Mobile Mavens

AppGratis vs. Apple: The Mobile Gaming Mavens debate

Is Apple suffocating its own ecosystem?

AppGratis vs. Apple: The Mobile Gaming Mavens debate

The Mobile Mavens is our panel of experts drawn from all sectors of the mobile gaming industry.

As you've no doubt seen, app discovery service AppGratis has recently been pulled from the App Store by Apple a matter of months after the platform launched in the US and secured $13.5 million in funding.

Its removal – in part down to invalidating the now infamous clause 2.25 – comes four months after AppShopper was pulled in similar circumstances.

So, we asked the Mavens:

Is Apple right to pull apps like AppGratis in an effort to restore the 'legitimacy' of the App Store, or is it damaging the ability for games to get discovered?

Would you like to see other, similar apps pulled from sale, or are you worried Apple is trying to create an ecosystem where it and it alone has control over the rise and fall of apps on the App Store?


Pascal Bestebroer CEO OrangePixel

For me it once again shows how Apple does business. It's their way, or no way.

Nobody in the whole world would see harm in apps like this existing on the App Store - most actually help discovery for both developers and gamers alike, and I still can't think of any reason why Apple would see this as a bad practice.

Before you know it, someone at Apple who keeps dying in endless runners will add a new clause in the App Store agreement stating that entertainment apps should "have a defined beginning, middle and end" before kicking out all the endless runners.

I fear the day Apple starts kicking out games that don't make use of all the graphical and CPU power - that would basically excludes all my little retro games.

Will Luton Luton & Son Founder

I think Apple's concern is that publisher wallets, via third party companies, dictate the charts rather than a game's merits – the App Store's current #1 is on AppGratis now.

If a poor quality app, through any service, can be put in the top spot, that damages Apple's ecosystem. Apple is right to defend that and its editorial power.

As much as I would engage these services for my own games and have in the past, each bought place in the top 25 is a place taken from a company that couldn't or wouldn't pay.

Eros Resmini Head of Marketing The Mini Fund

I'm in the middle.

On the one hand, Will represents a large - and growing – contingent that feels allowing for buying chart position is not a credible way to run an App Store.

That said, there are companies with big wallets that can do that today, they just don't use AppGratis to do it. There are huge ad businesses in mobile built on driving chart position today through various means.

First it was incentivised ads, now bursting through free app aggregators is being outlawed...where do you draw the line? Apple would be wise to clarify.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

I think everyone is missing the point about AppGratis. The reason it was pulled was because it was abusing the push notification system. That's it.

Apple used clause 2.25 as one of the mechanisms for removing it, but AppGratis became too aggressive in its marketing by using the push notification system as a paid advertising placement. Clause 5.6 is the real reason they were booted.

I believe that AppGratis is an isolated case. it doesn't mean that Apple will start going after everybody. Although, it does mean that apps need to keep their paid advertising space inside the confines of their app or suffer similar consequences.

Does anyone really have a convincing argument as to why app developers have a right to sell intrusive advertising that has the ability to pop up over other developer's apps? I would love to hear it.

AppGratis must have a hell of a PR department for being able to turn the conversation from them being portrayed as having a shady business model to one where they are the latest underdog on the receiving end of an unpredictable App Store ban hammer that will soon start going after other discovery apps.

Why is no one talking about this?

This is so ridiculous that even the French minister is convinced that AppGratis is the poor underdog that is getting picked on.

As a disclaimer, I do believe that Apple has a right to protect its ecosystem and manage it in such a way that they think will make it a better environment for their users.

This is why the App Store performs so much better than everyone else's. Whether you agree with its specific principals or not, Apple should be able to ban apps that it feels harm its ecosystem.

If you are a company or investor that specialises in infrastructure or similar business model to AppGratis, you have to understand what you are getting yourself into and that this can happen to you. It's a risky environment.

Keith Andrew With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

Have to say, Dave, I think the opposite is true. Clause 5.6 is the excuse - clause 2.25, which bans app that act like app stores in their own right, is the real reason in my book.

Plus, we have the fact that AppGratis has existed happily - and been approved several times - on the App Store for quite a long time now. This wasn't an app that was submitted and was rejected. It's a well known release that's been pulled.

