April 10, 2013 at 12:36 PM ET
Earlier this week in a peculiar sudden change of direction, Apple removed the app-discovery application AppGratis from the iTunes App Store — leaving AppGratis CEO Simon Dawlat "in total disbelief," seeing as the tech giant had approved an iPad version of his app just days before its ouster.
Apple's reasoning behind pulling AppGratis from iTunes was that it was in violation of several of the App Stores' terms of service, which prohibit apps from promoting other studios' software products.
The tech blog All Things D is now reporting that sources familiar with the App Store's current shake-up say the AppGratis takedown is just the beginning of a renewed enforcement policy by Apple to police against these kinds of discoverability apps.
This is, no doubt, a move on Apple's part to protect the integrity of its own internal ranking and scoring system — to make all third party developers, in other words, beholden to Apple's standards and metrics (and only Apple's) when it comes to the App Store. But the crackdown on discoverability tools could have far-reaching and crushing implications for app developers who rely on user acquisition not just as a point-of-sale, but as a means to boost user retention and monetization.
A large chunk of these apps are free-to-play mobile games, including everything from hit casual games like "Angry Birds" and "Temple Run" to high-grossing "midcore" games like "Clash of Clans" — a game that apparently makes developer Supercell $1 million a day. Except for rare cases of runaway "premium" mobile games like "Infinity Blade," the vast majority of mobile games work on this sort of download now, pay later business mindset. And in the cases in which mobile game developers can't immediately convert their users into paying customers (which happens very, very often, seeing as a one to five percent conversion rate is considered normal), they have to do what all other freemium service providers do: turn to advertising, usually helping one another by pushing a fellow game developer's game.
Unfortunately, while this type of strategy may help support the entire mobile gaming ecosystem, it also plays right into the hands of Apple's App Store police. Apple already has a history of targeting app developers, particular game developers, for this very reason — in 2011, the company began to remove apps that offered in-game currency in exchange for downloading other apps, and in 2012 it went after Tapjoy what TechCrunch's Michael Arrington called an "app download circle jerk." Depending on how stringent Apple chooses to be, any mobile developer from Zynga to HeyZap (a FourSquare-ish social discoverability app for mobile games) could be the next target.
A representative from Apple was not immediately available for comment.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email firstname.lastname@example.org