Report: Apple struggling to police fake apps in Chinese App Store

A new report from TechCrunch suggests that Apple may be struggling to properly vet content in its App Store in China, particularly where copycat apps are concerned. The report cites the example of a Japanese app called “Tabi Kaeru” (“Travel Frog”) that became an unexpected hit in China, resulting in more than 30 knock-off copycat apps looking to profit off its success. While Apple has become very successful at dealing with such apps within the U.S. App Store, the company was clearly not as well-prepared to deal with the issue in the Chinese App Store, where at least one knock-off, an app named 旅行青蛙, managed to not only survive long enough to generate significant revenue for the developer, but also rise to the top of the App Store charts, displacing the original genuine app for the better part of a day.

The problem was apparently exacerbated by the fact that the developer behind 旅行青蛙 was also able to take out paid App Store ads against specific hot keywords in order to attract more attention, and that somehow the official game was delisted from those same keyword searches. Although it wasn’t entirely clear if the developer of 旅行青蛙 was actually behind that or it was merely a coincidence, but it definitely benefited the rise of 旅行青蛙. According to Samin Sha, Chief Analyst at China Channel, by the time Apple pulled 旅行青蛙 from the App Store, it was estimated to have been downloaded as many as 30,000 times, meaning that it could easily have netted the developer a payout of around $100,000, although Sha notes that as a fake app, some of that would likely have been returned in refunds.

Sha added, however, that he believes that the entire move was planned on the part of the fake app’s developer, who “seemed to know all of the rules of the App Store, and where Apple is weak.” Further, 旅行青蛙 was just one of about 30 copycat apps identified by Sha and his team which appeared over the course of several days — Apple would oddly remove some of the fake apps each day, while continuing to approve new knockoffs that appeared on the App Store, according to data from China Channel.

The bigger oddity and concern, however, is the irony of a company that has clearly been quick to police the App Store in China at the behest of the Chinese government, dropping VPN apps, Skype, and even The New York Times over the past year or so, yet doesn’t seem to otherwise be keeping a close watch on the country’s App Store. Although Apple has declined to comment on how it vets apps in China, a number of developers and app marketers have suggested that either Apple has outsourced its App Store vetting process to a local third-party, or that Apple’s U.S. based App Store review team is simply out of touch with the trends and culture in China. Sha adds that “Apple doesn’t have a localization strategy in place so they don’t really keep track with what’s happening in the China App Store. Bad practices like this have become quite common.”

After TechCrunch contacted Apple to highlight the issue and request comment, the company confirmed that the Tabi Kaeru clone apps have been removed from the App Store, but did not respond to questions about the processed that it uses to vet apps in China, simply pointing to section 4.1 of its App Store Review Guidelines, prohibiting copycat apps.


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.