The Ground Beneath Apple’s Walled Garden

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Apple’s blanket rejection of apps accessing UDIDs is just the latest in a long line of erratic behavior on Apple’s part of enforcing the rules of the iOS App Store. Sure, Apple warned developers that they were deprecating UDID, but like many of Apple’s Delphic pronouncements about the iOS App Store it was a little unclear, vague and open to interpretation. Many developers assumed that they would have at least until the release of iOS 6 to clear things up, but that turned out to be too optimistic.

Of course, that’s nothing new. From rejecting apps for objectionable political content to the blanket and ridiculous rejection of apps like Podcaster and MailWrangler for “duplicating functionality” but nevertheless allowing hundreds of weather apps the chance to bloom, the uncertainty facing developers has had a very real and negative effect on the iOS ecosystem. It took more than three years after the App Store opened its doors for a decent third-party mail app to be available for the iPhone.

Apple seems to have loosened things up recently — or shown that they are at the very least capable of being shamed into doing the right thing — but the way they’ve handled the UDID issue shows Apple’s priorities haven’t changed: Apple über allies, followed by users and than developers.

The line between the UDID-poclaypse and the Path mini-debacle is pretty clear. This is Apple protecting its back. But it also shows just how endemic the risk is of building a business in the App Store. Their treatment of UDID shows how Apple’s treatment of apps has the ability to not just impact an individual company’s business model but the way entire industries function.

There are already alternatives to UDID being shopped around right now, but it’s not clear that Apple won’t put the hammer down on those as well. Apple may allow third-party systems or even tracking MAC addresses. But at the end of the day Apple’s not cracking down on implementation schemes. They’re cracking down on tracking, period. Methods be damned.

While there are many non-creepy uses of UDID, obviously this has the potential to most seriously affect the mobile advertising industry. Advertisers believe there’s a huge potential to deliver more valuable ads based on behavioral and geographic targeting, and Apple threw a spanner in the works. The size of that spanner is yet to be determined.

While it’s easy to argue that Apple should implement consistent standards on how they deal with changes to rules in the iOS App Store, that’s easier said than done. Apple themselves don’t seem to know the rules of the App Store right now or how they’re going to change. Their approach is entirely “I know it when I see it.” Though each iOS development cycle sees the opportunity for the creation of new business models, it also brings a new round of uncertainty as Apple figures out what, exactly, they’ve unleashed.

Imagine this scenario. Recently Highlight and other recent location-aware social networking apps have gotten dinged for battery issues. Constant, continual broadcasting of background data was probably not what Apple imagined when they opened up backgrounding in iOS 4, but some clever hackers saw a use for it, and lo — an evolution in social networking.

But what if this battery issue became a serious public relations problem? Or what if it’s worse? What if unscrupulous developers used the background data for a more nefarious purpose? It’s not hard to imagine the New York Times coverage or the questioning letters from government officials. They can probably just copy and paste from the last one:

“This incident raises questions about whether Apple’s iOS app developer policies and practices may fall short when it comes to protecting the information of iPhone users and their contacts.”

How does Apple react? By rejecting apps like Highlight or changing their backgrounding rules. Millions of venture capital dollars are suddenly backing companies that just became the walking dead.

This is all because this became Apple’s fault— again. As has every other issue raised by anything tangentially related to Apple has become. People blamed Path, sure, but they also blamed Apple. Did Apple do anything wrong in the Path case? Debatable, but the key point is that Apple allowed it to happen.

How possible is it that the next decade or so continues like this in the App Store? That the constant push-pull cycle between Apple and developers continues unabated? Apple is clearly being pressured to react swiftly without a lot of time to consult developers. How does sticking to a bureaucratic timeline work when government officials smell blood in the water? Apple is going to be under constant scrutiny by the press and the U.S. government for as long as they’re enormously successful, and there’s no sign that their success will be abating any time soon.

As long as that’s the mentality surrounding Apple, developers will keep taking hits, especially those relying on advertising or tracking to provide future revenues. And if you think Apple is very concerned about advertising-supported apps, I’d think again. Take a look at how many ad-supported apps Apple has featured in their commercials. In this case, if banning UDID tracking actually discourages advertising-supported applications, that may be something Apple wants.

Ultimately, the handling of the UDID issue is the symptom, not the disease. Uncertainty in the App Store is bad for developers, businesses, industries and most importantly users, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear way for Apple to diminish that uncertainty that doesn’t also inhibit them from evolving iOS and reacting swiftly to the two-crises-per-year schedule Apple has been on. As long as the walled garden is up, people are going to want to trust the gatekeepers.

Or think about it another way: the parent gets blamed when the child misbehaves. And when one child misbehaves, all the children get punished.

UPDATED: This piece engendered enough discussion that I thought it was worth clarifying some points and adding some nuance that I failed to do earlier.

On UDID, alternatives to, and tracking in general: Though UDID was just the latest issue, my point wasn’t about UDID. I simply used it as an example of a formerly allowable behavior that businesses depended on. In fact, I think Apple’s moves towards greater privacy have been well documented, as has Apple’s past behavior, but there still seems to be enough confusion about what their moves will actually mean for businesses that it was worth discussing again. More than that, I think that Apple is doing the right thing and could go even further, and may yet still, by more severely restricting cross-application sharing of user behavior.

On iOS being a bad environment for developers or for users: Nope. As my points were directed to developers, let’s start there. iOS is largely the best environment for anyone trying to make money in mobile. It’s also where so many people are and are heading that it’s impossible to ignore. The risks I discussed above don’t change the tremendous opportunity of iOS. This is not a net-negative situation for most. But if you’re in mobile ads, it may very well be. As for users, iOS devices are still, in my opinion, the best devices out there. With regards to UDID, this is a situation that’s actually better for users. In cases where Apple rejected apps for duplicating existing functionality, that clearly isn’t the case. But overall Apple has shown sensitivity towards making things better for users. I don’t think the same can be said as confidently in their treatment of developers.

On possible prescriptions to this problem: I don’t see any, which obviously doesn’t mean none exist. But for the next few years at least, further changes like this are a near-certainty, and developers will have to learn to live with it, which I don’t think they have yet. It’s simply a different type of risk that many are not accustomed to. Is the risk also greater than it was in the past for consumer web companies and services? Debatable, but I think it is as we move away from the browser and the web as a central mode of interaction with the Internet. The browser and the web had clearer behavioral standards than mobile environments do, and there are and were more efforts to establish those standards between platforms. Are behavioral standards going to become clearer in iOS? At some point, but that will happen because of one organization.

EDIT: I did indeed mean Delphic instead of Solomonic in the first paragraph, as Sammy Lao pointed out in the comments.

[Image via Rosser1954/Wikipedia]