Apple clarifies its controversial app removal emails with a clearer policy statement

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Enlarge / Apps on an iPhone.

Last month, an email from Apple to many app and game developers caused confusion and frustration about the role of apps in the App Store that aren’t meant to be long-term services. Now Apple has issued a press release aimed at developers to clear up the confusion and ease the frustration.

The first email warned recipients that their apps would be removed from the App Store because they hadn’t been updated in “a significant amount of time.” The email informed each developer that they must submit an update for their affected app(s) within 30 days to avoid removal. A related support document clarified that submitting an update after 30 days can result in a removed app being restored.

Developers turned to Twitter and other online platforms, claiming that many of the apps in question still work perfectly on modern hardware and should be viewed as finished works rather than ongoing services with continuous updates. Some also found examples of apps that hadn’t been updated in many years and didn’t appear to have been removed, suggesting that Apple isn’t consistently applying the policy.

Apple’s new update, released on its developer support website on Friday, clarifies that the emails sent out in April are part of an ongoing process that was announced and started back in 2016. The process has removed “nearly 2.8 million apps.”

In emails to developers that surfaced last month, Apple said it would remove apps that hadn’t been updated in a “significant amount of time” — a vague statement that led to the usual developer complaint that Apple’s rules are at best appear opaque or random and, at worst, moody. Apple’s new press release pulls back the curtain on that policy, at least a little. For Apple’s purposes, it turns out that a “substantial period” means three years specifically.

Apple also indirectly responded to another common developer complaint – Apple seems to apply the rules inconsistently as some apps haven’t been removed despite not being updated in ages – by noting that the length of time since the last update was not the only factor. The number of times an app was downloaded in the last year also plays a role in the decision to remove it.

So the target apps over the past month were not just apps that haven’t been updated in the past three years, but also apps that “haven’t been downloaded at all or downloaded very infrequently over a rolling 12-month period.”

Finally, the press release announces a new timeframe for developers to respond to these emails. Previously, Apple said developers must update their apps within 30 days to remain listed. The time frame is now 90 days. Apple encourages developers to appeal in some cases — allegedly if they believe their app is an anomaly.

When this effort to clean up outdated apps was first announced in 2016, Apple claimed the action was driven by a desire to make search more useful and remove apps that don’t work properly on modern hardware and operating system versions.

Friday’s press release reiterates some of that, ensuring all apps comply with the latest, ever-evolving security and privacy rules.

The extension from 30 days to 90 days will make life a little easier for small developers. Still, Apple’s clarifications don’t do much to address the core concern of indies: an app shouldn’t need to be constantly updated, let alone popular, in order to survive and remain accessible for years to come.


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