Navigating Apple’s new App Store review guidelines: 7 key takeaways

By John Koetsier September 28, 2020

There’s been a lot of turmoil and discussion recently about how Apple’s App Store and Google’s Google Play are both the on-ramp to a massive percentage of the world’s computing devices and the gatekeepers for virtually all software that runs on those devices.

And there have been significant challenges to how those apps monetize.

Epic battles, one might even say.

So it’s big news when Apple or Google update their app acceptance guidelines. Apple edited its rules a couple of weeks ago. Now that there’s been some time to let the dust settle on the changes, here’s an overview of what they mean for app publishers.

The key takeaway: There’s now more room to monetize in new ways. Ultimately of course, the huge benefit of the in-app purchase system is simplicity and trust. But if you really want to have a direct one-to-one billing relationship with your customers, there are now more ways to make it happen. But there’s also some new challenges in terms of app development, some new opportunities, and some additional rules around ads.

1) Streaming games and in-app app stores: Yes, but …

Facebook and other companies have been attempting to build gaming experiences that offer multiple games from one platform, often via streaming technology. Microsoft’s Project xCloud is an example, as is Google’s Stadia.

While they could do this via a mobile web browser at any time, the past decade has taught us that when apps collide with mobile web, apps win.

Apple has had a rule against an app acting as an app catalog or app store since 2012. (Remember AppGratis, which featured one paid app a day for free? AppGratis closed a $13.5 million funding round, then two months later was banned from the App Store.)

Now apps “may offer a catalog app on the App Store to help users sign up for the service and find the games on the App Store,” but they will still need to use the App Store mechanics for everything that matters. All streaming games must adhere to all guidelines, be submitted to the App Store, and the links from the catalog game must go to app listings in the App Store. In addition, gaming services like this must offer in-app purchase and Sign in with Apple options.

That’s a fairly good compromise, and allows streaming apps to access the iOS ecosystem natively, but it must be challenging for streaming game operators to submit their apps for approval. The App Store listing apparently does not need to host the full game, but it does need some basic level of functionality. And each app has to obey parental controls (think Screen Time limitations) as well as get permission for microphone, camera, and other accesses.

Interestingly, Amazon’s new subscription cloud gaming service Luna will run “on web apps for iPhone and iPad, with Android coming soon.”

2) Bug fixes prioritized over disputes

This is a big one for developers.

Previously, when Apple determined that an app was in violation of the App Store guidelines, the app was essentially frozen. Even if there were critical bugs discovered, app publishers couldn’t update their apps. Now they will be able to fix bugs, at least, with one exception: apps with legal issues.

That’s pretty significant, and it means that developers can prioritize usability and player/user safety while they work out any issues with App Store reviewers.

3) Hidden or dormant functionality

There are more than a few new App Store guidelines that look very easy to comply with and are very clearly intended to ensure user safety and security, but could also have a significant impact on developers.

Updated rule 2.3.1 says “Don’t include any hidden, dormant, or undocumented features in your app; your app’s functionality should be clear to end users and App Review.”

That’s clearly important: no-one wants malware or spyware in apps (well, besides some bad guys).

But, this may force you to change how you build towards new, large, significant features, because you won’t be able to hide them in the code over three or four minor updates while simply not exposing them in the user interface. You’ll have to perhaps get a little more waterfall-y in your development approach, or just be smart about how you integrate code for coming features (and QA testing).

4) In-app purchases NOT always required

As recently as June, Apple was religious about requiring apps with paid services to use in-app payments. After the Hey email app scenario with Basecamp, however, Apple showed some flexibility. And now the new rules are out.

“Free apps acting as a stand-alone companion to a paid web based tool do not need to use in-app purchase,” Apple now says.

But there are a few caveats: there can’t be any purchasing in the app, or calls to action in the app to go elsewhere to buy. In addition, Apple listed four categories of stand-alone services that this applies to in 3.1.3(f)): VOIP, cloud storage, email services, and web hosting. It’s not clear whether this rule applies to all other services that could fit the bill of a “stand-alone companion” app to a paid web-based tool. It would seem to, but it’s not explicitly permitted.

I’m sure we’ll see some developers try to stretch this by offering a web version of their game that includes paid options, and then a mobile app version …

Non-stand-alone apps that can offer purchasing methods other than in-app include:

  • Reader apps (books, news, magazines)
  • Multiplatform services
  • Enterprise services
  • Person-to-person experiences
  • Goods and services outside the app
  • Hardware-specific content (e.g., unlocking features with smart devices)

5) No ads here, please

Ads in your apps are OK. Ads in notifications, widgets, extensions, keyboards, WatchOS apps … not so much.

The big one here might be keyboards, which have been popular ways to alter a core iOS feature, and which do in some cases contain ads. Example: Go Keyboard on Android.

The “no ads” rule on Widgets is a good one: the last thing people want on their home screen is an ad. We’ll have to see, however, how Apple treats things like sponsored content, perhaps in a widget from a news app, for instance.

6) Streaming media and cellular bundling formalized

Mobile companies can now offer in-app bundles for both carrier data plans and music or video subscriptions, like Spotify, YouTube, or Apple Music. That’s interesting, because we see a lot of “switch to X carrier” ads with a free streaming music subscription as a carrot … but I don’t see too many carriers being willing to drop 15-30% of their revenue by going in-app on plan purchases.

7) Rip, mix, burn

Apple updated guideline 4.5.2(i), which allows apps and games to access Apple Music via MusicKit, enabling apps to create playlists, add songs, and play any of them. That opens the door for some interesting opportunities for games to offer players’ favorite soundtracks right in the game, without having to worry about rights and legalities and costs.

Apple’s App Store Guidelines are updated regularly. See the full list right here.

And to prepare your team for marketing success in 2021, check out The Complete Guide to Marketing Measurement in iOS 14!

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