Why Apple needs to evict old and unsupported App Store apps

Apple’s recently announced plan to get rid of unloved older apps from the App Store may have annoyed some developers, but with more than 1 million abandoned apps littered across Google’s and Apple’s App Stores, the evidence supports the decision.

What Apple said about its plans

In an April note to developers, Apple warned that it intends to begin removing old apps that have not been updated for three or more years and have seen few downloads in the preceding 12 months.

“We are implementing an ongoing process of evaluating apps, removing apps that no longer function as intended, don’t follow current review guidelines, or are outdated,” the company said.

Developers immediately began to complain about the policy, with one of the strongest arguments being that a minority of apps that are no longer updated can be seen as some form of digital artwork caught in time.

Stung by the criticism, Apple later clarified its approach. It explained that it has been following this policy since 2016 and that it has so far removed 2.8 million apps that no longer function as intended, don’t follow current review guidelines, or are simply outdated.

The company also explained that developers can appeal the planned removals and extended the length of time before removals take place to 90 days, which should give even smaller developers some chance to bring their app into line with Apple’s requirements.

Why Apple had to act

But for all the criticism, Apple’s decision to cull the apps it makes available in its store makes a great deal of sense, according to the Abandoned Mobile Apps Report from fraud protection company Pixalate.

Pixalate found more than 1.5 million abandoned apps across the more than 5 million it checked in the Google Play and Apple App Stores – and only 1.3 million apps that have been updated in the last six months.

Interestingly, and possibly grist to the mill for some Apple critics, 58% of the 500,000 or so apps that have gone more than five years without an update are in Apple’s store. In other words, Apple had little choice but to take action to remove such software.

The report also found 650,000 iOS apps have not been updated in more than two years.

It is interesting that the report notes a strong(ish) correlation between regular software updates and app downloads. It found 84% of apps with more than 100 million downloads have been updated within the last six months, with finance, health, and shopping apps being the most frequently updated.

Why are old, abandoned apps a problem?

There are lots of problems with old, unloved apps — they might not work on current editions of iOS, could contain code that is no longer supported so features do not function, or might rely on poorly-crafted code that can generate hard-to-find software conflicts. But the big reason is security.

Abandoned apps might host malware or other vulnerabilities that have never been patched, as developers lost interest before those flaws were identified.

[Also read: Google slowly follows Apple in app-tracking lockdown]

Apple’s other challenge is that apps that have not been updated might not be completely transparent about privacy and what user data they harvest. Apple’s App Tracking Privacy policy means developers must disclose such information when they publish an app via the App Store, something older apps weren’t required to do.

That means older apps may still contain tracking code Apple wants to stop from distributing (for very good reasons), and removing them is the only solution.

I think Apple is ramping up policing to force developers to comply with its user privacy efforts. It hasn’t really got much choice. Think about it this way: just as a relatively small number of developers complaining about app deletion  generated online coverage, so too would any heinous breaches of user privacy caused by old and uncared-for apps distributed via its store.

Both Apple and Google must also prepare for more regulation. For example, in the UK, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has launched a consultation to develop a voluntary code of practice to protect consumers from malicious apps.

“The main intervention the government is proposing at this initial stage is a voluntary code of practice for all app store operators and developers,” said DCMS. “This is because we [recognize] that the most effective current way of protecting users at scale from malicious and insecure apps, and ensuring that developers improve their practices, is through app stores.”

I’ve taken a look at the proposals; it’s notable the extent to which they justify Apple’s approach to app privacy and security.

What comes next?

The removal of tens of thousands of unloved apps may sound like a big deal, but it’s not as dramatic as some might think.

At present, Apple is approving 1,000 new apps each day in the App Store, which means that despite the eviction of all those unloved apps, a wide choice of software remains available. All that’s being lost are apps that are not updated and whose developers cannot comply with Apple’s stated policy.

If there’s one more thing to consider it is that in the event certain regulatory changes are forced on Apple, we will see numerous app stores appear, and not all will be equal. Some will be less well-regulated, which implies less protection for consumers. Sideloading an app that contains malicious code will be a bigger problem than ever, as will the existence of initially benign apps that subsequently become hosts for malware because they carried vulnerabilities in the first place and were never patched. 

One way Apple will be able to stand up to less-ethical competition will be by doubling down on apps distributed via its store. It will work to make apps even more private and secure and ensure its App Store environment continues to be the safest and most convenient place to shop.

To ensure their apps remain available in Apple’s app shop, developers will need to become as committed to their software as Apple is to its platforms, which means regular patches, enhancements, and upgrades.

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