Will pulling AppGratis from the App Store create a true meritocracy?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on April 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Apple confirmed this morning that it pulled AppGratis, an app promotion service that raised $13.5 million in funding this January, from the App Store for violating its Terms of Service. AppGratis is said to have broken two rules: One barring the promotion of other applications, and the other for using push advertising to "send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind." But, more tellingly, sources "familiar with Apple's thinking" tell AllThingsD that Apple wanted to show that the "App Store is intended as a meritocracy."

Considering the App Store as a meritocracy raises more than a few questions. Does Apple mean that the best apps will enter its Top Charts and be featured as Editor's Choice or App of the Week picks, or simply that good apps will attract attention without paid services like AppGratis? And, more to the point, can something as vast as the App Store truly be meritocratic?

Assessing an app's merit is at once a messy exercise. Some apps can be seen as "better" than others because they're faster or crash less often than their competitors; others could be seen as "better" because they offer more features or an attractive design. Accounting for all of those factors in each of the nearly 1 million applications in the App Store would be next to impossible, automatically ruling out a true meritocracy.

This, in some ways, puts software on the same level as other types of content, such as films, albums, or books. Subjectivity, like the taste of the masses or a critic's careful eye, can be combined with objective markers, such as sales numbers, to offer a rough estimation of a piece of content's worth. It's like reading an album review on Pitchfork and then checking the Billboard Top 100: Though they're using different data and approaching the problem from varying viewpoints, both try to find the "best" albums of the moment.

Apple can measure which apps are downloaded the most often, then, and use that data to create its Top Charts. Apps downloaded more often than their counterparts could be considered to have more merit -- the "voting with your wallet" argument -- and services that artificially boost an app within the Top Charts threaten that vision of meritocracy. That's like where AppGratis found trouble, as the service, which charges upwards of $20,000 for sponsorships, has attracted millions of users for customers like Disney, Zynga, and Nike, as I reported in February.

This capitalist intrusion interferes with the idea that the App Store rewards the best applications and developers by giving someone with deeper pockets an unfair advantage over their competitors. Zynga and Nike can afford to pay more than $20,000 to accrue a million or so users. The two-person development team questioning whether or not they can afford a packet of ramen noodles cannot.

Does that mean that AppGratis is the driving force behind the App Store's fall into capitalism and trickery (we'll pretend those two concepts can be separated for a moment)? No. Apple can only exert so much control over these companies, and can't prevent them from purchasing television ads, for example, or reaching out to users via email to let them know about their latest app.

Apple can control the App Store, however, and, if the source "familiar with Apple's thinking" is correct, has attempted to do so by pulling AppGratis. Whether or not the App Store is a true meritocracy doesn't matter; Apple seems to think that it is (or at least wants it to appear that way) and it's going to do what it can to maintain that status. AppGratis by itself wasn't the problem, but it was a symptom of the capitalistic App Store Apple seems so upset about  -- that'll have to do, for now.

[Image Source: Flickr]