iPhone App Flap Underscores Process in Flux

Another day, another iPhone app approval kerfuffle.

At issue recently is an e-reader, Eucalyptus, that enables iPhone owners to access free books from the Project Gutenberg library. Though the app is now available for sale online, it was initially rejected by Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) because it allowed readers to download the Kama Sutra, which was deemed inappropriate, creator James Montgomerie wrote in his blog.

Montgomerie was frustrated and perplexed by what he felt to be an inconsistent ruling on Apple’s part, on several levels. First, he argued that the e-reader didn’t contain books, but rather was a conduit for accessing them, much like an iPod is for digital music.

Second, Montgomerie wrote that the content Apple was questioning is already available. “The [Kama Sutra] that Apple considers the ability to read ‘objectionable’ is freely available on the iPhone in many ways already. You can find it through Safari or the Google app of course, but it is also easily available via other book reading apps,” he wrote.

Since his app was red-flagged, Apple has contacted Mongtomerie to discuss the “confusion” surrounding the rejection and now the matter is “fully resolved.”

Sound familiar? It should, because it’s essentially the same argument made by Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails, who grabbed headlines during his latest iPhone app flap before Apple relented.

It’s evident that policing apps is becoming a tough challenge as those charged with approving them are suddenly the arbiters of what’s culturally acceptable on some hot-button topics, including the treatment of infants, religion and sex.

Furthermore, with more than 30,000 iPhone apps available, it’s no wonder the approval process is somewhat inconsistent – which hasn’t gone unnoticed. Critics increasingly point to the same sorts of scenarios in which an app is nixed due to content deemed inappropriate while similar available iterations exist elsewhere.

At the crux of the matter, really what’s going on is not new, but rather a digital version of “I know pornography when I see it.”

In Apple’s iPhone SDK Agreement is the following:

“Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

Other app store approval processes, including namely those for Google’s Android Market and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry App World, also land in the gray area of rejecting on the basis of what’s considered “inappropriate,” though with different protocols.

For instance, Research In Motion provides the following guidelines for content: “must not contain or link to any content, or perform any function, that is abusive, belittling, harassing, deceptive, malicious or otherwise inappropriate.”

Still, so far, rejections have not been an issue for RIM, Mike Kirkup, manager of developer relations, told InternetNews.com. “Two things are worth noting. In contrast to our competitor, we have an open development model. You can sell your app through other channels or at your Web site, so for our app store, we’re just in the process to make sure it’s consistent with our policies, but there are alternatives if developers aren’t happy.

“And, I’d also argue that we’re more transparent. We outline the different things we don’t want in there, no gambling, no porn, no bandwidth hogging and so on. If something isn’t acceptable, we’re pretty clear in saying it violates this or that,” said Kirkup.

For its mobile open source operating system Android, Google lets apps go up before looking at them, though the company reserves the right to remove them later.

“Similar to the process of uploading YouTube videos, applications are not reviewed before appearing on the Market, but can be taken down if they violate various policies. For example, we have a policy against inappropriate content, which includes malware. A developer must also abide by our Developer Distribution Agreement in order to upload an application to Android Market. We also may check applications for compliance with the Market Content Policies (in order to remove malware, porn, spam, or profanity),” a Google spokesperson told InternetNews.com.

One thing is certain on the app approval process front: more companies will have to wrestle with the issue of policing them as the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ: JAVA), eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY), Vodafone and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) are all have plans to open an app store by the end of the year and newcomer Nokia just opened Ovi Store today.

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