Yet another small controversy is brewing in the iPhone’s App Store. This time it has nothing to do with sex. Rather, Apple has removed all Wi-Fi scanning “stumbler” apps — such as WiFi-Where, WiFiFoFum and yFy Network Finder. These apps allow you to locate free Wi-Fi networks that are in your local area, and have been in the App Store for months (in some cases, years).
Why were they removed? The developer of WiFi-Where posted that, according to Apple, his app was removed because “…There are no published APIs that provide the ability to manipulate the wireless connection or the show level of information regarding the wireless connection as demonstrated in the application….” Or, as stated elsewhere, he was using a “private framework.”
Why is Apple doing this? It remains unclear. The License Agreement that all iPhone app developers must sign does prohibit use of private frameworks. But either there aren’t any private frameworks in use here (despite Apple’s vague contention to the contrary) or Apple has been making a long-standing exception for this category of software. So why change the game now? There may be a good reason (an article in The Register suggests it may be do to changes coming in the iPad). But, if so, Apple is not saying. Beyond its letter to affected developers, Apple’s only comment has been “No comment.”
I tweeted about this the other day, suggesting that I have had “enough” of Apple’s heavy-handed App Store tactics. A couple of people replied (paraphrasing here): “The developers knew that their apps were breaking the rules. They shouldn’t complain.”
I have seen this type of response many times before. I believe it is misguided, especially in this instance but also in general. Here’s why:
• Apple refuses to have a clearly spelled out policy. If Apple wanted to allow Wi-Fi stumbler apps in the App Store despite a general ban on “private frameworks,” and later wanted to reverse its decision, that is its prerogative. But it should at least explain what guidelines it was using in each case. Otherwise, how is a developer to know what to do? As the developer of WiFiWhere noted:
“This is very frustrating. WifiTrak and WiFiFoFum have been on the App Store since its very early days, and for the longest time no other apps appeared. It took months of trying and re-trying before WiFi-Where was approved. Starting in November 2009, we started seeing these new apps appear. We took this as an indication that maybe Apple had decided to allow WiFi apps, and began re-submitting WiFi-Where until it was approved in January 2010.”
Developers should not have to guess as to what Apple is thinking here. And, if Apple does accept your app, it should generally be taken as tacit evidence that Apple thinks what you are doing is okay — especially if your app is similar in function to numerous other accepted apps that have been in the Store for a long time.
To place the entire onus of responsibility for this situation on developers is wrong. It lets Apple off the hook far too easily.
• The larger issue for me has to do, not with developers, but the iPhone owners. Just because Apple has a clause in its license agreement, and even if the clause is legal (which has been questioned in certain instances), does not make it a “good” rule. Developers may have to abide by the rule, but that does not mean users (and even developers) are not justified to complain about this.
There may be good reasons for Apple to generally restrict the use of “private frameworks.” But that doesn’t mean it is always wise to do so. I am especially concerned when doing so means that worthwhile apps are kept from the Store — apps that over a million users appear to want.
As the developer of yFy Network Finder noted: “Every application that could scan for WiFi has been banned by Apple, after the fact, including applications that have been on the store a long time and have nearly 1 million users. Apple doesn’t want their platform to have this functionality.”
What is the harm in letting people have these apps, rule or no rule? In my view, Apple has not made a defensible case here. If enforcing a rule is preventing helpful apps from making it into the Store, then maybe it is time to change the rule.
As an analogy, I could have a rule that says: “Before you can post a comment to any articles on this site, you must demonstrate that you can speak Finnish.” I could enforce this rule. I could attempt to ban anyone who doesn’t speak Finnish from posting. If a comment from a non-Finnish speaker somehow slipped by me, I could later remove it. I could do all these things.
But that does not mean it would be wise for me to do so. It doesn’t mean it is good policy. It doesn’t mean that people coming to this site, even just to read the articles, should not complain about the rule.
The situation with the App Store is even worse than with my analogy. If you objected to my site rule, you could easily decide to stop visiting this site, without any real consequence. If you have an iPhone, you can’t choose to stop visiting the App Store. If you are developer who wants to make an app for the iPhone, you can’t bypass the App Store. There are no alternatives.
Jailbreaking is a possibility, but not a great one — especially as Apple continues its efforts to blockade jailbreaking with every iPhone OS upgrade or new iPhone model.
Buying a Google Android phone (or other competitor) instead of an iPhone is a possibility — but not a great one either. I prefer the iPhone. I just want it to be better. There are people who say: “If you don’t like what Apple is doing with the iPhone, don’t buy one. Otherwise, shut up.” My reply is that this is like saying “America. Love it or leave it.”
This isn’t an either-or situation. I can “love” my iPhone and still complain about Apple’s policies. From Day 1, I have been uncomfortable with the fact that the only way to get apps on my iPhone is through the App Store. I don’t believe this is good policy. I have always been a champion of a more open system. As I watch these recent developments, my conviction on this matter only grows stronger.
P.S. I remain well aware that opinions are varied and sharply divided on this debate. For yet another example of just how varied, check out the reader comments to this CrunchGear article. Whatever your opinion on the matter may be, I’m sure you’ll find at least one posting here that agrees with you! For the record, I agree with those who say Apple should be able to decide what it allows in its App Store — even if I object to its decisions. I don’t agree that Apple should be allowed to completely determine what I put on my iPhone.