Apple's Censorship: Bad for Customers, Worse for Bottom Line


For as long as Apple (AAPL) has had its best-selling iPhones and iPads on the market they've taken an aggressive stance on what type of content is appropriate for the devices. As CEO Steve Jobs put it offhandedly, the gadgets offer customers "freedom from porn" -- whether they asked for it or not.

But Apple's inconsistent behavior with respect to what applications get rejected or approved, and its haphazard capitulation only when there's a public outcry, has created some mixed messages. And for a company that prides itself on quality control and a consistent product, the approach Apple is taking with app content isn't just hypocritical, it's bad for the bottom line.

Strange Adventures in Censorship

When the Wi-Fi-equipped version of the iPad went on sale two and a half months ago, Apple demanded European magazines cover up scantily clad models for the app editions and cracked down on dictionary applications containing 'objectionable' words. They rejected a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, only to rescind the rejection once the media got wind of it.

In the past week, Apple tried the same gambit withUlysses Seen, a webcomic version of James Joyce's classic novel Ulysses featuring too much nudity for the company's taste, and an app edition of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which pixillated a series of panels featuring two men kissing. Both bans were reversed after considerable media outcry. (As if Joyce and Wilde haven't had to deal with enough censorship issues, already!)

Apple is, naturally, welcome to restrict the type of content that is available on its devices. And yet, as TechCrunch reported Tuesday morning, Apple can't even keep its guidelines straight. Otherwise how would English tabloid The Sun's iPad app, featuring Page Three Girls in all their topless glory, get through without incident? As InfoWorld's Galen Grunman said, "quality control over apps, such as to prevent crashes and to ensure the software does what it promises, is one thing. Control over content and thought is quite another."

Apple on Shaky Ground?

By selectively policing others, Apple demonstrates to investors and stockholders that they selectively police themselves, as well. And that puts Apple on very shaky ground.

That's because Android, Google's (GOOG) open-source mobile operating system, is encroaching ever-so-slowly (but steadily) on Apple's turf. While Apple's iPhone OS (soon to be renamed iOS with the arrival of the new iPhone 4) still dominates the field with 59% of the market share, Quantcast reported that Android's share - 20% as of last month - is growing quickly, taking 4.7% of market share from iOS over the last quarter and 8.1% of it compared with a year ago. If that trend continues, spread across devices such as the HTC EVO 4G and Motorola Droid that use Android, Apple and Google may one day find themselves in a tight race for smartphone customers. And those customers will judge whether they want a closed-when-Apple-feels-like-it iPhone or iPad app system or Android's open-for-everyone ethos.

With stiff competition gaining ground, the last thing Apple needs is to come off as indecisive. But increasingly, that's exactly how the company looks. As the dominant force in smartphones and tablets, Apple could once afford an arrogant stance, and could afford to shrug off criticism.

Now that stance appears unsustainable. The more disconnected Apple becomes from reality -- and from the public that clamors for its products but grows frustrated with what they can do with them -- the more impatient investors will get and the more they will demand changes. It's time to think different, Apple, and listen to the stealthy @AppleGlobalPR Twitter feed. Remember, customers are still always right. And so is common sense.