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Apple’s Rules Tell Developers Precisely Whose Time It Is

·Contributing Editor

Did you hear the one about how Apple Watch apps from third-party developers aren’t allowed to tell the time?

No, really. It’s an actual rule from Apple listed under Section 10 of the company’s “App Store Review Guidelines.” It reads: “Watch Apps whose primary function is telling time will be rejected.”

The Apple Watch represents an unprecedented leap forward by Apple in many ways, but the workings of its app store isn’t one of them. As it has done with the iPhone and the iPad, Apple has specific ideas about what third-party apps can and cannot do.

Color Inside the Lines

Apple’s guidelines outlining its App Store rules, in which the phrase “will be rejected” appears 103 times, should make one thing clear: The Apple Watch platform isn’t really all that open.

And Apple doesn’t just want to ban apps that crash, violate users’ privacy, or threaten their security. It also uses its rules to class up the joint.

As a line from the intro to the review guidelines states: “If your App doesn’t do something useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment, or if your App is plain creepy, it may not be accepted.”

The problem this creates for Apple — beyond the inherent difficulty of repealing Sturgeon’s law, the principle that “90 percent of everything is crap” — is that subjective rules enforced by busy people rarely make for consistent enforcement. Or happy developers.

It’s one thing for Apple to refuse one Apple Watch fart app as precedent and then decline all others. It’s another for the company to eject a popular marijuana-themed game from the App Store while others remain.

Meanwhile, outside developers whose apps may compete with Apple’s present or potential products can only guess if an App Store rejection was motivated by self-interest.

For instance, when Apple rejected an update to a navigation app that had mentioned support for Pebble’s smartwatches, was that the reason? An Apple rep told Wired no, the rejection was a mistake.

But banning watch-face apps? It could be read as an attempt by Apple to prevent a flood of crummy-looking watch faces or to outright halt the development of apps that duplicate a core Apple Watch feature (telling time). Or perhaps the company’s reserving the watch-face market for itself and, later on, some specially picked partners.

Apple Has Actually Made This Work

There are many reasons to dislike Apple’s we-know-what’s-best approach to mobile apps, and I’ve expressed most of them at one time or another.

Apple has scaled up its supervision as its App Store has grown. And it has grown a lot: The App Store’s inventory has grown from 800 or so titles at its debut in 2008 (which is less than what’s available for the Apple Watch today) to more than 1.4 million apps.

Along the way, Apple has made its review process a little more transparent — up until September of 2010, it didn’t have any published rules, leaving developers to guess whether an app’s ability to display definitions of swear words, a text-only copy of the Kama Sutra, or political cartoons would get it rejected.

(In all three cases, the answer was “yes” until a public outcry got Apple to reverse each rejection.)

Now the rules are at least public, and Apple also maintains a page devoted solely to explaining some common App Store rejections.

Meanwhile, the more important fact about the App Store, relative to Google Play, remains its demonstrated ability to make more money for developers. The market-research shop App Annie reported that in the first quarter of this year, the App Store’s worldwide revenue was 70 percent higher than Play’s — even though Google’s app market had 70 percent more downloads than Apple’s.

Google seems to have taken note that overall app quality affects revenues, and it announced in March that several months earlier, it had begun reviewing Android apps for violations of its own app rules before posting them on Google Play. But it says its reviewers deliver judgment in hours, not “days or weeks.”

Apple Could Do Better

If you don’t like the way Apple runs its App Store, it’s not as if there’s an easy workaround. While Google allows users to download Android apps from sources it doesn’t run, Apple does not. (At least not for consumers: Developers can enroll small numbers of users in test apps that bypass the App Store.)

But Apple could and should make the App Store work better for its users and its developers. The App Store makes it unnecessarily hard to see if a developer has done a good job in general. To see what other apps a developer has shipped requires an extra tap or click, and then you need to bring up each title’s entry to see its user rating.

Apple would also ease a lot of concerns about favoring its own apps if it would let users choose third-party replacements as their defaults. We can do that with third-party keyboards now; why not let an alternative mapping app, e-mail client, or Web browser replace the device’s defaults? 

Which brings us back to the Apple Watch: Yes, Apple, your watch faces are beautiful. So why not let your customers take this, the most personal of your devices ever, and personalize it even more.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at@robpegoraro.