The Carter Crater: The Human Cost of Apple’s App Store Decisions

Apple does a lot of baffling things in the way they run the App Store. It’s easy to just sit there and be frustrated with the way that Apple makes decisions and then cuts off any sort of alternative for users to counteract that. But I think we aren’t considering the human cost of what these decisions do. Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of I Am Level ($1.99). This Metroidvania-style pinball game is an underappreciated gem, but it is set to disappear from the App Store in the upcoming 32-bit purge, where apps that haven’t been updated with 64-bit compatibility will either be removed from the App Store entirely, or just stop working on future versions of iOS entirely. This is a problem for I Am Level as its developer, Stew Hogarth, passed away in 2015. While the app looks to have been transferred to a relative, this means that one of Hogarth’s final significant works is will likely vanish from the App Store unless someone updates it. It’s unfair to ask a deceased person’s family to go in and update their old work, no? And considering there’s all sorts of new rules and dependencies with software, it’s likely not just a one button fix, either.

Now, 32-bit app compatibility being removed in and of itself isn’t a grand evil. I can see where Apple wants to clear out a lot of old, ineffectual apps that shouldn’t be on the App Store any more, that aren’t going to be touched. Heck, one developer is happy about their app being removed. Plus, 64-bit processors are standard for iOS apps now, and Apple themselves have warned developers to compile for 64-bit for a while now. But, it’s not like other platforms haven’t found a way to keep 32-bit programs compatible with their operating systems, either. What if developers wanted to build emulators, like Windows has, to run 32-bit apps? I just made myself laugh at the idea that Apple would allow that. So many apps that work with no issues on iOS 10 are bound to be unavailable and nonfunctional soon because of Apple’s policies, and there’s nothing users can do about it even if they wanted to do something.

While there’s hopefully few cases like I Am Level‘s Stew Hogarth, there are plenty of reasons why an app might not be updated. The company that originally produced the app has been dissolved, and the rights situation may be complicated. The people who could fix the app might not have the ability to, legally. Partnerships between indie developers can dissolve as human drama plays a role. A developer who poured their blood, sweat, and tears into making something, perhaps to have it not live up to their expectations in some capacity might not have the desire emotionally to update their apps. And for many developers, updating their library content is not financially viable. There’s little incentive to do so. Plus, if it works fine, then why does it need to be updated? Surely, Apple, which made over $45 billion in profit in 2016, can find ways to ensure that decrepit, nonfunctional apps are removed while functional and significant titles remain on the App Store.

This affects the users, too. Obviously, products that people paid for will be no longer playable due to these policies. There’s the potential that a person with a disability might lose an app that helps them interact with the world if the developer has abandoned it, and there isn’t a suitable replacement. On a different scale of importance, Apple killing old apps will have terrible effects on history. Think about it: if you want to play a game from the formative era of gaming, such as Super Mario Bros or Pong, you can play it in some form. Heck, you can go get an original NES and play the original Super Mario Bros. if you wanted to. These games have been able to be preserved, though this is in part due to the physical nature of most of gaming’s history. What Apple is doing is making it incredibly difficult to preserve these games and allow later generations to revisit them. Not only are many games nonfunctional on current operating systems, but Apple makes it difficult even to play them in any kind of legitimate method. if you wanted to install an older operating system, even on iOS hardware that could run these apps, you can’t. Apple requires that all firmware upgrades be signed by their servers. So there’s a chance that if Apple ever goes defunct someday, this software will be unable to be installed even on still-working old devices. This was implemented in the days of iOS 4, specifically because jailbroken users were installing previous iOS versions to maintain their jailbreaks. The apps themselves require DRM removal, too. While this is admittedly trivial considering how much piracy goes on, it’s still a negative factor, and removing that DRM decades from now could prove to be difficult based on the state of computing.

Imagine if you couldn’t listen to the music from your childhood. Or read a book that had a major influence on you. Sure, some works will be lost to history no matter what, and some media you will just have had to be there for. Apple, in a desire to control their platform in a way that is not user-friendly, is unnecessarily exacerbating the problem. There are kids for whom Rolando was their Super Mario Bros., and they won’t be able to revisit or share those experiences any more. It’s a nightmare entanglement where Apple continually cuts off any avenue that someone might have to help preserve some of the history of the platform. A significant era of gaming history will someday be lost because Apple wanted more control of their ecosystem because they could find ways to make more profit off of it. Sure, Android games are thankfully easier to archive – piracy, it turns out, is good – but a lot of iOS exclusives will be lost to history. Let’s not be wishy-washy here. Apple is going to cause some games to be abandoned and unplayable by future generations because of their obsessive nature to control the platform.

If Apple was applying these rules fairly, then I could understand it at even the basest possible level. But it turns out that the rich play by a different playbook! Take the case of Uber, which managed to spy on iPhone users, majorly breaking Apple policies. If a small developer had done it, no question their developer account would be nuked, and an Apple death squad sent for them. Uber, because they’ve got more investor money than God, and lawyers out the wazoo, was able to get away with a slap on the wrist. It has to sting for developers who often have to deal with asinine app rejections for dubious reasons.

The problem isn’t just one of these elements, it’s all of them. It’s not just that Apple is killing 32-bit apps, it’s that they’re not allowing 32-bit app emulators to work on the App Store. It’s not just that they keep tight control of the App Store, it’s that they significantly misuse it and won’t keep abusers of their users in control with the power they have. Apple has created an environment on iOS that is often quite hostile to the users and developers who provide the revenue and content for them, and helped turn Apple into a global corporate behemoth.

It’s just sad because it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s App Store history that doesn’t have to be lost. People don’t have to lose useful tools just because Apple wants to remove 32-bit compatibility from their operating system, or do an automated sweep of old apps. Moving to Android isn’t that simple, and has its own drawbacks, though archiving mobile games will be easier thanks to the platform’s open nature. And while I can rant about Apple as an unfeeling megacorporation, there’s certainly a giant list of theses that can be nailed to the door of Google/Alphabet, too.

All we can really do is raise awareness of this issue. Despite how this all affects people, many folks are unaware, or put these issues far below other factors. And I don’t have a good answer for what we can do as mobile gaming enthusiasts, as people who care about the platform even despite Apple making App Store gaming hard to love. The App Store, and mobile gaming, are great because of the great games and creators making those great games. Apple is a facilitator of that, and I think their failings have a deep human cost. We have to catalog it, and demand change. I believe our outcry can reach someone that’s listening and wants to do the right thing for the people that have helped make them what they are. And maybe we can remind Apple, and all the other mega-corporations out there, that the backbone of their platforms are the users and creators, and their decisions should come with as little cost to us as possible. And this 32-bit purge, along with many other questionable App Store decisions? The cost is too high.