Apple’s App Store promotional page proudly proclaims, in big bold letters:
The App Store has been a trusted and safe place to find and download apps for over a decade. The App Store is not just a place to download apps. It’s a destination that offers amazing experiences. We ensure that all apps we offer meet the highest standards of privacy, security, content, and confidentiality. We offer almost two million apps and want you to feel confident about each one.
I think that for millions of users, this statement is kinda a joke. Scam apps, knockoffs and deceptive and exploitive sub-scription fees are all common in the App Store. Fake reviews also help to support it. this Week’s Wordle kerfuffle is a good example.
The problems are apparent to all who have used the App Store or the wider app ecosystem. However, they may not be obvious to casual users. That’s even worse: iPhone users are being lulled into downloading untrue apps and paying monthly subscription fees to trash that rarely works.
It doesn’t have to be like this, and it’s past time for Apple clean up.
Wordle was just the most recent example
There was a lot of talk about the recent spate of Wordle apps that appeared in the App Store. The web-based game has become a big hit, it’s free, and it’s and only available on the web. Many enterprising hucksters copied it completely, including its name, and sold it on the App Store. One of them even had the gall to charge a $30 per year subscription fee!
It got a lot of press, largely because so many in the tech press are playing and enjoying Wordle, and it didn’t take long for Apple to do the right thing and remove them. (If you want the real Wordle as an “app” on your home screen, we’ll tell you the easy way to do that. )
But Apple seems to have made this decision because it was receiving a lot negative press. Apps copied from other apps are very common in the app stores, and have been for many years. These apps are easy to find. Apps that trick you into believing they are something else will be the same.
If you buy a Samsung smart appliance or TV, you will probably be encouraged to download Samsung’s SmartThings app, which lets you control your TV and other smart home devices.
If you search for it in the App Store you will see many apps that are designed to trick users into downloading them. One is called “Smartthings TV remote control,” another is “Smart Things for Smart TV.” They are free to download but have in-app purchases, and generally require a subscription to actually use as intended.
You can’t rely on the first search result to be the genuine free Samsung app. Apple sold an add to another app to make it appear in that search result. “Smart TV Things for Sam TV App” is free but requires a $30 yearly subscription to unlock all its features, and it’s the first thing a person would see if they searched for “smart things.”
We’re not referring to a single developer who makes a simple word game. This smart home platform is for one of the largest electronic manufacturers in the world, with trademarks and copyrights. What choice is the average developer given if Apple doesn’t allow scam apps to target them?
Knockoff applications are one thing, but exploitive “trash app” are another. A recent Twitter thread from Kosta Eleftheriou gives just one real-world example of the breed. Create a simple app that does a basic task (in this instance, it is a volume booster). Fake five-star app reviews in the thousands. Make the app have a huge subscription cost ($10 a week for volume boosting!) It is very difficult to cancel. Relax and enjoy the profits.
AppMe has responded to the criticism by lowering its subscription costs and vowing to look into its “outside consultants,” according to an email sent to The Verge. However, if one app is all that’s required to raise awareness of the problem, it is clear that the issue is much larger than just one app.
Apple could fix this
It is frustrating that Apple, which advertises its App Store as “safe, trusted, and reliable,” seems unwilling or in unable to address the problem.
This is the largest tech company in the world and it’s worth $3 trillion. If I can find several apps violating Samsung’s SmartThings trademark in under an hour, certainly a trained group of just a couple hundred people could find thousands of bad apps every week? Even if these were employees, funding for such a group would not be an error in Apple’s profits.
If humans can quickly notice that the same “users” with ridiculous names give multiple five-star reviews to several different apps in a day, day after day, surely an algorithm could very easily detect and flag fake reviews? These accounts, which were created in a matter of minutes, are now reviewing hundreds of apps.
Apple doesn’t tell developers exactly what they can or can’t charge for apps, but the App Store Review Guidelines seem to forbid copycats in section 4.1, stating, “Come up with your own ideas. You already have these ideas, so let us know what you think. You shouldn’t just copy an app from the App Store or make minor changes to the UI of another app and claim it as your own. In addition to risking an intellectual property infringement claim, it makes the App Store harder to navigate and just isn’t fair to your fellow developers.”
But, if it’s not a gentle suggestion then I can find very little evidence that Apple is actually enforcing this systemically.
Apple is incentivized to do nothing
Fixing the obvious App Store problems is not difficult for the world’s largest company. A dedicated team to detect trademark infringement and fakes, and some algorithmic analysis of app reviews…The only thing that would need some real scrutiny (and possibly a change in the App Store Guidelines), would be to prevent super-basic apps from charging exorbitant subscription prices. But that kind of thing depends on fake reviews to thrive.