What's changed recently, then? AppGratis simply became more successful.

Of course, debates like this wouldn't need to exist if Apple, you know, spoke to people and stuff.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

That's exactly what has changed. AppGratis became more successful and word got out to someone in charge that there is an app that is selling ad space over the push notification system.

The ground floor reviewers have probably been told to approve these types of apps until the higher ups tell them differently.

Everyone pretends that there is some mystery to how Apple works but to me it seems like common sense. It sees that these types of apps could pose a problem in the future it gets some rules on the books both to remove them, and to issue a warning to similar apps to help them keep their nose clean.

There are plenty of reports that suggest that Apple gave AppGratis fair warning and an opportunity to change their app's behaviour. AppGratis decided to not comply.

Keith Andrew With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

Not sure where these reports are, chap. I've not seen any - only hear'say.

AppGratis' account is that these 'warnings' took the form of missed calls while CEO Simon was on a plane. Not exactly a smooth operation.

[Indeed, AppGratis' went on to clarify that it had received no communication from Apple before its app was removed after this conversation took place.]

The bizarre thing is, other businesses have taken the same attitude you have - defended Apple to the hilt. Then, months later, it's their business that's hit.

Either way, Apple needs to learn to communicate before its walls slowly begin to tumble down.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

AppGratis is trying to out-game Apple through the press and now the French government.

There is a lot of money on the line for the company, so it makes sense that it would try everything it can in order to beat the system.

Unfortunately, even though AppGratis saw the hope of success, it isn't not owed an opportunity with this business model on a private digital store. It made the wrong bet.

Scott Foe Chief Product Officer Ignited Artists

On the manipulation of rankings algorithms, well, shit stands up at the end of the day.

If an app is awesome, people will play it, so why shouldn't it rise in the rankings? Who cares how it got into peoples' hands when people are playing it! If people aren't playing it, it should fall in the rankings.

If somebody is abusing your algorithm, there is a problem with your algorithm.

Oscar Clark Chief Strategy Officer Fundamentally Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

Of course you are right that Apple is entitled to do what they like with its ecosystem, but there is a reason why a lot of people find its approach high-handed and seemingly random.

Managing the number of apps it does through a store is a pretty unprecedented exercise - when I was running a store, it was hard enough for us to manage the process and we restricted content into the service based on our editorial decisions in a way that was - I must admit - much more arbitrary.

Apple has made the decision to protect its control of its ecosystem despite lots of smart people finding (short-term perhaps) clever loop-holes to ‘game' the system.

Personally, I've never been a fan of the free app type services, but its clear that they were successful and that there was both developer and consumer demand for them.

This is my problem; it's not that Apple are shutting these tools down - that's its right. Rather, it's not responding to the market forces within its own ecosystem.

It's perfectly fine that its objective is for people to buy its hardware, but Apple is clearly not fulfilling pent up demand, both from the developer and the consumer perspective.

That's doesn't just mean there's lots of money that isn't being spent with Apple, but it's also leaving end-users frustrated about how best to find content they would love, if only they could find it.

Pascal Bestebroer CEO OrangePixel

I find it interesting that this discussion is becoming more about AppGratis' business model and not Apple's.

Isn't the real issue that Apple at any time can change the one-sided agreement and completely destroy a company's business just because it suddenly decides it doesn't like the way that company uses the methods available in the system that Apple itself created?

It seems Apple just kills innovation if it's clashing with its own business model, or when it doesn't have a patent on it.

Jani Kahrama Founder Secret Exit

I'd say Oscar has a good point.

The real issue here is that there are two ways of effectively gaining large scale visibility for your game: being featured by Apple, or by buying your installs.

The former is driven by Apple's editorial interests, and the latter is financially feasible only for big players. Let's not mistake that eliminating paid installs would somehow solve the content discovery problems of the App Store.

Thomas Nielsen Osao Games

I'm 100 percent aligned with Dave here.

I'll admit I don't have the full story on AppGratis, so perhaps I'm missing something completely, but it seems to me that the company raised a lot of money on a business model that seemingly completely relies on activities performed inside someone else's ecosystem.

That's an admirable achievement, but one that comes with a huge risk.

