by Bill Snyder

Did You Really Think Those iPhone Apps Were Free?

Feb 17, 20123 mins
iPhoneMobileSmall and Medium Business

Of course iOS and Android developers want their apps to hijack your address book. There's money in it for them.

Social media has trained us to share almost everything; photos, travel plans, opinions, friends, dietary habits and even our minute-by-minute location. Developers know that and so do advertisers. Every time your iPhone or Android leads you to an ad that you might click on, somebody makes money.

If a smartphone app delivers dozens or even hundreds of your contacts to companies that would like to send them ads, the developer comes out ahead. Since you share all sorts of stuff anyway, it probably never even occurred to many of those developers or the folks running the app stores that you’d care — in the unlikely event that you found out.

And that’s why the “shocking” news that many iPhone (and some Android) apps hijack users’ address books shouldn’t be shocking at all. Like the scorpion that stung the frog to death, and explained “it’s my nature,” grabbing as much user information as possible is in the nature of social media, including the mobile variety.

Think about it. Developing an app doesn’t come cheap. The developer has to pay salaries, buy computers, fund an office and all of those mundane things that keep a business running. And then he or she gives the app away, or maybe charges 99 cents. Hello? There’s got to be more in it. Well, there is.

In 2010, mobile application revenue was $5.2 billion, according to research firm Gartner. Last year, that number was predicted to nearly triple to $15.1 billion. Much of those billions came from advertising and advertising-related deals.

The more advertisers know about you, the happier they are. And if they know who your friends are, they’re happier still because they can push advertising at them as well.

I’m not just blaming developers. Apple, which is getting a lot of deservedly bad publicity this year, has earned a big share of the blame. Although it’s rules specify that iOS apps can’t grab personal data without permission, it never bothered to enforce that rule — and that’s rather strange.

If you’ve ever talked to an iOS developer, you know that Apple’s approval process can be very stringent — and somewhat mysterious. In fact, many developers have complained that their apps were rejected out of hand with no explanation. So, when Apple says it didn’t know that apps on the App Store were violating the rules, you’ve really got to wonder why they didn’t know.

I suspect that Apple simply didn’t want to know. After all, success for apps on the App Store means success for Apple, which gets a share of app-generated revenue. (Similarly, Apple didn’t want to know about abominable labor conditions in China.) Whatever the reason, Apple’s app ignorance is inexcusable, and the fact that it took a major scandal to force the company to do something makes it even worse.

Google’s hands aren’t as dirty. Although its reins on the Android Marketplace are relatively loose, it did force developers to make it fairly obvious to users that their apps would make use of certain personal data. Of course, in some cases that information is contained in the equivalent of the fine print, something users often don’t even notice.

I don’t blame users for not reading license agreements more carefully, but given what’s been going on, I’d suggest you pay more attention before you install apps on iOS or Android devices. It kind of stinks that we have to be suspicious, but since it is the nature of vendors and developers to be greedy and careless of your rights, you need to look out for yourself.