Sometimes, the qualities that makes a product great are the same qualities that makes it such a huge headache. Take Apple's App Store. Here's an invention that has transformed the iPhone – already a font of cultural cache – into the hottest new gaming platform around.
By lowering the fee for fledgling developers, and opening their doors wide, Apple has ushered in a new generation of whip-smart titles – games created not by a sprawling corporation in California, but one dude working out of his mom's basement.
Last week, Apple announced that it hit another landmark: 1.5 billion applications downloaded.
At the same time, the App Store's relatively low bar-of-entry has yielded a couple media firestorms. In April, for instance, the "Baby Shaker" game hit the market. The idea for the game was pretty simple: quiet down a baby by shaking your iPhone or iPod. Shake long enough, and a couple of X’s materialized over the baby’s eyes.
After child protection groups protested, Apple yanked the game off the market. A month later, the same ruling was meted out to “Me So Holy,” an application which let users snap a photo of themselves, and affix it to the body of Jesus.
The latest game to raise the pulse of the blogosphere is "Zombie School," a shooter produced by a company called Retarded Arts. Long story, short, "Zombie School" puts the gamer on a campus invested by zombies, and encourages him to blast his way out, with the help of a small arsenal of weapons.
The game, PC World's Brandon Slattery wrote today, "[pushes] the boundaries of good taste in a post-Columbine society," and "essentially glorifies school shootings, thinly veiled under the guise of a zombie game."
Others have pointed out that Retarded Arts is apparently attempting to stir up an extra modicum of disgust by astro-turfing several prominent online forums. According to Robin Wauters at TechCrunch, several posts complaining that the game is “promoting school shooting" were placed by a representative of Retarded Arts.
The real issue
As of this post, Apple had not issued any comment on "Zombie School," and the game remained available for under a dollar on the App Store. But even if the company does decide to yank the game – and it's looking pretty likely, to judge by the trajectory of past controversies – Apple's got a deeper problem on its hands.
Over at Computer World, Peter Wayner has penned a long – and highly readable – account of his own struggle to get an application rammed past the team at the App Store. "Apple's App Store is the only way to share your applications with the world," he writes, "and it is lorded over by an inscrutable team of guardians devoted to maintaining control over the platform."
Elsewhere, he weighs the lessons of the dot-com bubble:
Back in 1995, Bill Gates took one look at the Internet and scrapped his dreams of dominating online life with MSN. Apple would do well to look over his memo because there are indications that the beautiful design and wonderful experience of the iPhone can't withstand the tidal wave of ingenuity out there. Creativity will find expression, and bored developers waiting for approval will check out other platform.
In other words, Wayner sees the App Store's apparatus as unequal to the demand – there are thousands of developers, eager to get their applications live. There's also a shaky approval process. In the long run, that could yield disaster.
So what's the solution?
As we've written here before, Apple could go open-source, and allow a crowd of developers to vet the submissions of the individual. Questionable content could be flagged; the worst of the chaff could be cut from the wheat. Apple would avoid looking like an iron-fisted censor – although the company could retain the right to veto the crowd – and everything would move along in a much more orderly fashion.
Barring that, Apple should consider shedding light on the approval process. As one commentator on a iPhone message board wrote last year, Apple might introduce a system "where developers can not only communicate with Apple via email, conference chat with iChat AV and use a bug reporting system, but also allow developers to communicate with each other."
Sunlight, after all, is the best disinfectant.
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