Minutes after telling you about Funny Shoppers—an iPhone application that showcases the trashiest of Walmart's clientele—Apple deleted it from their store. It wasn't a surprise. This is the story of Apple's seemingly schizophrenic approval and censoring process.
We talked with Mike McNasby, who runs Alkali Media, the small development company that created Feature Creature - Funny Shoppers for People of Walmart. The latter is a popular website dedicated to capture some of the human horrors roaming the aisles of that hell chain on earth.
According to Mike, the app was released last week after a review and approval process that started on January 2010.
There was not much to review. Funny Shoppers is a pretty simple iPhone app. On one side, you could browse through the infinite gallery of humans, worm-like creatures, and other invertebrates found in Walmart. On the other, it was like a depressing version of Ghostbusters: You could upload the souls of any strange characters you may capture, using the iPhone's camera.
When it was originally submitted, "it was quickly rejected by Apple due to obscene content," Mike said. Nothing surprising there. Apple has censored everything, from sightly erotic apps (not from big labels, like Sports Illustrated Swimsuit) to mainstream publications to literary work from James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Even Steve Jobs publicly declared that he wanted a platform free of smut, despite the fact that you can use the Safari browser to access any web page full of true hard core porn.
The weird twist
Still, Alkali and People of Walmart decided to "give it another shot by filtering out some of the content—we wanted to see what would happen if we removed access to posts featuring the people of Walmart." That app didn't show any people whatsoever—just inanimate objects found around Walmart. The app was rejected again based on the same grounds: Obscene content, even while there was no obscene content at all in it.
Things got weirder after that. Apple approved an app called Shopper Fail, which was available in free and paid versions (Funny Shoppers is free only). The Shopper Fail app was more or less the same as Funny Shoppers. In fact, photo after photo, it got all its content directly from the People of Walmart's site.
Shopper Fail wasn't removed. In fact, it had multiple updates during its time in the App Store. Each of this updates have to go through the App Store approval process. All of them passed the test, even while Shopper Fail showed the same "obscene" content that sunk People of Walmart in January.
People of Walmart asked Apple about this: "Why Apple would allow an infringing app with the same content to be available and not an official version?" Apple's response: "We cannot comment on any other apps in the App Store." After that, People of Walmart sent a cease and desist letter to Shopper Fail, and their app was finally removed from the App Store.
Dr. Jobs and Mr. Hyde
A few weeks later, Apple contacts People of Walmart with a suggestion: If you update the app to reflect some minor changes, we will approve it as is. The changes: Remove any reference to Walmart. According to the developers, "Apple basically insinuated that they did not want to receive backlash from Walmart for allowing the app to live in the App Store and thus if we removed all instances of the word Walmart, they'd reconsider approving it."
The Funny Shoppers app finally got approved on the fourth submission, months after that talk. So long in fact, Mike says, that none of them saw it coming. After its release, the app "reached #36 in Entertainment and broke into the 275 top selling free apps list across all categories" in just one day. It was then when it was published in Gizmodo.
It was right then when Apple called People of Walmart again. This time, there were no suggestions, just another change of opinion: They couldn't allow such obscene content in the App Store. Effective immediately, the app that they just approved a day before—after an stupidly long evaluation process—was to be removed from the store. For the developers, it was like dealing with a schizophrenic.
"Frankly, I believe Apple seemed surprised at how well the app was doing. Clearly this wasn't an issue for the Shopper Fail app [which survived perfectly fine until People of Walmart sent their cease and desist letter] since it had no where near as many downloads as the People of Walmart application," Mike said.
The people at Alkali and People of Walmart think that things can change again, even if they have to go through more months of negotiations with Apple. After all, they argue, software that show questionable content—according to Apple's ever-changing definition—are allowed to exist in the App Store. Stuff like Cyanide and Happiness or Texts From Last Night—or Playboy for that matter.
But at the end, their fate is in the hands of the seemingly capricious Gods of the App Store. Gods who give the thumbs up or thumbs down following little logic or method, no matter if the developer is a big print publication or an independent artist.