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The App Store and Children, or Tim Cook's Latest Crock of Bull

The App Store and Children, or Tim Cook's Latest Crock of Bull

Tim Cook's memo to employees strikes me as a lame attempt to "leak" Apple's message ahead of the FTC's settlement announcement. What bothers me most is not Apple's lack of leadership in protecting children -- and parents -- from unscrupulous apps. It's Tim Cook's brazen assertion that Apple has outshone its competition in that regard. Amazon, for one, puts Apple to shame when it comes to kids.

By Chris Maxcer
01/16/14 5:00 AM PT

I was pleased last year when Apple finally took a proactive stance and reached out to 28 million App Store customers who might have been bamboozled by shady in-app purchases in games designed to take advantage of children. However, even that action had dubious beginnings stemming from a class action lawsuit that Apple settled this summer.

Most recently, Apple settled a similar issue with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over App Store in-app purchases, and the FTC released an announcement to that effect on Tuesday. Before the FTC could tout its "win" with Apple over the issue, Apple's CEO Tim Cook sent out an email to all employees alerting them to the agreement that Apple had just made with the FTC to provide US$32.5 million in refunds to affected customers.

So far so good. As most any iOS-loving parent will tell you, the options for locking down your iOS device to ensure that a child won't accidentally shell out real money through in-app purchases have been confusing at best -- if not outright pathetic for a company of Apple's brains and means. Reimbursing customers for unintended purchases -- some parents were billed for hundreds, some thousands of dollars -- just made smart business sense.

However, Apple's memo to employees reads as though it were intended for public consumption -- as if it were carefully crafted so that it could "accidentally" make it into the hands of the tech press prior to the FTC announcement.

PR Puffery

Frankly, it's full of Tim Cook defensively blowing hot air under the pretense of playing the good guy. This isn't what really bothers me -- it's just standard big-company-marketing-blowhard-out-of-touch-with-reality-business-as-usual standard practice. Who cares? Yet Tim Cook pretends to care, and I think he's full of crap.

Re/code "obtained" the official memo, which it republished in full. Here's what I take issue with:

"We have been negotiating with the FTC for several months over disclosures about the in-app purchase feature of the App Store, because younger customers have sometimes been able to make purchases without their parents' consent. I know this announcement will come as a surprise to many of you since Apple has led the industry by making the App Store a safe place for customers of all ages."

First of all, Apple has not led the industry in making the App Store a safe place for children. Sure, Apple curates apps so that a lot of sex- or drug-related apps don't get into its store, but it allows rampant violence instead. Protect? Hardly. All of our kids can easily find some extremely dubious apps in the short time it takes for a parent to cook up some macaroni and cheese. But hey, I think most parents know this, and they attempt to keep track of which apps their children are downloading and using -- if not approve the downloads for them.

Trouble is, a parent could download a free app that looked innocuous and fun, turn over the iPhone, iPod or iPad to junior, and within 15 minutes become obligated for all sorts of extra features or coins or gems through in-app purchases designed to make it easy for small children to tap the wrong buttons.

Apple approved many of these apps when few parents -- had they been the Apple app reviewers -- would have approved them for their own children. (And yes, I have some personal experience with this. In less than two minutes of play, while sitting right next to me, a small child managed to buy two monster trucks to the tune of US$50 to play a so-called "free" game. No way I'd ever allow any game into the App Store that offered overpriced in-app purchases in ways that would be hard for kids to ignore.)

In some ways, this is water under the bridge. Apple has since made it easier for parents to turn off in-app purchases -- as well as making the process just a bit clearer. In addition, the old default ability to buy anything for 15 minutes after entering your Apple ID has been addressed, too.

Cook's Made-for-Public-Consumption Memo Assertions Still Stink

Here's what Cook goes on to write:

"From the very beginning, protecting children has been a top priority for the App Store team and everyone at Apple. The store is thoughtfully curated, and we hold app developers to Apple's own high standards of security, privacy, usefulness and decency, among others. The parental controls in iOS are strong, intuitive and customizable, and we've continued to add ways for parents to protect their children. These controls go far beyond the features of other mobile device and OS makers, most of whom don't even review the apps they sell to children."

The parental controls in iOS are strong, intuitive, and customizable, Cook says, but he is totally out of touch. When I open my iPhone with iOS 7, nowhere on the main settings page do I see anything that vaguely represents "parental controls." That is not intuitive. Tap on iTunes & App Store. There are no parental controls.

To find any sort of control, you have to tap General, then scroll down until you notice Restrictions. Then, eventually, you'll find a way to require a password immediately for purchases. If you set that, your kid won't be able to make in-app purchases without your password. You can also eventually figure out a way to allow only apps that are rated 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+.

Intuitive? Not for any busy parent I know.

Let me tell you about a company that is actually leading the industry in parental controls and creating a safe mobile environment for children: Amazon. That's right, the tablet upstart with the line of Kindle tablets. Amazon did something that Apple -- after selling tens of millions of iPads and providing billions of app downloads -- failed to do: It created a delightful and safe tablet environment for kids, complete with critical parental controls.

Amazon has a feature called "Kindle FreeTime Unlimited." It's a special app service that lets you hand over a Kindle and let a child explore the device -- and thousands of apps -- without worrying that something bad will turn up.

Without access to your email and calendar, the child won't be able to delete your messages or contacts, or surf into sexy or violent content while you do something parental, like attempt to fill out a mess of paperwork while standing in a QuickCare waiting room with a sick, feverish kid who desperately could use a distraction.

Amazon's hand-picked apps for kids 3-to-8 years old have no ads and no in-app purchases. Speaking of hand-picked, this isn't hard to do -- it especially shouldn't be for a company with as much cash as Apple has gathering electronic dust. Apple easily could create a parental commission to hand-pick titles it could then approve.

They could be called "Parent Approved Apps." They could have their own promoted section in the App Store and become coveted for App Developers. Instead of developers seeking to reward themselves by creating apps that try to trick kids into buying gems to complete a game, they would have an incentive to create an app that was honest and worthwhile.

Yet there are even more parent-friendly features in Kindle FreeTime: You can create multiple profiles for up to four kids -- different ages, different apps. Try that with an iPad. Oh wait, you can't. Access on an iPad is pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition. What about something simple, like screen limits? This is not a new idea. Amazon lets parents limit their child's screen time through handy tools. Parents can set daily limits or even restrict games or video in favor of books.

Apple doesn't have anything like this, and yet Cook talks like Apple is a leader in this space. Apple is not. Apple is woefully behind. Sure, some of the best apps in the world are available for kids on iOS -- but parental management tools? Barely there. Uninspired. Hardly a priority. Damn, I find it sad that Cook seems to think he can persuade us that Apple is leading here.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.


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