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Apple Can’t Ban “Rate This App” Dialogs

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few days about those annoying “Rate This App” dialogs in far too many iOS apps today, initiated by John Gruber, summarized nicely by Chris Gonzales, and followed up with a nice discussion between Gruber and Daniel Jalkut in The Talk Show this week.

I’d go further than Gruber’s moderate stance on The Talk Show. I think even interrupting people once with these is too much. I’m strongly against them — to me, they’re spam, pure and simple. They’re as intrusive as a web popup ad, they betray a complete lack of respect for users, and they make their apps’ developers look greedy and desperate.

Passive links to review the app, such as a button in an about screen,1 are fine and can even be helpful to people who do want to review the app. But interrupting people with a modal dialog is over the line.

Unfortunately, short of removing app ratings entirely,2 Apple can’t do much to stop them, and they’ll continue to “work” on enough people for many developers to continue using them.

Apple’s not blind to the problem of “Rate This App” dialogs: in a WWDC 2011 session,3 the presenter even instructed developers not to use them, which was met with knowing laughter and applause from the audience. We were all already sick of them in 2011.

But Apple can’t ban these dialogs for the same reason that this official rule is never enforced:

5.6: Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind

This rule is violated so often, with no repercussions, that its presence in the Review Guidelines is a cruel joke to developers with good taste and respect for their customers.

But how would Apple enforce this? Putting a “report” button on every push notification in the UI would be ugly, crowded, and confusing, and would result in tons of false reports from accidental or misguided invocations. Without one, by what mechanism would Apple even know of a violation, unless the app spammed its reviewer with an inappropriate push notification during the 6 minutes that it’s being tested?

Individual written complaints? Who’s going to process them and decide whether they’re valid? Can Apple do anything useful with an email saying that “InstaMineGramCraft Guide Cheats Pro sent me a push-notification advertisement yesterday”? Can many people reasonably prove or verify such a claim? Does Apple even store or log APNs after they’re delivered? (I’m guessing not.)

What even qualifies as an “advertisement” or “promotion”? I’ve seen many clear violations, but many aren’t. Is it an advertisement if you send a push notification to people who haven’t launched your app in a while, encouraging them to launch the app and “check in”? What if you’re telling them that their virtual farm in your psychological scam game is withering and dying until they tap some buttons or buy something? What if a new type of cow is available for just 99 cents, on sale today only? What if you just added a new feature in an update and are telling users about it via push, since they probably use auto-updating and didn’t see the release notes? Is that an advertisement?

Apple doesn’t enforce rule 5.6 because they can’t.

A rule banning “Rate This App” dialogs would have the same problem: since the dialog is unlikely to appear during app review (and could be easily coded to guarantee that it wouldn’t), they’ll almost never reject anything for it. Once an app is in the wild, there’s no good way for Apple to be reliably notified of violations, and even if they added one, the line between permissible and prohibited would be vague and easy to skirt.

We could all rate these apps lower as a form of protest, but it’s unlikely to have a meaningful impact. The App Store is a big place.

We could vote with our feet and delete any app that interrupts us with these, but we won’t. Are you really going to delete Instagram and stop using it? Yeah, exactly.

We’re stuck with these annoying dialogs. All we can really do is avoid using them ourselves and stigmatize them as akin to spam, popup ads, and telemarketing4 — techniques only used by the greedy, desperate, shameless, and disrespectful.

  1. This is what I’m doing for Overcast: a rating shortcut button in the Settings screen, adjacent to the contact-support button, possibly with a brief explanation that developers can’t respond to individual support issues in reviews. (I’m still on the fence about that last bit.) ↩︎

  2. Will Hains’ proposed alternative, ranking apps by total usage time across all users, has its own set of problems. For instance, it penalizes apps that don’t need to be used very often by most of their customers, such as transit maps or bank apps, or apps that solve your problem as quickly as possible to minimize time spent in them, such as calculators and unit converters.

    I also don’t think eliminating reviews would be a net positive. I often learn very useful information from reviews of apps I’m considering buying, especially when the apps aren’t very popular and there’s not much else to go on except three or four store reviews. The system could use a lot of improvement, but user reviews aren’t inherently bad. ↩︎

  3. WWDC 2011, 105: Polishing Your App by Ian Baird, 11 minutes into the session video. ↩︎

  4. If you consider the similarities between “Rate This App” dialogs and what everyone hates about spam, popup ads, and telemarketing, I think the comparison is apt. ↩︎