Baby Shaking Apps and Other Challenges for Apple's App Store

My wife and I were going through our morning routine, eating breakfast and reading the newspaper when suddenly she said "I can't believe Apple!". We share many core beliefs—especially on politics—so I usually give her a nod, offer a "Yup" and continue reading my section.

Me: "What about Apple?"

Wife: "They have a shaking baby iPhone application!!! This is outrageous!"

Me: "Honey, Apple didn't make that application."

Wife: "Well they had it in the App Store. That's just stupid."

I completely understand that Apple is generating some significant revenue from their App Store sales and that it has become a major part of their strategy moving forward. The problem as I see it is that Apple is putting itself in a very precarious position. Instead of just worrying about whether or not the application will break an iPhone, chew up resources, etc. Apple now has to worry about the content.

The problem as I see it is two-fold: Apple is now associated with the content of applications that run on an iPhone. The second is that Apple is setting a precedent that will carry forward as small devices like the iPhone get more powerful and start to merge with traditional desktops and laptops.

Being Associated with Content
Since Apple is essentially taking responsibility for the content on the iPhone they are putting themselves in a no-win situation. Clearly a shaking baby application is egregious to virtually anyone, but what about other topics. The US alone is a highly polarized place with issues like gay marriage, torture, bail-outs, taxes, etc. provoking strong arguments. Throw in the fact that Apple is a global company and now you have to police these issues in every country you want to sell into.

Now try to apply a rule set that works for the people sitting in the Apple App Store review area. Every single app needs to be approved and the rate will only increase. Mistakes like the Shaking Baby app will happen again and again.

Apple has crafted this brilliant company image, spending billions of dollars on stores, training, application standards, etc. and now a minor mistake by the guy or gal down in the App Store review area makes headlines everywhere and it's directly associated with Apple, not the author of the application.

The Orwellian Future
This is today's problem. What about tomorrow's? Portable devices are becoming more and more powerful. It won't be long before we'll see the technologies start to merge and iPhones will be just as powerful as a laptop or netbook class machine. As this merge happens how will Apple distinguish between applications that are specific to the iPhone and those that run on a more traditional machine?

Can you imagine a day when Apple has to authorize any software that is installed on your Apple device, including what today is your Mac? Technology advances mean these products will converge in the near future and Apple will need to live with the standards (and revenue streams) they have come to depend on.

How can Apple solve this problem?
There are numerous solutions to this issue, all with strengths and weaknesses. Apple could stop worrying about application content entirely and focus on highly objective measures like memory usage, stability, etc. They could have a class of applications that have been rated for content and others that have not. They could even license out the deployment of iPhone applications to other companies, allowing those companies to be responsible for the content.

Rest assured though, this is going to become a bigger problem down the road. Can you imagine if the developers of a web browser were responsible for the web pages that were viewed through them? This is effectively the role that Apple has staked out for itself.

What do you think? Is this really a problem that Apple needs to figure out?


Ast A. Moore said...

I think Baby Shaker is one very persuasive reason to get an iPhone. Too bad Apple removed it. Oh, well. I guess I'll have to make do with my Siemens S55 for the time being.

What happens to the apps you purchase before Apple removes them? What if you have to reset your iPhone, for example? With music bought from the iTMS you can download a song as many times as you wish, if I remember correctly, provided the song is still in the catalog. What if the song/app is removed? How do you get reimbursed for it?

Steve Cholerton said...

It's up to industry to solve this problem, not Apple specifically. Although they are and will meet some of these challenges first.

The convergence you suggest will happen sometime soon and by placing themselves in charge of iPhone content they may have backed themselves into a corner - meaning they may well be looked to to supply the solution to the problem of content on many platforms going forward.

It is only possible to control content on a device that is highly locked down - such as the iPhone -I do not think that model can move with the forthcoming convergence of devices.

No answers - just more speculation :-)

Keleko said...

Apple set themselves up for this by having the app store be the only way to install apps on the iPhone. So now they have to be gatekeepers to not only technical issues but political/social ones as well. If this app had been for Windows Mobile, you'd probably have heard about it all. The author could sell it all he wanted, but he'd probably have to do so from his own site with paypal because no other legitimate Windows Mobile store site would sell it. The App Store allows much greater visibility of every app because it is the only way to get them (I'm ignoring jailbreaking in this comment). Because Apple has to approve each app, it puts the "Apple Approved" stamp on every one. This may not be a good trend after all, even though the app store model itself is clearly successful.

Anonymous said...

I have not used Baby Shaker app, what is it doing? What is this app all about? I like to know that in the first place, otherwise I won't understand why everyone is so mad about it.

