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Are Apple and Google wrong to purge apps, games that aren’t updated regularly?

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Apple has begun to crack down on apps that either no longer receive periodic functionality updates or haven’t been updated by the developers in what the company refers to as a “significant amount of time”. This comes days after Google announced measures which will limit the availability of apps that haven’t been updated in the last two years. Apple has, in an email sent to developers, given them 30 days to update any of their apps, while Google says the policy change gets implemented from November this year.

“You can keep this app available for new users to discover and download from the App Store by submitting an update for review in 30 days,” says the email from Apple to the developers. “If no update is submitted in 30 days, the app will be removed from sale,” it continues. Apple hasn’t released any official statement on this policy change, except sending the communication to developers over the weekend and updating the App Store Improvements criteria.

Earlier this month, Google made it clear that from November, they will start removing apps from the Play Store for Android – the criteria being similar. Every app that gets approved for listing on the Play Store must meet the core requirements of the updated Android OS. The current policy already mandates developers to update apps to match the upgrades within one year of the rollout of an Android update. The additional criteria is that if developers still don’t match it two years later, the apps will be removed from listings for new downloads.

It isn’t etched in stone either. “As new Android OS versions launch in the future, the requirement window will adjust accordingly,” says Krish Vitaldevara, director, product management at Google.

Developers aren’t at all happy

There is the expected backlash to these policies, particularly since Apple has announced the move. This is true particularly for the smaller developers who may often not have the resources to update apps regularly.

“Apple just sent me an email saying they’re removing my free game Motivoto because it’s more than 2 years old. It’s part of their App improvement system. This is not cool. Console games from 2000 are still available for sale,” points out Robert Kabwe, a video game developer who owns Protopop games, in a tweet. Motivoto was last updated in March 2019. The developer also has other games listed on the App Store, including the Nimian Legends series.

“I just got a notification from Apple that one of my first apps has not been updated for a while and will be removed from the App Store in 30 days,” says developer Stewart Lynch. He has listed several apps on the App Store, including Nimtastic, Trip Tic and My Bookshelf. Stewart says he won’t be going back to the app to update it. Paucity of time, and a lack of interest are common reasons why many developers may not bother with the new guidelines, allowing some older apps to wither away.

What happens if you have the app or game on your phone?

The fine print to notice here is that any app, that gets removed from the App Store because it hasn’t been updated for a while, will continue to be fully accessible to existing users who may have already downloaded it on their iPhones, iPads, and Macs – with any in-app purchases also continuing to be available.

For now, it is likely you’ll be able to continue to use an app that has otherwise been removed from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, without any changes that restrict functionality. “Your app will remain fully functional for current users. They will experience no interruption to services and will still be able to buy in-app purchases. However, we recommend that you update your app as soon as possible to reinstate it on the App Store and ensure that it remains functional and engaging for new and existing customers,” says Apple.

For Android users, it works in a similar way. “Current users of older apps who have previously installed the app from Google Play will continue to be able to discover, re-install, and use the app on any device running any Android OS version that the app supports,” says Google.

The case for and against app updates as a criteria

One of the reasons for this change is to ensure apps that are available to download on user devices can take advantage of the security and performance updates that core operating systems may have integrated over time. This gains even more significance at this time, because iOS and Android already have, and continue to, undergo significant changes to improve user data privacy measures and implement blocks against arbitrary tracking for serving advertisements.

There is very much the side of the coin which aligns with the saying ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’. That’ll be about any functionality in apps or games that may continue working as desired. The core of the app’s working may remain the same over time, and continue to work as it did on day one. But that’s just one part of the story.

“It seems to me that the most likely explanation why they are forcing some apps to update and not others is that those apps are using old ad frameworks that violate the privacy rules,” says Nick Lockwood, a developer who makes apps for Apple’s iOS platform. There is the example of Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature (also known as ATT), which older apps may not be able to plug in to, allowing ad trackers a free run.

Google confirms as much. “The rationale behind this is simple. Users with the latest devices or those who are fully caught up on Android updates expect to realize the full potential of all the privacy and security protections Android has to offer,” says Google’s Vitaldevara.

Not everyone is seeing the larger picture that involves the online ad industry when they compare console or arcade games with applications that work on smartphones which are being increasingly targeted by web trackers and platforms such as Meta to collect user data, often without any permission at all, to serve ads. “We can watch defining movies from decades ago or dig up a SNES and play an iconic game… what will we do when Apple has removed most original and defining game from the App Store?” asks developer Ryan MacLeod, though he has a very valid point about functionality in general.

But there’s the other side of the coin too. Some apps and in particular games, can continue to have a long shelf life without needing to receive any feature or performance additions regularly. “Games can exist as completed objects! These free projects aren’t suitable for updates or a live service model, they’re finished artworks from years ago,” points out developer Emilia Lazer-Walker, who makes experimental games too.

The case for or against will continue to be debated, but the 30-day window given by Apple and the future roadmap laid out by Google means developers will be scrambling over the next few weeks to update apps in the hope their apps remain visible on the application stores.

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