AppGratis yanked from iOS App Store for two rule violations

Over the weekend, a high-profile iOS app for promoting other iOS apps, AppGratis, was removed from the iOS App Store, Apple(s AAPL) has just confirmed to GigaOM. The reason: two rule violations, including one that prohibits displaying or promoting other apps, and another that prohibits using push notifications for advertising. It’s the second time in six months a popular app like this has been removed. And AppGratis is very likely not going to be the last of its kind to suffer this fate.

AppGratis ran afoul of this broad rule in the iOS developer’s guide, known as guideline 2.25: “Apps that display apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected.” AppGratis does, in fact, mimic a feature of the App Store: it points users to apps it recommends. It also offers them for free or at steep discounts.

The second rule violation concerns guideline 5.6: “Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind.” AppGratis uses push notifications to let users of its app know when a new app of the day it is promoting is ready for download.

It’s true that the iOS App Store is full of similar apps that curate and promote other apps to potential downloaders, but it appears that Apple is continuing an enforcement it began in October 2012, when another popular app for finding iOS apps, App Shopper, was pulled from the store (and hasn’t returned). Apple wouldn’t comment on the reason then, but at the time I was hearing that App Store reviewers were simply continuing an earlier effort to discourage “pay-per-install campaigns” and incentivized downloads that basically game the App Store rankings by running up download numbers somewhat artificially. It now appears that App Shopper’s violation of guideline 2.25 was also an issue.

Somewhat ironically, one of the app developers that spoke up to defend Apple’s actions at the time was the CEO of AppGratis, Simon Dawlat. He told that AppShopper’s removal was about minimizing low-quality apps:

“My take is that Apple is shooting for the highest quality possible – just as always,” said Dawlat.

“Since the inception of companies like AppGratis back in December 2008, many low-quality copycats have emerged in the App Store, trying to make some quick bucks out of poorly engineered apps and content.

“With [clause] 2.25, Apple is probably trying to prevent the App Store from being spammed with too many app-promoting apps. But for us, it has always been about app curation at a very high level.”

In that same interview, he spoke of how AppGratis was different from apps like App Shopper because his company was adding “significant value” to the App Store by promoting apps (it makes money from developers that pay to have their apps promoted) and by sending 100 million users to the App Store each year.

Dawlat has not responded to a request for comment.

It now appears that App Store gatekeepers and rule enforcers just hadn’t gotten around to AppGratis yet; Apple’s reviewers aren’t known for enforcing immediate and consistent, across-the-board policy due to the sheer number of apps they have to look at. But other apps like App Shopper and AppGratis have also been removed, including Free App of the Day.

It’s easy to see why Apple doesn’t want the competition from app marketing and curation apps; it also may not want companies like AppGratis profiting off the less-than-ideal search functions of the App Store. One of the reasons apps like AppGratis popped up and continue to thrive, as I wrote for GigaOM Research last year (subscription required), is that they promote developers who couldn’t get noticed in a vast marketplace of 800,000 apps. In many ways, these kinds of app promoters are helping Apple; but they may also be confusing users.

The takeaway is that other apps the use push notifications for marketing, and those who simply promote other apps will likely be getting a good look from Apple’s app reviewers pretty soon.

Update, 12 p.m. PT: You may be wondering, as I was, whether an app like Facebook(s FB) is in danger of being removed for similar reasons. Turns out, it’s not. Facebook does have an App Center that features iOS apps for download within its app, and it also tells users when a friend has downloaded a particular app through push notifications. Both of those technically violate guidelines 2.25 and 5.6. But, as I’m told by people familiar with Apple’s app review process, the company isn’t in the same category as AppGratis because promoting apps is not the sole purpose of Facebook. That puts it in the clear. This is good news for developers, because it indicates that Apple is taking a nuanced approach to its enforcement of these rules.