It’s a great urban legend. In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News of Alamogordo, New Mexico, reported in a series of articles that between ten and twenty semi-trailer truckloads of Atari boxes, cartridges, and systems from an Atari storehouse in El Paso, Texas were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city… it has been speculated that most unsold copies of E.T. are buried in this landfill, crushed and encased in cement.
The reason for the burial? There was little to no quality control over Atari 2600 video games and any vendor could put out what they wanted to for the system. The result was a glut of mediocre cartridges that no one wanted to purchase and the next result was that the 2600 died as a result of too much content. Too much mediocre and crappy content, that is.
That brings us to last week’s news that Apple was in the process of purging titles from the app store. Most, it seems, had to do with scantily clad men and women basically doing nothing but being scantily clad. Through the miracle of science one could even arrange some of the “models” to remove their clothes and even perhaps jiggle with near realistic fidelity. Of course, this led to a mini-backlash of cries of censorship, first amendment rights and in general another round of Apple bashing, especially as some of these titles appeared to be selling.
With the caveat that I’m not a lawyer, I fail to see where any arguments of First Amendment rights might remotely come into play here. The Apple store is privately owned. Apple can put whatever is wishes into the store or remove what it wishes and there’s no legal argument against it, to the best of my knowledge. Apple is no different than a religious school that chooses to teach creationism alongside evolution, of even a website choosing to close comments when things get out of hand. You might not like any of those things and of course, you have the right not to patronize those institutions or organizations. (perhaps my most amusing email last week was from a reporter claiming that Apple was banning tech site apps and therefore censoring the news). From now on, before we toss around words like “censorship” and “first amendment rights”, let’s at least know what we’re talking about.
I have not spoken with Apple on this issue but let’s go back to Atari and that buried ET game. It’s good to have to have content for your platform. It’s also a double edged sword. Too much bad content hurts that platform as well. In fact, in the post Atari 2600 world game vendors simply don’t let anyone make games for their consoles. Third parties needed to get their content approved, the first party would actually create the cart or disk and then sell them back to the game vendor who was then free to sell them as they wished. It was one way to make sure there wouldn’t be glut of mediocrity killing the platform.
The truth is, while Apple’s system is far from perfect, no supervision sucks. Just look at what’s happening to the quality of other mobile platforms such as Android, where apps can pretty much run amok, including phishing scams, until they’re user reported, vetted and finally pulled. I can’t speak for Apple but it appears many apps were passing through the guidelines but were as a whole bringing down the quality of the experience of the whole ecosystem. Apple needed to take action, especially in light of the iPad close to shipping. Now, it’s unfortunate that developers who have had apps approved had seen them removed but I also understand that when these types of apps start taking over the store shelves, it’s not unreasonable for the manager to make a clean sweep, especially if catering to an family audience. At the same time, it would be good for Apple to come up with a better plan of approving and segregating these apps to make sure this situation doesn’t happen again.
Having said that, and perhaps it’s a subjective view but I do think there’s a difference between Dirty Fingers Sexy Screen Wash and a digital edition of Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition that goes beyond cleavage. In the end, the market will agree and support Apple’s move or find elsewhere to buy. One way or another, the free market (if there really is one for these type of apps) will prevail.