Apple Needs a New App Store Category: Apps of Dubious Repute
Once again, Apple's App Store is at the center of controversy, this time over apps that purport to "cure" homosexuality and ones that point out where tonight's DUI checkpoints are. Having a vetted app outlet is great, but isn't Apple sick of the deluge of complaints that inevitably roll in when one acts as an arbiter of taste? Perhaps what Apple needs is a legitimate dark-side store where dubious apps can be sold openly.
03/24/11 5:00 AM PT
I don't want anyone deciding for me which information I can or cannot consume. And yet I very much like the idea of someone vetting applications in the Apple App Store so that I have less risk of downloading and using malware apps, which our free-livin' friends who use Android-based smartphones recently had to deal with.
At the same time, I can't imagine any parent wanting a grade-school-aged child to stumble upon a Kama Sutra in the Apple App Store, nor can I imagine much of a need for a nine-year-old boy to play with a breast-jiggling app that shows off how the physics engine inside Apple's iOS can replicate vigorous motion with mammary glands.
But nakedness and fun time play isn't dangerous in and of itself; it's the power to shape thought that really gets people all riled up. Take, for example, the controversial "Gay cure" app released by a Christian organization called "Exodus International" that has members that have been gay or have had gay attractions. There's lots of information about this app on the Web, but I can't even find what the actual name of the app is or was, and Exodus International doesn't say either, though the app name might really have been just "Exodus International."
I could call them up directly and possibly get through to a PR person who's in the know, but really, I don't care whether they're gay, ex-gay, hate gays, or want to change gays. Plus, by my definitions of anything resembling science and the vagaries of the universe, I would have rejected their application to the App Store myself, but not because it had anything to do with gayness -- I would have rejected it for being stupid.
Of Course, That Would Be if I Were in Charge
I'm perfectly fine making my own decisions, but I recognize that others A) want to make most of their own decisions, and B) that they ought to be smart enough to make their own decisions in the first place.
So Apple gets stuck making decisions and being the arbiter of good taste for the world by virtue of creating a smartphone, an application store ecosystem, and a tablet that continues to blissfully ignore the so-called competition. Talk about centralized power!
So how can Apple get around this? Apps that are in good taste in America could get a person executed in other countries of the world. Cultures are diverse and different, for better or worse. Perhaps we could all vote on apps, right, so the best apps would get enough votes and be in the Apple App Store. How do the sensibilities of the populace sound as a vetting mechanism?
Hmm ... who wants to be led by a bunch of sheep? Who wants to be led by a bunch of sheep running from a slobbering wolf? Does anyone want to be led by a bunch of bored teenagers who might actually have the time to vote?
Does Information Still Want to Be Free?
Meanwhile, four U.S. Senators -- Senators, mind you, not Representatives -- are demanding that Apple yank apps from its App Store that can be used to identify where local police officers have set up DUI checkpoints, all in the name of public safety, apparently.
Seriously? Our Senators want to limit free and clear communication? If Congress really wanted to take a stand on drunk driving, why not do something vastly more effective: Start having police officers stake out bars every Friday night and follow anyone who seems too drunk to drive. That would be effective, but we, as a country, have chosen not to do that on purpose.
Fortunately, where I live, I don't have to worry about DUI checkpoints. Not that I'm a drunk driver, but the fact remains, I sure as heck ought to be able to know about things that might hamper my ability to get from point A to point B. I can only imagine the irritation of perfectly sober drivers trying to get to the airport on time to get through security and make a flight home only to get waved to the side of the road for a little testing.
But this really isn't about the stupidity of Senators trying to fix the wrong problems. I'm not even sure it's about government stepping in to regulate apps. But it's definitely about a whole new communication delivery model that is sort of like the wild and free Internet ... but totally unlike it at the same time.
One thing is clear, however: As billions of adults carry smartphones with them everywhere they go, all the time, and with millions of children doing same, along with smart media devices, apps represent an amazing source of power.
Some governments (and people) are more scared of that than others, of course.
Me, I just want some people with a basic level of common sense (aligned with my sensibilities, of course) to cut out the crappy clutter and highlight the cool stuff.
But it's getting harder and harder to trust Apple to do that, partially because Apple is thrust into the spotlight so that its decisions become acts of political power. Can you imagine Steve Jobs here? "Dude," he might say, "I just wanted to make something magical! I just had dinner with President Obama, and now I wonder when I'm going to get called before Congress so our Senators can use Apps as political chess pieces."
It Gets So Much Worse
The Apple App Store is not a fair playing field. When apps from established magazines like Sports Illustrated and Playboy get to show scantily clad women but upstarts don't make the cut, there's a bit of a problem. How big? I'm not sure. Can you imagine anyone throwing a fit because a brick-and-mortar retail store declined to sell a product?
If Home Depot declined to sell a shower-powered vibrator, would it raise any eyebrows at all? Not one!
And yet Apple is at the nexus of this mess. The problem is, they aren't up the task -- no one is, not even me.
What Apple Needs Is Another Outlet: Dubious Apps
The NSFW category, for example, is a baseline starting point, but it may be too conservative. An app that would get you fired at work could make you a hero in a bar. Still, some apps have value that crosses various lines. For example, it's possible that Exodus International has some value. And yet, if the base premise is to cure gayness, it's dubious.
If I'm a sober guy needing to get from one place to another, I want to avoid road construction, broken water mains, and DUI checkpoints. If I'm drunk and can read my smartphone to avoid police while driving, that's dubious too. These apps clearly have split levels of value. What's Apple to do?
Apple ought to have enough brains to be able to recognize these gray-area apps without needing to ban or censor them outright. And censor, isn't that an interesting word. Remember, Apple is just a corporation with popular niche products, and yet, see how the company's success has elevated to a huge position of cultural power?
The only win for Apple is to avoid that power (and responsibility).
So a new category called "Dubious Apps" is a good idea. And this entire category could be turned off for kids by responsible parents.
But that just sets up another point of distinction, right? Like NC-17 vs. rated R for movies. When will we need a Super-Duper Dubious Apps category?
Ah come on! We don't. We just need a way to deal with another 0.05 percent of apps that have a bit of value ... or that we are hesitant to censor because we understand where willy-nilly censorship leads. (To darkness, baby, censorship leads to black redacted content and darkness of mind and spirit. Darkness! And most of us like sunshine.)
OK, sorry about that, back on track: I mean, who wouldn't appreciate a friendly heads up from Apple re some of these dubious apps?
Maybe we should start a petition. If anti-Exodus International folks can get 150,000 signatures, you'd think a Dubious App category petition could get a few hundred thousand. Now we just need to find a person who's suitably morally outraged to lead the charge. Anyone? I'll sign it.