Apple must clarify its App Store policies once and for all
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is a sphinx. Because the company so rarely divulges its motives and rationales, we can only guess at why it does the things it does. Just last week, for example, Apple quietly introduced new App Store age-rating notification boxes immediately below each iOS application's name and developer credit, a move that makes it easier for users to understand just what kind of experience awaits. Apple hasn't said why it rolled out the ratings boxes (of course), but the smart money says the move is a response to consumers and watchdog groups clamoring for greater transparency around the App Store shopping experience: Apple recently agreed to pay out more than $100 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed by parents whose children purchased virtual goods and enhancements sold inside iPhone and iPad apps without permission. Apple also came under fire following reports that photo and video sharing applications including Twitter's Vine and 500px contained sexually explicit content: Vine, 500px and other apps including Tumblr were ultimately updated to classifications of 17+, the App Store's highest age rating.
Applications that earn a 17+ tag may contain offensive language, violence, adult themes, sexual content, nudity, alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Apple routinely rejects apps that push those boundaries past their breaking point, however--and because it's never explicitly defined how far is too far, there's still a fair amount of guesswork involved. This week it appeared that writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples' acclaimed space opera Saga crossed Apple's line of demarcation after news broke that digital comics applications like ComiXology would not be making the series' latest issue available to iPhones and iPads.
"As has hopefully been clear from the first page of our first issue, Saga is a series for the proverbial 'mature reader.' Unfortunately, because of two postage stamp-sized images of gay sex, Apple is banning Saga #12 from being sold through any iOS apps," Vaughan explained via fellow comics scribe Matt Fraction's Tumblr account. "This is a drag, especially because our book has featured what I would consider much more graphic imagery in the past, but there you go. Fiona and I could always edit the images in question, but everything we put into the book is there to advance our story, not (just) to shock or titillate, so we're not changing [anything]." Some critics even called Apple censors "homophobic," echoing Vaughan's comments that previous issues of Saga have featured far more extreme sexual situations, albeit involving heterosexual acts.
Here's the catch: Apple didn't actually ban Saga #12. ComiXology instead assumed the comic would never survive Apple's censorship gauntlet and buried it. "As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps," ComiXology co-founder and CEO David Steinberger wrote Wednesday on the company's blog, a day after Vaughan's original post. "Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today. We did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation, and frankly that would have been a completely irrelevant consideration under any circumstance. Given this, it should be clear that Apple did not reject Saga #12. After hearing from Apple this morning, we can say that our interpretation of its policies was mistaken. You'll be glad to know that Saga #12 will be available on our App Store app soon. We apologize to Saga creator Brian K. Vaughan and [publisher] Image Comics for any confusion this may have caused."
What we've got here is failure to communicate. ComiXology plainly dropped the ball by not communicating its concerns to Vaughan or disclosing its decision to withhold Saga #12 from its iOS app. But its actions also speak volumes about the confusion and anxiety that plague developers and publishers offering content through the App Store: No one really knows what Apple will approve and what it will reject. Given Apple's track record and Steve Jobs' much-publicized belief that the company maintains a "moral responsibility" to keep questionable content off the iOS platform, it's easy to understand how and why ComiXology jumped to conclusions. It's then surprising, but very encouraging, that Apple not only approved Saga #12 but also clarified its content policies, affording ComiXology a stronger sense of what it can and can't publish moving forward.
Now it's time for Apple to ditch the mysterioso act for good and extend the same courtesy to all of its content partners, outlining clear, concrete guidelines and principles instead of forcing developers and publishers to interpret the App Store's rule book on their own. And because it's inevitable that publishers will still have some questions, Apple also should make it easier for them to get the answers they need well before they submit apps or software updates for official approval. The Saga saga may be an extreme example of everything that can go wrong with the current App Store setup, but any confusion is still too much. iOS developers and publishers already have enough work to do--they shouldn't have to add guesswork to their slate, too.--Jason