Is Apple monopolizing app discovery?



Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) caused an uproar when it pulled AppGratis from the App Store for violating sections 2. 25 and 5.6 of its developer guidelines. In a blog post, AppGratis CEO Simon Dawlat said the move came as a complete surprise and had thrown the company into turmoil.

However, AppGratis is still running on the phones of those users who downloaded the app before Apple removed it from its store. And it appears that AppGratis continues to drive significant traffic to the apps that it spotlights, despite Apple's ban. For example, on April 9, PianoPass (the AppGratis spotlighted app of the day) climbed to No. 6 on the top free apps list in Apple's App Store. And again, on April 11, spotlighted app City Maps 2Go charged up to No. 5 on the top 10.

Granted this is a very small sample, but it shows the same kind of results that I found in March, when AppGratis was still available. Right now not much is known about the future of the AppGratis app. The company refused to provide further comment about what it plans to do next to revive the app.

This raises two questions in my head. Now, AppGratis will obviously want to reinstate its app into the App Store because over time people may uninstall the app or switch devices and be unable to access AppGratis via a native app. However, if Apple is unwilling to budge on its rule 2.25 ("Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected") then will app discovery services be pushed to mobile websites only? And more importantly, is it possible to garner that much influence over iOS users without going through an Apple-approved app?

AllThingsD's sources recently disclosed that yanking AppGratis from the App Store is just Apple's first step in a larger move to remove app discovery apps that threaten the legitimacy of the App Store's own rankings. That makes sense given that last year Apple paid a reported $50 million to acquire app discovery service Chomp and integrate it into the App Store algorithm. Also consider that in 2011, Apple did away with incentivized app downloads (offering in-game currency to users for downloading other apps). It's only natural that Apple would be uneasy about app marketers charging to advertise apps within the app store, especially if Apple itself wouldn't be getting a cut of the spoils. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

If Apple does succeed in pulling more app discovery services like AppGratis from the App Store in the coming weeks, I think we'll be seeing a lot more of these kinds of services moving to mobile websites. Fiksu's FreeMyApps offers a similar service for iOS users though the mobile Web. FreeMyApps explained that by going through the mobile Web, it is able to spotlight HTML5 apps as well as those for iOS. (It's also worth noting that FreeMyApps' model rewards users for downloading apps, which wouldn't be permitted in the App Store under the ban on incentivized app downloads.)

But even though FreeMyApps doesn't work through a native iOS app, it boasts a user base of 1.9 million monthly active unique users. Maybe app discovery services don't need the App Store to succeed after all. --Sandhya

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