Thousands of semi-active apps could be caught up in latest App Store purge

A new estimate from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower predicts that nearly 3,000 semi-active apps, if not more, could be pulled from the App Store in the latest sweep designed to remove apps that are no longer being updated by their developers.

The news that Apple is doing another cleanup of its App Store emerged this weekend, shortly after Google’s recent announcement that its Play Store will begin to block downloads for outdated apps.

Over the past few days, several iOS developers took to social media to report receiving notices from Apple that their older apps will be removed from sale within 30 days if no updates were submitted.

After Sensor Tower’s analysis of apps that had at least 10,000 installs in 2022, it found some 2,966 apps and games could face removal during Apple’s latest purge, as they were last updated before or during 2018. But based on anecdotal developer reports, some had said their apps were updated more recently, but they had still received a warning notice from Apple. That indicates the true number of impacted apps could be even higher.

Sensor Tower said that if turned its analysis to look at apps that were last updated before September 2020 (when iOS 14 was released), it found the number of apps that could face removal would grow to at least 7,335. Again, these apps had at least 10,000 installs in 2022.

Apple, unfortunately, has not been precise in its communication with developers. It only informed them that if their apps had not been updated for a “significant amount of time,” they would be removed. Apple did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

Apple has a history of cleaning up its App Store at regular intervals.

Typically, these App Store sweeps are designed with the needs of consumers in mind, not necessarily developers. When consumers seek out apps and games to download, they want to be sure they’re installing something that actually functions, that’s been optimized to fit their device’s screen and that’s up-to-date with any recent security enhancements. Many apps on the App Store don’t meet these requirements after developers abandon them. Those apps may also be targeting deprecated APIs, which could make them non-functional. That’s a poor end-user experience, and ultimately one Apple wants to avoid.

But the complaints from the impacted developers indicate that an app’s functionality is not always an issue.

They instead view their app as a completed project that doesn’t necessarily need to be continually updated, similar to a work of art. And some of the apps and games getting caught up in the purge are still usable and playable, they argue.

According to one developer, Simon Barker, his app Tap Timer, now up for deletion, doesn’t get any crash reports and still sees downloads. He admits the app isn’t “setting the world on fire,” but it works and is differentiated from other timer apps on the market. The app would require recoding to meet Apple’s demand, and Barker admits he hasn’t kept up with Swift. Meanwhile, he points out that another app of his has more downloads but didn’t get a similar warning notice. He says these sorts of anti-developer policies are why he’s stopped developing for the App Store.

Another developer, Simen Gjermundsen, mirrored that complaint on Twitter, noting also his kids’ game, Motivoto, is still “fully functional” and calls the policy an “unfair barrier to indie devs.”

iOS developer and App Store critic Kosta Eleftheriou also suggested the policy may be unevenly applied.

He said a version of its keyboard app designed for visually impaired users was removed from the App Store for being out of date, but the game Pocket God remains online even though it hasn’t been updated for seven years. (It’s not clear that Pocket God would be immune from a sweep, however — its Twitter account is no longer active and its website has shut down. It’s possible the developers received a warning, too. We should know in about … 30 days.)

While the enforcement may be uneven or sporadic, it should not be a total surprise. Apple informs developers upfront that consistent app updates are a part of the agreement with regard to doing business on the App Store. In Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines (section 2.5.1), the company tells developers that apps must only use public APIs and that developers must keep “apps up-to-date.” More specifically, the guidelines instruct developers to “make sure you phase out any deprecated features, frameworks or technologies that will no longer be supported in future versions of an OS.”

While Apple may not enforce that guideline for stretches of time, it still has done so at a semi-regular cadence over the years — including with larger past “sweeps.”

Several years ago, for example, Apple phased out support for 32-bit apps, then removed those apps from App Store searches. In 2016, it also took aim at outdated apps in a similar App Store purge. After a significant crackdown on outdated apps, spam and clone apps in 2017, Apple’s App Store even shrank for the first time. And after a ban on apps designed using templates and app generation services, Apple was called out for the potential harm to small businesses and nonprofits that didn’t have the in-house expertise or funds to build custom apps from scratch. Apple later adapted that policy as a result of developer backlash — and an inquiry from Congress.

In prior years, Apple had informed developers exactly when a purge would begin, as this cached support page from the 2016 sweep indicates. Today, that same webpage exists to merely inform developers what to do when they receive an email — an indication that App Store sweeps are now a more of a routine function for the App Store.

If anything, what’s changed may not be the App Store policy itself, but rather the fact that developers feel empowered to speak out about the aspects of the App Store operation they don’t like — particularly now that Apple’s inattentiveness to developer complaints may inspire new regulations.

Apple itself has fought particularly hard against several suggested new laws that would force it to allow alternative app stores on iOS as it does on Mac, saying it risks user privacy and security. But if such a requirement actually goes through, it opens up the possibility for developers to host some sort of “archive” app store featuring their best work from years past — but which Apple had booted from its own app marketplace. Such a store could give developers’ work an extended life, even after technologies advanced and screen sizes changed.

Updated 4/27/22 with more figures from Sensor Tower.