If it's free there must be a catch, right? For publishers trying to go mobile on the cheap, the catch when working with discounted or free application developers is often a loss of branding, or ending up with an app that is pretty much worthless.
Because of the proliferation of identical looking, feature-less iPhone applications, Apple is reportedly looking to hold back approval on new applications for the iTunes store that lack basic features, or are identical to other apps.
There has been an explosion of third party vendors that have arisen to feed off the lack of electronic publishing prowess found at most newspaper and magazine companies. From flip books to rudimentary iPhone apps, these vendors have provided the services publishers have needed because of the lack of in-house expertise.
☜ Some iPhone apps are little more than business cards such as this one, iSusan, for a South Bend realtor.
Some, like developer Appmakr, have created app generators that allow small and individual publishers to quickly create a new iPhone app for just a few bucks. Appmakr then gets the app through Apple's approval process and onto the iTunes store.
As I wrote back January, those that go this route are doing more to extend Appmakr's brand than their own (all low-cost apps have the Appmakr name attached to the app -- for instance, The College Reports Mobile Built by Appmakr.com). Further, all these apps must be free since Apple only allows those who are registered developers to make paid applications (the process is fairly easy but does include a fee).
Now, according to TechCrunch, Apple may be making a move to scale back the number of me-too apps being created. Many publication apps on the iTunes store are little more than RSS readers, and according to Jason Kincaid's story, Apple would prefer that apps do more than just serve as an alternative to a basic web app.
(In fact, some publications' versions of their iPhone app provide less news, not more. The Daily Herald app, which I reviewed here, currently contains zero high school sports stories, despite there being a tab specifically for the topic. This is most likely not the fault of the developer, in this case DoApp, than a case of the high school RSS feed currently being empty.)
While many may criticize Apple's latest app store moves (they have also been pushing back against apps with overtly sexual content), this was inevitable. The rush to fill the iTunes store with more and more iPhone apps has led to the store containing too many worthless apps. Additionally, it is becoming harder to find the app you want. For instance, a search for "The Atlantic" produced many apps, but not one for the magazine (it turns out that the app is called "AtlanticWire" -- who knew?). Apple's marketing department was able to take advantage of the swift growth of the app store, but now that advantage is being eroded as users demand quality over quantity.
The question for publishers, of course, should not be "should our publication have an iPhone app?" But rather "what features and content should be on our iPhone app?" Cookie-cutter approaches might make the CFO happy, but they will do little to satisfy readers and advertisers, and may do more harm to your brand than good. So, in the end, Apple's move, if true, is probably very good news for those who take mobile media seriously.