Wordle is being punished by app stores for choosing the open web

If you’ve been on Twitter lately, you’ve probably noticed your timeline drowning in grey, green and yellow squares. Those posts are thanks to Wordle, a free word game that gives you six tries or fewer to guess the correct word for the day.

The game is absolutely everywhere, growing from a handful of users to hundreds of thousands in a matter of weeks, despite being both free to play and originally built by a software engineer in Brooklyn, Josh Wardle, for his partner.

Wordle stands out in a world of in-app purchases and loot boxes because it’s free to play, has no advertising at all, and most importantly, is played on a simple website, rather than requiring an app to be downloaded from Apple’s App Store or Google Play.

The choice to make Wordle a web app, rather than something downloaded from a store makes sense, given that it was developed as a passion project rather than by a business, and it’s a simple, fun game that isn’t really designed to make money.

A side effect of that choice, however, is that Wordle is suddenly being ripped off in app stores by other developers who smell a quick way to make money off of unsuspecting users that either don’t care or don’t know any better.

Part of Wordle’s charm is that the posts of colorful squares you see everywhere don’t really feel like advertising; there’s no link back to the game or cheesy copy trying to convince you to install it: you’re on your own to find it via a quick Google search.

As a result, the average iPhone or Android owner is likely to assume Wordle is an app and head right to their respective app store to find it—which is exactly what I did when I first discovered it, only to find a dead end when I started playing a month ago before realizing I should just Google it.

Now, however, opportunistic developers have smelled this and are creating almost exact clones of Wordle in order to generate money where Wardle has eschewed doing so. One developer, Zach Shakked, cloned the game in its entirety down to the exact game play and user interface, called it Wordle, and uploaded it to Apple’s App Store, charging $30-per-year to play a game that was intended to be free.

Shakked bragged on Twitter about how many users he was converting to paid customers as well as running ads against the search term “Wordle” on the App Store. After widespread backlash, however, Shakked appeared to have removed the game from sale, and late on Tuesday published a lengthy apology and partial justification for his actions via Twitter.

In the past, we’ve seen cloning behavior like this play out on app stores with viral games like Threes and Flappy Bird, both of which were cloned by developers and rejigged slightly with extra fees or advertising on top in the hope of fooling a few users and making a quick buck.

Wordle is facing a threat we haven’t seen play out yet: the game’s developer is essentially being punished by app stores for choosing to build using open web technologies, rather than a native app. Not only is this type of behavior allowed by the Apple App Store, there’s little recourse—because as far as Apple is concerned, Wordle doesn’t exist, given it wasn’t built a native app.

There’s no way for a developer of a fully functional, capable web app like Wordle to claim their name in the App Store, nor is there a way for them to list their website to get users to the right place and defend themselves from copycats. Google actually does allow developers to upload some kinds of progressive web apps to the Play Store, though at time of writing Wardle doesn’t appear to have chosen to do this. If he wanted to defend his game on the Play Store when a clone does appear there, he’d at least have a choice to do so.

It could be argued that Wardle didn’t trademark Wordle—let alone invent the actual gameplay given that it’s based on a 70’s gameshow—but that isn’t the point: because Wordle is web-based, it’ll continually open itself up to clones until Wardle develops an official app.

Apple has a longstanding history of intentionally ignoring or degrading open web technologies that could compete with its incredibly successful, lucrative, closed app store. Progressive web apps (PWA), a set of standards that allow websites to function similarly to native apps, are only half-heartedly supported, broken, or plain ignored on iOS and iPadOS.

Web push, a standard that allows websites to send push notifications to users, has been ignored by Apple for years with no explanation despite support in almost every competing browser, including the desktop version of Safari. When Apple doesn’t ignore standards that would allow web apps to compete on an even playing field, it can intentionally delay them for years, a practice documented in this long, exhausting list by Alex Russell, an engineer at Google.

The inability to claim a name and link to a website, rather than build a native app, is by design for this reason: Apple doesn’t want users to go to the web. Instead, the company intentionally harms the open web for its own gain to the detriment of users of its own App Store who might be tricked into paying for something that could be free, if only they’d searched the web instead.

Update: A large number of Wordle clones, including Shakked’s were removed from the App Store by Apple without comment on January 12.