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 Solomonic 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 alles, 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 just shows how endemic the risk is of building a business in the App Store. Their treatment of UDID shows how Apple’s treatment of apps have 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 a 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 evovling 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.

[Image via Rosser1954/Wikipedia]

April 1, 1976

March 30, 1980, NASDAQ:AAPL

Started by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne, Apple has expanded from computers to consumer electronics over the last 30 years, officially changing their name from Apple Computer, Inc. to Apple, Inc. in January 2007. Among the key offerings from Apple’s product line are: Pro line laptops (MacBook Pro) and desktops (Mac Pro), consumer line laptops (MacBook) and desktops (iMac), servers (Xserve), Apple TV, the Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server operating systems, the iPod (offered with…

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[via TechCrunch]