iPhone: Trouble in the App Store

August 9, 2008, 8:51 AM UTC

It’s been a confusing week for both sellers and buyers at the App Store — the venue for third party software that is the best thing to happen to the iPhone (except maybe the price cuts) since it arrived more than a year ago.

The iPhone 3G is OK, if you manage battery consumption very carefully. And Mobile Me is slowly getting up to speed (see here). But the App Store — with 1,574 programs as of Saturday morning, from Abacus to Zxilophone — is a runaway hit, a software candy store that offers iPhone and iPod touch owners a fresh tray of tasty treats nearly every day.

So what are we to make of the fact that Apple (AAPL), without explanation, has started pulling programs from the store, leaving both the people who wrote them and the customers who bought them scratching their heads and wondering who’s in charge? At least five apps have disappeared so far, but three dominated the tech news this week:

  • BoxOffice: This free application, which listed movie times, locations and links to reviews, was one of the first programs available when the App Store opened on July 11 and offered worthy competition to Movies.app, a must-have program from the early days of the original iPhone. BoxOffice disappeared from the App Store on July 31. “Apple pulled the app yesterday without giving my (sic) any notification that they were doing it, or what their justification was for removing it,” its developer, Metasyntactic, wrote the next day on a MacRumor forum. “I’ve tried to contact them about the issue, but it’s been a complete dead end. If anyone has a useful contact number for apple, please let me know.”
  • I Am Rich: This one is a little easier to understand. The priciest app in the store — it sold for $999.99 — was also the most useless: it did nothing but take your money and display a red gem on your screen. “The red icon on your iPhone or iPod touch always reminds you (and others when you show it to them) that you were rich enough to afford this,” the information page on iTunes warned. “It’s a work of art with no hidden function at all.” Apple, which was collecting $300 for every copy that sold (and at least eight did, developer Armin Heinrich told Silicon Alley News), may well have received complaints and felt obliged to protect unwitting customers. But what kind of screening process approved I Am Rich in the first place?
  • Nullriver: This may be the most bewildering case of all. The application allowed Mac owners to use their iPhone as a wireless modem to reach the Internet over AT&T’s (T) cellular networks — either 3G or EDGE, whichever was available. It was removed from the store on August 1, briefly reinstated, and then pulled for good. According to Nullriver CEO Adam Dan, technicians at Apple told him it was pulled the first time by mistake. “They want to get NetShare back up, but they want to do some technical analysis that they couldn’t explain to us,” Dan told Wired.com. As iPhone Savior pointed out at the time, AT&T’s user agreement clearly forbids unauthorized tethering (see here), but it’s not clear why AT&T would object to the extra revenue stream. “Apple runs the app store, so you’ll have to ask them about the availability of this and other apps,” an AT&T spokesperson pointedly told Gizmodo. “For customers looking for a smartphone with tethering capabilities, AT&T has a number of other options to choose from.” Perhaps it was Apple that had a problem with Nullriver. They may have their own tethering plan in the works, and Nullriver might well have offended someone in Cupertino’s sense of how easy-to-use an iPhone app ought to be (tethering is never easy, and the instructions included in Nullriver were hopelessly inadequate.)

Apple has not responded to requests for comment, so nobody really knows for sure what’s going on. But it sounds like they were overwhelmed by the initial flood of applications and may be trying, by fits and starts, to develop a rational policy.

“From what I can tell their approval process is not very strict at all,” Nullriver’s Dan told Wired.com. “I think they run it, start it up and if it doesn’t crash they approve it. They brainlessly click through, and if there’s problems they remove it.” (link)

Even more troubling, for some observers, is the discovery of what seemed to be a blacklist mechanism buried in iPhone OS 2.0 and unearthed last week by Jonathan Zdziarski, author of iPhone Forensics. It consists of an URL that points to a page of unauthorized programs.

“This suggests that the iPhone calls home once in a while to find out what applications it should turn off,” writes Zdziarski. “At the moment, no apps have been blacklisted, but by all appearances, this has been added to disable applications that the user has already downloaded and paid for, if Apple so chooses to shut them down.”

For an extensive discussion of the significance of this list, see Techmeme here.