As Sarah Perez at TechCrunch notes, Apple has quietly changed the wording on its App Store guidelines regarding “apps created from a commercialized template.” That’s a super boring way to refer to a problem that Apple has been trying to solve since at least June of this year: cookie-cutter apps. These are the sorts of apps that a small business or local event might have a service create and submit to the App Store for them — they’re often low quality, undifferentiated, and poorly maintained. And so back in June, Apple just straight up banned them.
But today, Apple is softening that stance a little. The new language adds a bunch of caveats after the word “rejected,” including rules that will allow templatized apps if they’re “submitted directly by the provider of the app’s content” instead of the company that builds these apps.
Submitting an app to the App Store isn’t overbearing, but it isn’t easy either, especially if you’re just a small church group or a town board. So Apple is also taking the step of waiving the $99 developer fee for “government and nonprofits starting in the U.S.” sometime in “early 2018,” TechCrunch reports (and Apple confirms in an email). Those organizations will will have to figure out how to submit apps themselves, but at least they won’t have to pay $99 a year to do it.
Apple also helpfully suggests that the companies that make these template apps find another business to get into, writing, “Another acceptable option for template providers is to create a single binary to host all client content in an aggregated or ‘picker’ model.”
That seems like a nice idea, except the whole point of getting something into the App Store is to leverage its advantages over web pages: people just understand how apps work on phones, platforms like iOS still make it too difficult to add a web page to your home screen, and most of all people expect to be able to search for the thing they want in the App Store.
But before you shed too many tears for the migration of content from the open web into gated app stores, don’t forget that Apple really is trying to solve a genuinely pernicious problem. It’s easy to spam the store with dozens or hundreds of barely-differentiated variations of something like Flappy Bird, and we’ve seen that time and again.
Even so, as Perez wrote earlier this month, there was a genuine chance small businesses and nonprofits were at risk of being hurt by the original policy. So the new rules seem designed to keep the baby and throw out the bath water.
Disclosure: part of my wife’s job involves app submission policy at the Oculus app store. You can read my ethics statement here.