David Alison said...

@Anon: It apparently was an application where a baby would cry and the only way you could get it to stop was by shaking the iPhone violently. Since this is a serious problem—many babys suffer irreversible brain damage from being shaken—it's a highly sensitive subject.

There is more information in the link I included to a MacWorld article above.

Ast A. Moore said...

Here's a slightly different take on this. Think of why Apple doesn't allow the customization of it's UI (to the degree, say, Windows users think of UI customization)? Because Apple believes in a unified look and feel that has been developed and refined over the years by a team of devoted and dedicated professionals. Apple wants to present its users with a certain experience.

Is this "built in" censorship? Sure it is. Would Apple be Apple if it hadn't had this tight, censor-like control over things? I don't think so.

I think this pesky problem (I'm back to the contents of the App Store now) has only two solutions: you either let it go wild and approve every app, or you retain some control over the contents. In either case, you can't have users complain about your policies. And we all know that people will always complain, no matter what.

Take the Baby Shaker app. Younger people without kids (or openminded people with kids) would probably find it amusing. Yet others would be outraged. I'm sure there are people who oppose Twitter apps and see them as a threat to productivity. Should Apple comply and ban all Twitter apps, too? What about games? Also counterproductive and some are, frankly, pretty violent. Ban them all? Just some? Which ones? The violent games only? Who decided what is violent and what isn't quite violent?

People are very touchy creatures. Heck, some typefaces offend me. So do certain UI decisions. Should I file a complaint and ask Apple to remove an app that uses Comic Sans, for example?

This post is too long. David should probably remove it and ban me from commenting any further. :P (Joking.)

Anonymous said...

Well, Apple is certainly in a bad situation here. In this specific case, the application is in poor taste. Shaking babies is bad. On the other hand, it is a game of the crude humor type. Being only a game, then I should have the right to download it and play it just like I have the right to download and play games where I am shooting people in the face. I believe this is freedom of speech. As such, all the groups that complained (although in their right to complain) should also uphold my right to make, distribute, sell, or buy the game. War is a terrible thing, but we don't censor war movies or games anywhere.
This reminds me a bit of a Family Guy episode where Peter killed their first born by shaking him until he stopped crying. He says at one point that he thought if he shook him enough, the baby would stop. "I was kind of right", he adds. This is humor, crude and stupid, but humor. And yet, I didn't hear anyone condemning FOX for it. But, all of a sudden, Apple is responsible for an app in their store. Seems a bit unfair to me.
I believe that Apple should be responsible for the technical part of the app and for certain content like pornography (I don't even have a stance on hate speech to be honest). But I don't think they should be responsible for taste in content. Just like there are a bunch of fart apps, there should be a shake baby till it dies app or slap your wife until she bleeds app or kick your boyfriend in the testicles until he pukes app. Playing a game in a computer does not translate to people doing the same thing in real life. In fact, a shake the baby until it dies app my actually bring far more awareness to the whole issue. Otherwise, Apple would have to start restricting war games where you kill people.
Sorry about the long rant.

Ted said...

I think you're over thinking of the situation. This is a growing pains problem. Use the media portion of iTunes as an example. Apple doesn't censor the content, they label it as mature. But they also don't sell porn videos. Nobody assumes because of that, that Apple approves of cop-killer rap.

They'll probably end up doing the same thing for applications. But they would prefer to ignore the problem right now. That's not a viable long-term solution. But they'll grow into one.

As for what they'll do when the platform grows up... Same result. They're not going to turn Mac laptops into locked-down App Store-only devices.

The entire reason for the lock-down is because of the target audience of the devices - black-box, always working, in your pocket devices.

In order to provide guarantees of performance, reliability and battery life they sharply restrict the devices. Nobody wants a phone they have to constantly reboot, that locks up or runs the battery down in a few hours. We've already seen shades of that with earlier iPhone OS releases.

It's all just growing pains.

LTL said...

I think the bigger issue here is why are there so many people interested in these kind of apps anyway - shaken baby, kick your boyfriend in the crotch, etc.? "whatever is noble,...whatever is pure, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things...And the God of peace will be with you."
- Philippians 4:8-9

Anonymous said...

By the way, I just read and love your blog heading line "I blog because everyone is entitled to my opinion". Genius.

Victor said...

LTL had written: "the bigger issue here is why are there so many people interested in these kind of apps anyway"

EXACTLY! Baby shaking is wrong, but we hear nary a peep about baby dismemberment, which you can see being committed at It's well and good for us to deplore tasteless iPhone apps such as Baby Shaker, but more importantly, we should ask why our culture has become a culture of death. That's the real challenge.

