Apple targets 'objectionable' apps, leaves Playboy, S.I. in App Store

Developers angered, but Apple says content from branded companies is broadly available

Apple Inc. recently pulled thousands of sex-tinged applications from its App Store for containing "objectionable content" but has quickly come under fire for being hypocritical by retaining some other apps from well-known publishers, including Playboy and Sports Illustrated .

Apple explained its decision to keep some apps and not others in an e-mail Tuesday, noting that the Playboy and Sports Illustrated apps come from established companies with "broadly" available content.

"The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format," a spokeswoman said in the e-mail in response to why some apps were taken down and not others. "We always try to consider the source and intent of the apps when reviewing them."

As for why other apps were removed in recent days, the spokeswoman repeated earlier comments by a top Apple marketing executive, Philip Schiller, who said Apple had been receiving complaints from "women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable, as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see." She said that over the past few weeks a small number of developers had been submitting an "increasing number of apps containing very objectionable content."

While she didn't name any of the apps that Apple removed, the New York Times and other publications have named a few that were recently removed, including apps called "SlideHer" and "Sexy Scratch Off" by a software company called On the Go Girls.

The fact that some apps have remained while others from lesser-known companies were removed has outraged some developers and other making comments on the App Store site.

"Why hasn't this app been pulled off the app store like the rest?" asked commenter appstoregamer, referring to the free Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2010 app. "Very interesting policy you got there [Steve] Jobs."

Added FloydFelt, "Either bring back the other bikini apps with the same level of skin as the Sports Illustrated app, or ban this app too!!!"

In comments below the 99-cent Playboy app, one commenter named Digitalangeldollars said, "Apple removes apps??!!!! Except for this one?!" The comment continues, "What I want to know is why you guys are writing rules based on little Johnny looking at a woman instead of writing rules based on the customers who paid $400 for a phone that is now being censored to an extreme that is beyond that of even your public, local, NBC TV channel. Such measures are extreme and unwarranted..."

The Times quoted Fred Clarke, co-president of On the Go Girls, as saying he was "shocked" by Apple's removal of all 50 of his company's apps, which he called "racier than the Disney Channel, but not by much."

One executive for application developer Bandwidth.com said his company doesn't make App Store apps with sexual content, but that he had heard from plenty of developers worried about what Apple has done. "We don't have girlie apps in our lineup...[but] I've heard an earful from others along the lines of 'if they cut that app without warning, they might cut something I've developed without warning,' " said Anders Brownworth, vice president for research and development at Bandwidth.com.

Brownworth and some analysts said that Android Market , the application store for Google 's Android mobile platform, has traditionally been the store that tended to pull an app after getting complaints.

Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group, said that Android Market and other applications stores could benefit by deciding to keep on sale potentially objectionable apps from lesser known developers.

"I predict that the policies about keeping certain apps will be all over the map, with some stores saying they'll be open to anybody's app," Howe said in an interview. " Microsoft , I'd guess, won't exercise a lot of control, while Android has been the most open and has pulled apps when they are complained about."

To the concern raised that Apple was keeping objectionable apps from primarily well-established publishers like Playboy , Howe said it's clear that Apple has retained apps from makers with "legitimacy and brand ... they are well-known, loved and reviled, by millions each year ... It's tasteful porn, I guess."

Even though Apple has retained some objectionable apps, Howe said it is within Apple's right to define what it will carry and what it won't, "since it's their store and there's no First Amendment requirement to carry anything."

From a business standpoint, Howe said he agreed with Apple's decision, since dropping a reported 5,000 apps out of the 150,000 available in its Apps Store "is no big deal."

"Pulling them is a smart move, even though it will be controversial," Howe said. "Apple was getting complaints from women and parents thinking some apps were cheesey and offensive. So here's a company that decides girlie apps aren't worth offending half of its customer base, and it's hard to argue with that."

Howe said it's possible that the remaining apps in the App Store, such as the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit app could become more popular -- and profitable -- with other objectionable apps removed. Sports Illustratedreported to minonline.com that its Swimsuit 2010 app was downloaded 411,648 times since the launch on Feb. 9, and that it had beaten the NBC app dedicated to Olympics coverage.

The free Swimsuit app converted nearly 8% of users to a $1.99 upgrade with more pictures and videos, according to an SI official. A key strategy by app developers is to convert free app users to paid app users, Howe noted, although he called the 8% upgrade noted by SI "low" by comparison to what developers typically do. "The number of upgrades for SI may rise with time, since girlie apps will be a scarce commodity on App Store," he predicted.

In fact, Yankee's latest research shows that paid apps are doing better than it reported six months ago. The percentage of paid apps of all apps consumed on all app stores in the U.S. was 20% in the first six months of 2009, but rose to 34% for all of 2009, Howe said. Spending on mobile apps will reach $10 billion in the U.S. by 2014, Howe said, based on recent research accounting for users' willingness to pay for apps.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed@matthamblen or subscribe to . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

Read more about mobile applications and rfid in Computerworld's Mobile Applications and RFID Knowledge Center.

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)

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