Nobody’s calling it 'BoobGate' yet, but it’s surely only a matter of time. 5,000 apps so far have been removed from iPhone’s App Store, under Apple’s new policy barring “overt sexual content”.
Games are included in the cull, with the most high-profile being IUGO’s twinstick shooter Daisy Mae’s Alien Buffet - since restored to the App Store - along with a parade of cheapo bikini games that you’ll have been mercifully unaware of until now.
“It came to the point where we were getting customer complaints from women who found the content getting too degrading and objectionable, as well as parents who were upset with what their kids were able to see,” explained Apple’s Philip Schiller to the New York Times.
However, Apple's policy change is controversial, to say the least, having provoked considerable anger from developers affected by the rule change. Why? Several reasons.
Reason one: the lack of notice about the decision, with developers informed about the new policy as their apps were scrubbed from the store. No consultation is one thing, but no time to make changes quite another.
Reason two: inconsistencies about what kind of content is now barred. Daisy Mae fell foul of the new rules initially, but Tehra: Dark Warrior didn't, despite featuring a heroine in a thong. Both were serious games, rather than tacky adult apps.
There's a separate debate on why apps should be subject to stricter regulations than films and music on the main iTunes Store, too.
Three's the tragic number
But it's reason three that's set to cause most anger: the way the new rules appear to treat big brands and independent developers differently.
Schiller was asked by the NYT why Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit app is still available, when many apps with no more skin on show have been removed from the App Store.
“The difference is this is a well-known company with previously published material available broadly in a well-accepted format,” he said.
Think about the implications for games. An iPhone version of bikini-straining bazonga-toting beat-'em-up Dead or Alive might be acceptable, since it's an established franchise from a big console publisher, but a less salacious game from an indie developer might not be.
Think, too, about what it would mean if Apple applied similar differentiation to other kinds of content, like violence, language, or satire. One rule for the Grand Theft Autos of the world, and another for the developers hoping to build a GTA-sized franchise for iPhone?
One rule for all
It's a dangerous path for Apple, given the way the App Store's success has been built around the fact that the little guys can go head-to-head with big publishers and brands. When the indies have out-innovated their larger rivals, they've had hits.
Over time, the balance is tipping more in favour of the big fish, of course. Partly due to rising development costs (particularly in games), and partly due to the difficulty of making a game or app stand out from the 140,000-strong crowd. But that's arguably a natural process that doesn't need to be hastened by applying different content guidelines to developers and publishers according to their size and reputation.
Few quality games developers will lament the removal from the App Store of thousands of tacky bikini-match games, nor would they dispute Apple's right to set its content guidelines as it sees fit - as do all its rivals in the smartphone world.
However, changing those rules without warning, while giving big brands a free pass to bend them, risks harming Apple's reputation among the companies who've helped its App Store turn the mobile entertainment industry on its head.