As for how Apple handles takedowns and reviews, I can only speak for my own experiences. We're a small fish, but have still always been able to communicate with Apple on disagreements.

Not that it bends, but Apple will - fairly quickly I think too - communicate over email, or call you/ask for callbacks on borderline issues.

I have a hard time believing the app was pulled with no warning, but even if that's true, why does AppGratis just not talk to Apple about how to rectify the problem and resubmit?

If your business is more or less completely based on someone else's strategy or goodwill, and you decide on an aggressive, potentially provocative approach.

Will Luton Luton & Son Founder

Apple doesn't comment on issues like this, we know that. It never has, so we will unlikely know what discussion it did or didn't have.

However, whilst I feel that Apple should be clearer and more communicative on issues like these, after Tapjoy got pulled it was clear that Apple didn't want third party companies selling chart positions. Same with bots.

I'm sure there will be others who will get big, get Apple's attention and get slapped down.

I see this banning as having a long term benefit. The App Store's success is its editorial independence that provides exposure for apps they wish to champion.

As was mentioned earlier, Facebook didn't have this, so a positive feedback loop - money buys audience, audience brings money, money buys audience - let a few companies with initial capital muscle out competitors from the discovery channel, Facebook ads.

Because of this, no Tiny Tower, Angry Birds or New Star Soccer could happen on Facebook today.

Keith Andrew With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

"...after Tapjoy got pulled it was clear that Apple didn't want third party companies selling chart positions."

No, no. No such thing is clear. That's the thing.

After Tapjoy, after we spotted the rule change, after AppShopper, and now after AppGratis, the press has always speculated that this will be the beginning of a crack down against such apps. That any apps accused of gaming the rankings will be pulled.

It never happens. Apple only pulls the apps it sees as a threat. The lesson is, you can operate this business model for as long as you like. Just don't get too good at it.


The whole argument is a nonsense, though. If we boil it down - and rule out the use of bots - AppGratis and other platforms allows developers to pay for a number of legitimate downloads. But then again, so is advertising. In fact, so are any other number of legitimate discovery platforms.

That's what all of these services that developers - and, indeed, businesses in other industries - pay for are designed to do.

I'm not sure why being good at it - enticing people to download apps in a way advertising by and large can't manage - means AppGratis is any more guilty of gaming the App Store than advertising.

It's like we're willing to pay out to try and buy customers as long as the service we use to do it wastes a bit of money on the side.

Jared Steffes Co-founder Muxy

There was a time not long ago that I co-founded a new in-game advertising company and tested the platform in my own game.

Apple was rumoured to be about to release the iAd platform and did not allow the update of our game for over one month until after it announced iAd. The next day the app was approved.

It was very stressful and almost comical. During this month, all of my friends saw their updates go through in a matter of two to four days.

Apple does what it wants, when it wants. It's sort of magical. It is a lot like a government. It institutes a change, watches how the market reacts, and then decide to enforce the change or not.

We have been lucky for a long time that it has not been enforcing many of the rules it puts into place. Now it's reigning iOS devs back in. It's sort of cyclical.

The strangest part is, these are the risks of starting a company that operates within an ecosystem that can change overnight. That makes it very risky to raise capital to create a company that is designed to exist in the current state of the App Store.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

This has been an entertaining week. Lots of fuss and uproar.

Yes, Apple only pulls apps that are threats to its ecosystem. I think you are looking for absolutes, you're out of luck - there is no black and white, just shades of gray.

If any distribution method starts to influence the charts more than Apple promos, then there will be new rules to deal with that situation and changes will be made to restore Apple's ability to manage the App Store.

Apple needs to have control over its ecosystem - that's the only way it can ensure that creative apps have a chance to make an impact. Whether you believe this is best for the ecosystem or not, Apple has a right to run its business in this way.

Make no mistake, Appl'se main concern is always about making the better product. It's not about ego or about knocking someone down a couple pegs, it's always about what it thinks is best for its platform.

AppGratis is free to explore opportunities elsewhere - or even create its own opportunities - if it is unhappy with the way Apple runs its business. It is free to do whatever it wants on Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry.

I'm sure Blackberry would be happy to have AppGratis.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.