Thoughts on Apple’s new App Store Guidelines


As you’ve no doubt heard, Apple has finally pulled back the veil of secrecy and ambiguity that surrounds the application review process for the App Store, publishing a very frank and straightforward set of App Store Review Guidelines designed to let iOS application developers know what to expect from the review process and therefore how to build their applications to meet Apple’s requirements.

The document is clearly written in plain, and perhaps even somewhat blunt language and opens with an introduction setting the tone for what Apple expects from successful App Store developers. The emphasis here is on producing tasteful and professional apps that are well thought out and perform useful tasks or provide lasting entertainment. The document comes right out and says “We don’t need any more Fart apps” and “if your app looks like it was cobbled together in a few days” it will be rejected. Apple also makes it pretty clear that the App Store should not be considered a place for free speech or self-expression:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.

Digging into the document a bit, it’s worth pondering what has really changed, and whether this new set of Guidelines represents a relaxation in some of Apple’s policies or simply a codification of limitations that were previously left ambiguous and therefore to the seeming capriciousness of Apple’s App Store Reviewers.

Some of the limitations are obvious and have been there since day one, albeit not in as plain form. Apps that crash, exhibit bugs, don’t do what they say they do, or use parts of the hardware or iOS that they shouldn’t will be rejected. No real surprises there.

Beyond this, however, there are a few new restrictions that don’t seem to have applied to apps in the past—at least not originally. Whether this is just because these apps slipped through Apple’s review process is difficult to say, but it more likely suggests that Apple has been making up the rules as it goes along and has only now come up with enough of them to produce an actual document. Even so, these new Guidelines still contain more than a few wide nets that Apple can cast at its sole discretion. Even terms like “lasting entertainment value” can be pretty open to interpretation.

For instance, Section 2.11 states

2.11 Apps that duplicate apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them.

Although it would seem that this is intended to prevent direct copycat apps, there’s a lot of room here to define what constitutes a “duplicate,” particularly with the wide variety of similar apps we’ve seen in the past for services like Twitter.

This could be intended to eliminate some of the barely functional “serial apps” that are put out, such as dozens of different speed dialers that differ only in the icon used for them and apps used only to display single photos. However, Section 2.20 addresses this:

2.20 Developers “spamming” the App Store with many versions of similar apps will be removed from the iOS Developer Program.

On the subject of barely functional apps, the new Guidelines contain several sections pertaining to the kind of basic apps that the company doesn’t want to see, which may serve to eliminate some of the digital business cards and “appified” web sites that we’ve seen in the past.

2.12 Apps that are not very useful or do not provide any lasting entertainment value may be rejected

2.13 Apps that are primarily marketing materials or advertisements will be rejected

12.3 Apps that are simply web clippings, content aggregators, or a collection of links, may be rejected

It will be interesting to see how rigidly Apple applies these policies. For example, will a “business card” app be approved if it includes a novelty calculator or puzzle game?  What about an “appified” web site that provides the ability to e-mail links or share on Twitter and Facebook?

Section 3 deals primarily with the truth in advertising aspect of application descriptions, icons and keywords, but also bars the mention of Apple’s competition in App Store descriptions.

3.1 “Apps with metadata that mentions the name of any other mobile platform will be rejected.”

We’ve seen this policy enforced before, but it’s nice to see that it’s now codified right here in plain language.

It should also come as no surprise that Apple clearly prohibits gaming the App Store review system, an offense we’ve already seen at least one developer booted for.

3.10 Developers who attempt to manipulate or cheat the user reviews or chart ranking in the App Store with fake or paid reviews, or any other inappropriate methods will be removed from the iOS Developer Program

A lot of the information in the guidelines also pertains to privacy and ensuring that in-app purchases are used in an appropriate manner. The Guidelines clearly state that user consent is required before using any location data, transmitting data about a user or sending Push Notifications, and that Push Notifications cannot be used to send personal or confidential information, unsolicited messages or any kind of advertising, promotions, or direct marketing.

