: "“If it sounds like we’re control freaks, well, maybe it’s because we’re so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products.” Gag, in every sense of the word. Rated.
@ Bart: Apple isn't "becoming a bizarre cult of control". The guideline publication has only put in print what's been going on for the last 3 years. Apple isn't controlling your thoughts anymore than any other retailer is. They both can stock what ever they want. You can get what ever you want on the web and Apple will never control that.

@ Scott: If you are using the App Store as a news stand (putting content into your App) then you've got a really bad model for a news stand. By the time the App is developed, approved and posted, it's no longer news.

If you develop an App that delivers news, then the content is only being accessed by the App, not built into it. There are lots of those kinds of Apps already and there's no problem with the guidelines.

They're not stupid, they realize that any manner of offensive material is accessed every second through a browser they supply. But it's quite clear from the guidelines that Apple doesn't want the App store to be a direct supplier of content that significant groups of people would consider to be offensive.
I'm just gonna call these fears right out as preposterous.

The iPad comes with a browser. It can access just about any website imaginable, and deliver any sort of news content you wish - from Fox to PrisonPlanet to CNN to Salon to the Aryan Nation sites. If Apple doesn't choose to supply some of those through the App Store, it's still available to you through the browser.

The hysterical 1984 allusions are completely off-base. Yes, Apple controls its app store. Yes, the App Store is probably a friendlier, more quality-assured experience because of that. If you don't like that, don't use the app store. Or don't buy an iPad; I hear some competitors are coming out soon.

And yes, I own and use an iPad. I find it to be a useful, appealing, and unique gadget that really fits into my life well. And I know that Apple exerts tight control over its content delivery systems, in a way that many computer users find distasteful. I also know that they excel at human-machine interface design. At the moment, there are no iPad alternatives that are as functional and pleasant to use as the iPad is, and so I've consciously chosen to use an iPad with full knowledge of the fact that Apple does tend to be a control freak. They're hard to work with and it's a closed, controlled platform and "ecosystem." You're free to work with it, as I do, or ignore it.

Frequently, however, folks do none of the above, and obsessively criticize Apple and its customers.

@tomreedtoon: "Mac owners are too haughty, too devoted to the corporation they support, and too childish in their defense of Apple."

I've noticed how frequently criticism of Apple turns into cliquish, in-group social nattering rather than a discussion of policies and products. Is this about your misgivings about Apple strategy, or is it about how Apple users make you feel? If it's the latter, is it really germane to the discussion? Really?