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’s 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 Watch feature (telling time). Or perhaps the company 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’s grown a lot: The App Store’s inventory has was 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.