4.1 Apps that do not notify and obtain user consent before collecting, transmitting, or using location data will be rejected

5.3 Apps that send Push Notifications without first obtaining user consent will be rejected 5.4 Apps that send sensitive personal or confidential information using Push Notifications will be

5.5 Apps that use Push Notifications to send unsolicited messages, or for the purpose of phishing or spamming will be rejected

5.6 Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind

17.1 Apps cannot transmit data about a user without obtaining the user’s prior permission and providing the user with access to information about how and where the data will be used

Likewise, a section on Game Center makes it abundantly clear that the information in the Game Center network is to be treated with extreme discretion, preventing apps from even displaying a Game Center user’s Player ID.

6.1 Apps that display any Player ID to end users or any third party will be rejected

6.2 Apps that use Player IDs for any use other than as approved by the Game Center terms will be rejected

6.3 Developers that attempt to reverse lookup, trace, relate, associate, mine, harvest, or otherwise exploit Player IDs, alias, or other information obtained through the Game Center will be removed from the iOS Developer Program

Section 5.7 on Push Notifications provides an interesting new policy prohibiting apps from charging for the use of Push Notifications.

5.7 Apps cannot charge users for use of Push Notifications

This is one area which we’ve clearly seen apps violate in the past by offering in-app purchase options simply to enable push notification features. However, it’s unclear where this line is: Apps that charge only to enable Push Notifications are out, but what about apps that offer other Push Notification related services? For example, Boxcar previously used a per-service based in-app purchase model where users would buy additional notification services, including push notifications, although it dropped in-app purchases back in June and went to an ad-supported model instead.

Under section 11 on purchasing, the Guidelines emphasize in the same vein that in-app purchases cannot be used to unlock built-in hardware or iOS capabilities.

11.8 Apps that use IAP to purchase access to built-in capabilities provided by iOS, such as the camera or the gyroscope, will be rejected.

In essence, Apple doesn’t want developers nickel-and-diming users for features that Apple has already provided.

In fact, the Purchasing section provides some interesting clarifications on what in-app purchasing can and cannot be used for, and how it should work. Apps cannot unlock or enable additional features or functionality or add content or services using any system other than the In App Purchase system, but cannot use the In App Purchase system to purchase physical goods or goods and services used outside of the application.

11.1 Apps that unlock or enable additional features or functionality with mechanisms other than the App Store will be rejected

11.2 Apps utilizing a system other than the In App Purchase API (IAP) to purchase content, functionality, or services in an app will be rejected

11.3 Apps using IAP to purchase physical goods or goods and services used outside of the application will be rejected

This explains the logic behind PayPal’s mobile payment library, since this is designed to be used for physical goods and services. Apps such as Kindle or Nook should also continue to be safe, since content is not purchased in the app, but rather via a web browser. Further, both Kindle and Nook content can be used outside of the application, as per section 11.3.

Another interesting Guideline indicates that subscription-based in-app purchases must be valid for at least 30 days and that users must be able to access the subscription from any of their iOS devices.

11.6 Content subscriptions using IAP must last a minimum of 30 days and be available to the user from all of their iOS devices.

This has been a point of confusion ever since subscription-based in-app purchases became available. It has never been a big problem for one-time purchases as the App Store treats a re-purchase of an in-app upgrade in the same way as re-purchasing an actual app, allowing the user to apply the purchase again at no additional charge. Subscriptions are a problem by their very nature, however, since they expire and need to be re-purchased. In this case, the App Store would generally offer to extend the user’s subscription and charge the user for the extension. Several apps have previously offered shorter-term subscriptions, and apps such as MotionX GPS originally fell afoul of the requirement to be accessible on all devices, originally requiring users to purchase separate subscriptions on each iOS device. The company has since changed its approach and now associated subscriptions with a user account so that multiple devices logging into the same account can all benefit from the same subscription.

The new Guidelines also have a fair bit to say about user interface, making it pretty clear that Apple expects developers to read and abide by its Human Interface Guideilnes, something that many developers have been remiss about doing in the past.

10.1 Apps must comply with all terms and conditions explained in the Apple iPhone Human Interface Guidelines and the Apple iPad Human Interface Guidelines

10.3 Apps that do not use system provided items, such as buttons and icons, correctly and as described in the Apple iPhone Human Interface Guidelines and the Apple iPad Human Interface Guidelines may be rejected

In fact, Apple goes so far as to state that it reserves the right to reject apps if it simply doesn’t like the user interface.