David Fields said...

Let's consider the situation a moment.

We start out with a lot of developers complaining that their apps aren't being approved quickly enough; that they're losing sales while their app sits idle in the approval queue.

Then when Apple tries to streamline the process to satisfy the developers, things that should be a no-brainer manage to slip through and get published, only to have loudly vocal complaints that Apple isn't doing its job!

Exactly how do you satisfy both sides? You can't. Not without adding a huge number of people to your QA staff at salaries that do nothing but drive up the cost of the app store. Rather than improving througput, what you'll get is increased costs which result in decreased profits for both Apple and the developer.

VesperDEM said...

I made this point in another blog. Apple is ultimately responsible for it's AppStore content. If someone were to write an app that showed child pornography and Apple allowed it to appear in the AppStore. Sure, the developer would be arrested as soon as possible.

Apple would be hearing from lawyers for allowing such an app to be published. Plus, they would loose customers left and right over such an act. Oh sure, there would be some that would flock to the device. However, I seriously doubt that Apple wants that kind of customer.

Mind you, the above example is extreme and pretty easy to decide when the app comes in for review. However, shaking babies, soft porn, etc... They have to answer to all.

So call it censorship if you must. But remember that Apple is trying to run a business and overthrow the evil empire (Microsoft). I personally want to see that happen.

As to @Ast A. Moore's question about what happens to apps that people have bought before they have been removed from the AppStore. The app will stay in iTunes as long as you don't delete it. However, it is rumored that Apple has a way of remotely removing apps. I don't believe the process has ever been activated, but it is rumored to exist.

It makes sense. If for some reason a porn program were to get approved, they need to have a way of removing it before it becomes an issue for them. It's hard to control "all" the screeners they have. It would be easy for a screener who is mad at Apple to let something get approved that would otherwise not be and have Apple be embarrassed by it.

David Alison said...

@Ted: I may be over-thinking this but I think you're over-simplifying it. At some point Apple will release a device that sits right in the middle, part laptop and part iPhone, and will be filled with App Store applications. I believe that day is a LOT closer than you may think. If Apple is generating hundreds of millions in revenue from the App store do you think they'll just ignore that and make that spiffy Apple tablet with 4G connectivity unable to get applications through the App store?

You also imply that the app restrictions are done to keep the device "stable". I don't believe that the Baby Shaking application was pulled because it was an unstable application. It was pulled because it caused an uproar by people that were offended by it.

@JDT: Thanks - glad you like the blog subtitle. It was either that or "On the internet nobody knows you're a middle aged white guy".

@VesperDEM: You've added some great contributions to my blog for a while now so I'm sure you know I like the Apple product line and would like to see Apple succeed as a company. I don't however think that censorship is the answer to that. In fact, it's the reason I titled one section "The Orwellian Future", because of the irony of censoring thoughts and the way Apple introduced the Mac in 1984.

I believe that Apple can continue to achieve success in the App Store but not have to react in a knee jerk fashion when someone creates an application that a group of people complain about. JDT's point above is one I share. This issue of what should and should not be available purely from a content standpoint should be avoided by Apple.

As I said before, this issue will only get to be a bigger one for Apple because as the App Store revenue stream grows, so will the corporate desire to monetize it on a larger portion of the platform.

thecodist said...

Having had an innocuous app deniied (Bailout Bucks) due to some reviewer thinking it might be used for political purposes, but also having friends at Apple, it is kind of a nightmare mess at the moment. The process is what's messed up, and that's why errors happen. And the process takes way too long ( 7 days at best) even for bug updates to existing apps. The communication with the devs is important, and currently completely lacking with the App Store folks due to the volume and complexity.

Maybe what they need today is to charge per app and make it enough to weed out the stupid apps and the people who release 25 slider puzzles on the same day.

VesperDEM said...

Don't take this wrong David, but you think that Apple should allow porn on the iPhone/iPod touch? I realize that it's an extreme case, but if we are going to complain about censorship, then porn is a valid argument.

Also, I saw a Modern Marvels episode recently about "80's Tech" talking about the old Atari 2600 and how the machine fell to obscurity due to the applications that were developed for it. They talked about Nintendo and how Nintendo had learned from previous mistakes and made sure that the content for their products were of a decent quality.

I can't say whether Nintendo censors games being developed for the DSi and the Wii, but they do have a strong quality that makes their games buyable.

Apple could also do hardware like a Netbook. However, from what I have been reading, they want to stay away from that genre of hardware due to the perceived quality that Netbooks seem to be getting. "They are good enough for mail and web browsing."

