Apps: Welcome to the Dark Side

One of the more exciting aspects of Apple’s iPad is the fact that it is likely to foster the creation of thousands of new built-for-the-bigger-screen applications, beyond the 140,000 or so existing apps for the iPhone. However, Apple’s shiny new device also offers a potential breeding ground for rogue app developers—a plague that has already infected the iPhone app space.

Web publishers—particularly news sites—are increasingly watchful when it comes to Apple’s App Store, where a handful of shady developers regularly rip off their content. A few weeks ago, after CNET, The New York Times and Fox News complained directly to Apple, a company called RIV Creations shut down several apps that aggregated headlines from those sites. The company also shut down applications offering content from BBC and the Drudge Report. Per a BBC statement: “RIV Creations is not a licensed distributor of BBC content online or on mobile. The BBC routinely looks for unauthorized usage of our brand and our content across all platforms, and when we encounter it, we work to resolve the issue.”

But as of Jan. 29 at press time, RIV Creations was still selling dozens of applications, including a FreeTV app for $1.99 that promises to provide users with access to video from ABC News and NBC’s Today show—both of which already offer free apps of their own.
RIV Creations is not the only developer that has built its business on the back of legitimate media. Someone named Dr. James Leung is selling an app called New Feed Elite, which showcases the logos of multiple news organizations, including AOL News, Newsweek, Time, CBS News and MSNBC.  

And an outfit called k5software offers 99-cent apps featuring content from CNET and BBC. When asked whether the k5software has permission to do so, Kennedy Kok (listed as a k5 owner on LinkedIn) said, “I don’t think I’m allowed to talk to you,” before hanging up.
Joseph Nardone runs a similar company, Online Appliance Sales Company, out of Long Branch, N.J. It sells apps that showcase content from CNN, Fox News, the BBC and CNET.

Nardone said that ever since the early days of the iPhone, a small group of renegade developers pop up periodically with copycat apps—in news, entertainment, gaming and other categories. He added that many of these developers simply pull content from news sites using their RSS feeds—and then charge users for it.

And while Nardone has received complaints from some media companies, he contended that since his applications don’t employ RSS feeds—but rather act as iPhone-friendly browsers—he isn’t breaking any rules. (His applications do block these sites’ advertising.) But lately, he noted, “Apple has been a lot stricter.”

They should be even more so, according to several media execs interviewed for this story. Though most would characterize copycat apps as more nuisance than crisis, Fox News digital vp Jeff Misenti complained that Apple shares almost no information on what sort of volume these developers generate. And he doesn’t buy Nardone’s argument that it’s OK for developers to create browsing tools using Fox’s content. “If we ever start to charge for our own content, someone shouldn’t be making that decision for us,” he said.

But the biggest beef of Misenti and others with Apple is its inconsistent policing of the App Store. “One thing we all hope is that Apple will be more aggressive,” he said. “It seems to be very arbitrary.”