10.6 Apple and our customers place a high value on simple, refined, creative, well thought through interfaces. They take more work but are worth it. Apple sets a high bar. If your user interface is complex or less than very good it may be rejected

Further, Apple expects developers to use its UI for what it was built to do, so designing your own UI paradigm is out, as is making the hardware buttons do things they aren’t supposed to do.

10.4 Apps that create alternate desktop/home screen environments or simulate multi-app widget experiences will be rejected

10.5 Apps that alter the functions of standard switches, such as the Volume Up/Down and Ring/Silent switches, will be rejected

However, developers need to make sure their apps don’t resemble Apple’s UI too closely, as one developer discovered when its app was pulled for resembling the Messages app UI.

10.2 Apps that look similar to apps bundled on the iPhone, including the App Store, iTunes Store, and iBookstore, will be rejected

When developing streaming apps, developers must also be careful not to use too much cellular bandwidth:

9.3 Audio streaming content over a cellular network may not use more than 5MB over 5 minutes

9.4 Video streaming content over a cellular network longer than 10 minutes must use HTTP Live Streaming and include a baseline 64 kbps audio-only HTTP Live stream

Other than some more technical and obvious legal details, most of the other provisions in the new Guidelines center on app content, which even despite these new guidelines, continues to be amorphous at best.

While most issues on objectionable content are covered later in the document, section 2 on Functionality includes a seemingly out-of-place restriction.

2.18 Apps that encourage excessive consumption of alcohol or illegal substances, or encourage minors to consume alcohol or smoke cigarettes, will be rejected

Other content, taste and propriety issues are covered in more appropriate sections near the end of the document. Section 14 deals with prohibiting Personal attacks while making an exemption for professional political satirists and humorists. What constitutes a “professional” is not exactly defined, however.

14.1 Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harms way will be rejected

14.2 Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary

Section 15 addresses violence in apps, including games, with an oddly-specific reference to games of Russian roulette.

15.1 Apps portraying realistic images of people or animals being killed or maimed, shot, stabbed,
tortured or injured will be rejected

15.2 Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected

15.3 “Enemies” within the context of a game cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity

15.4 Apps involving realistic depictions of weapons in such a way as to encourage illegal or reckless use of such weapons will be rejected

15.5 Apps that include games of Russian roulette will be rejected

Sections 16 and 18 cover Objectionable Content and Pornography, respectively, including a prohibition on apps that provide access to external user-generated content that is “frequently pornographic.”

16.1 Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected

16.2 Apps that are primarily designed to upset or disgust users will be rejected

18.1 Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings”, will be rejected

18.2 Apps that contain user generated content that is frequently pornographic (ex “Chat Roulette” apps) will be rejected

The question of what constitutes pornography is an issue that developers have been wrestling with for some time and Apple has tried to clarify this before. It’s unclear whether these new guidelines really provide any clarity on this issue, although certainly other guidelines that prevent minimally functional apps from appearing on the App Store may help to weed out some of the more obvious examples that we’ve seen.

In the end, Apple providing some clarification of its App Store Review policies is a huge step in the right direction, providing some transparency to a process that in the past sometimes appeared to be dictated by little more sense than a blind monkey with a dartboard. In looking at many of the cases for rejection we’ve seen in the past two years in the light of these new Guidelines, it’s pretty clear that building the App Store has been a learning experience for both Apple and iOS developers alike, and that what we see today is largely a codification of this learning process. Even Apple concedes that today’s guidelines are a “living document” that will change as new apps present new questions and new challenges.

A great next step for Apple from here would be to provide a version explaining these Guidelines to its App Store customers at large rather than the current developer-focused document. This would help to diffuse much of the confusion that has in the past surrounded the “walled garden” of the App Store. Regardless, this new transparency should help developers and the public at large understand what the App Store is all about, and while there’s still a lot of room for interpretation, it seems that we can all walk away with a better understanding of what to expect—and what not to expect, from the App Store experience.



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Jesse Hollington

Jesse Hollington was a Senior Editor at iLounge. He's written about Apple technology for nearly a decade and had been covering the industry since the early days of iLounge. In his role at iLounge, he provided daily news coverage, wrote and edited features and reviews, and was responsible for the overall quality of the site's content.