I think of Apple as the BMW of computer and consumer hardware. Sure, I could go out and buy a $700 Windows notebook box that "might run" the stuff I want it to. However, when I buy a Mac, I know what it will do. Not to mention, there is an attention to detail in the software that is unmatched on any other platform I have ever worked with. Just look at Tweetie for Mac for an example of attention to detail that is simply amazing.

Personally, I would like to see Apple revoke all the childish Fart/Barf apps in the AppStore. There are way too many of them and it's sad to see that one even made it to the top 20 apps ever sold.

The AppStore issues I have been reading about lately that burn my behind are the ones where the developer users an icon that looks like an iPhone. Apple won't approve the app (Instapaper) because of this. Yet there is another app, where the developer of Instapaper got the icon from, that has the icon in their app and it's active in the store.

I have to agree with other blog posts that with 1,000,000,000 apps downloaded and God knows how much money made from those apps, it's about time to beef up the application review staff to make sure that application submissions get 24h turn-around.

David Alison said...

@VesperDEM: The issue to me is that when you get into the content monitoring business you are going to be all in, especially for an image/brand conscious company like Apple. Clear, well defined standards that are implemented properly are how you pull it off. As it stands now—and as thecodist points out above—apps that may be viewed as controversial are kicked out, though not all of them as Baby Shaker demonstrates. This problem will grow as the size of the App library grows. Right now it's highly subjective and those lines need to be made much more clear.

Apple doesn't prevent me from loading crappy applications on my Mac; why should they care if I load crappy applications on my iPhone? My main point is that as the power of these devices start to merge, this will become a much bigger problem for Apple. Pick a political topic that you feel strongly about; if someone created an application that supported that position yet was viewed as politically sensitive do you really want Apple to have to determine if it should be allowed?

I appreciate the BMW analogy; you are paying a premium for a premium experience. What if BMW determined that certain streets in certain cities were dangerous. Maybe some streets had a red light district that they wouldn't want their cars to be associated with. So they set up the GPS and Nav in the car to prevent the car from entering those streets—the vehicle simply stopped and you had to turn around. I'm pretty sure that would be very poorly received.

Partners in Grime said...

And what song did they play in the background? I'm All Shook Up?

VesperDEM said...

I certainly agree that a clear line needs to be drawn and followed. There appears to be no clear line at present.

As to Apple not preventing you from loading "crappy" software on your Mac. Apple doesn't have a single centralized store for you to purchase/download applications from for your Mac. You can get them from all over. Mind you, they would never do this, but if Apple only allowed users of their computers to get software from a single centralized store, then they would be doing the same thing at this MacAppStore that they are doing right now in their App Store.

Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft all do this with their versions of game stores on their respective platforms. Granted, you can buy games from other sources. However, I suspect that not every Tom, Dick and Harry can write games for those platforms. If I'm not mistaken, they have security codes on the platforms that only allow certified applications to run on them.

As far as the political issue. They are letting those kinds of apps through. Look at all the bible apps out there. There are plenty of other religions out there, some are being represented by apps, some are not. There are also quite a few political apps out there: iDemocrat, Go GOP!, Go DEMS, etc...

The problems occur when the apps go into areas of defamation and slander.

Well, I can't answer to the BMW argument. I'm sure that BMW would not want it's cars in ads for porn or any other unpleasant subject. They at least have the ability to control that. They don't have the ability to control what the owners of the cars do with the car. Just like Apple doesn't have the ability to stop its iPhone users from going to red light districts, porn rooms in video stores, from buying porn with the phone, etc... They do control what they can.

Oh, also, Apple doesn't allow it's OS to be sold for any other computer than Apple's. It can run on other platforms as we have seen thanks to hackers. Yet, Apple doesn't sway to selling to other platforms. They could make a huge fortune doing so, but I suspect that Apple Hardware sales would suffer for it. Which has to be the reason Apple is never going to do it.

Have you noticed that only the good guys have iPhones in TV shows and movies? Isn't that interesting?

David Alison said...

@VesperDEM: I have noticed a lot of iPhones appearing in TV now. What I see more of though are MacBooks and iMacs. They seem to be everywhere. I love when they try to cover up the fact that they are Macs by placing a large decal right over the Apple logo. Still, I can always tell the sleek lines of a MacBook Pro.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, while I would not buy this app, I have to wonder if we are all getting just a little crazy with the "I HATE it so you are a fool for liking it" syndrome.

Yelling fire in a crowded theatre is against the law for obvious health reasons. Having the ability to make fire is not. To be able to decide which apps cannot be legally posted needs to be considered with the same thought as "fire".

Just my opinion.

Elder Norm