App Store policies, in-app video ads, and dark matter deductions

There's been some consternation recently about Apple rejecting apps that contain video ads encouraging people to watch them or share them in exchange for in-app rewards. No doubt it's worrisome to the advertising agencies and developers involved in those apps, but some of the theories as to what exactly was happening tended towards the overly complex, and in some cases, conspiratorial. Tim Cook famously said that, when it comes to Apple hardware plans, looking at one piece of supply chain data didn't allow for the drawing of any meaningful conclusions. Likewise, looking at ad network complaints and developer reactions doesn't necessarily allow for any useful insight into App Store policies. So, what exactly has been going on?

  1. Going back to the introduction of the App Store, Apple made it clear that situations would inevitably emerge that couldn't be anticipated beforehand. When that happens, Apple has to figure them out.

  2. Apple doesn't allow apps to try and manipulate App Store ratings, reviews, or ranking in any way, shape, or form. That includes trying to coerce people into downloading other apps, be it from the same developer or another developer on the same ad network.

  3. Static analyzers aside, the App Store review team is made up of human beings who, whenever unforeseen business models or marketing tactics arise, have to work out how to deal with them.

Taken all together it means that, when something new happens, some apps will initially get through that probably shouldn't. Apple will adjust. Some apps that probably should get through won't. Apple will adjust again. Balance will be achieved.

It's not a perfect system but then there's no such thing. Some scammers may take advantage of customers at first. Some legitimate ad placements and developers might get frustrated in the interim. Lines will be fuzzy. Feedback, both from customers and developers will have to inform and evolve them. But in most cases it will settle down fairly quickly.

What's highly unlikely is Apple flip flopping on App Store policies or the iAd team getting involved in any way. That's not a meaningful conclusion or useful insight based on the information at hand. It's not even dark matter.

What's far more likely, meaningful, and useful is that some apps, ad networks, and developers tried to game the system. Since they were in clear violation of existing App Store policies, Apple figured out what they were doing and booted them for it. A few apps with similar advertising schemes got caught in the crossfire, which is unfortunate. But Apple figured that out too, tightened their aim, and is now making sure only the scammers are getting the boot.

And so we're left with this — Ad networks and developers are free to use video ads and offer in-app rewards for doing so, they're simply, and still, not allowed to encourage App Store manipulation by rewarding ratings, reviews, and downloads.

That's as it was and as it should be.

There remain significant challenges in the App Store. Search could do with auto-widening and nearest neighbor results. The focus needs to shift from the most apps to the best ones. The value of the platform — the ability for developers to earn a living making high-quality, useful apps — needs to be championed.

iOS 8 is going to address some of that with new App Store features like Editors' Choice badges, video previews, the new, scrolling search results screens, trends, the Explore tab, app bundles, updated analytics, TestFlight, and everything else Apple has planned for this fall and beyond.

Rather than incentivized video ads, as a customer, that's where I'd like to see everyone's attention focused. How about you?