Approval policy gone astray

There's little doubt that the impact of Apple's App Store on the mobile content sector has been substantial. With over 35,000 apps, a billion downloads and a plethora of imitators, it's hard to argue with that kind of success.

That said, it's also hard not to question how easy it will be to replicate that success - especially after Nokia's shaky start with its Ovi Store launch in May.

App stores tied direct to devices, OSs or platforms like Java make sense. Customers want easy access to apps that work on their handsets. App stores for cellcos is trickier. Sure, cellcos have that important billing relationship and want something that generates traffic and customer loyalty. On the other hand, that's what walled-garden portals were for. Even if an app-storefront is an improvement, it could also be redundant - not to mention confusing for end-users - once every major handset platform has its own app store up and running.

Much of this also depends on what you want out of an app store in the first place. Of course, everyone wants money. But it's not clear just how much money Apple is making from its App Store. Apple doesn't release that information, and best guesses range from $45 million to $160 million, of which Apple gets 30%. And that's arguably irrelevant, since by most analyst accounts the real purpose of the App Store, like iTunes, is to drive demand for iPhones and iPod Touch players.

That's good news for hardware players like RIM, but possibly less so for cellcos.

In the meantime, while we're waiting for everyone to figure out their app-store strategies, I do have a favor to ask. If you're going to copy the App Store, please get your content approval policy straight first.

Making it up as they go

Seriously. Content approval policies for app stores make sense if you're protecting against substandard products and malicious code. But there are quantifiable benchmarks to enforce those. "Objectionable content" is much harder to identify, and Apple has leaned that the hard way.

The App Store's censorship policy is so inexplicably inconsistent that it's as if they're making it up as they go. How does one justify the rejection of a South Park app for being "objectionable" (despite all 12 seasons and a feature film of the same show being available on iTunes), while the infamous Baby Shaker game gets greenlighted?

To be fair, Apple doesn't want to be sued by parents of kids who download, say, apps that make photos of women's breasts jiggle. Also, while its censorship policy may draw the wrath of civil libertarians and the tech-blogger crowd, the metrics above suggest the bad press isn't hurting its bottom line any, so there's no economic incentive to change.

On the other hand, apps developers and content owners are getting tired of being rejected for arbitrary reasons. In a recent high-profile incident, Trent Reznor - leader of the band Nine Inch Nails - had his app rejected for simply linking to one of his own songs (available on iTunes) that has naughty words in it. He wrote a furious open letter to Apple saying: "If Apple doesn't get it together, we will most certainly make [the app] available to the jailbreak community. I didn't invest in this app to see it languish on the sidelines from an idiotic policy while this tour is in full swing."

Apple apparently got the message. Shortly afterward, it announced that its iPhone 3.0 software and iTunes 8.2 will extend parental controls to apps - which means that apps will be tagged with age ratings and parents will be able to preset their kids' iPhones to block downloads of apps meant for older users.

It's not a perfect solution, and it's not clear if Apple will stop screening for naughty content, but it's a good idea, and one more consistent with the spirit of the internet that mobile is trying to access. And it's an example that other app-store proprietors might want to follow if they want their brand to be associated with "leading-edge mobile content innovators", rather than "arbitrary hypocritical killjoys".