The porn-free iPhone? Not exactly

At first blush, Apple's decision to cull a few thousand sexually suggestive titles from its iTunes App Store may seem like a puritanical attempt to cleanse its consumer-friendly image of any taint of smuttiness. But like everything related to Apple, the reality distortion field that surrounds the company makes even this assessment a questionable one.

Don't think for a second that wannabe-porn (what Apple called "overtly sexual content" in its removal notices to affected developers) won't be returning soon to any platform with an Apple logo on it. And don't think for a second that Apple will be upset about welcoming more skin to its ecosystem.

But first, let's look at last month's apparent purge of pseudo-porn. Apple's got a lot of good reasons to clean things up. Namely, as it gets ready to ship iPads later this month, it recognizes that the demographic spread of its iPhone/iPod touch universe will shift once the larger-screened devices hit the market. As iPads pop up in the home and at school, the last thing Apple wants or needs is for a less-than-optimally-supervised child to accidentally stumble into the kind of content that was once delivered surreptitiously to one's doorstep in a paper bag (no, not my own doorstep, but gee, thanks for asking).

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It's all about control

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)Don't get me wrong, though: Apple doesn't necessarily need or want a totally skin-free App Store. It simply wants to be able to control the not-suitable-for-prime-time content that does ultimately get approved. There's money to be made from all forms of porn, and publicly traded Apple never met a profit-driving opportunity it didn't like. That it may or may not be wearing a bikini in the process is immaterial to Apple.

So while slicing 5,000 or so somewhat blue offerings from its App Store could be seen as correcting an earlier mistake to approve them in the first place, it's really little more than Apple's attempt to control how those apps appear and how they're purchased. Those 5,000 apps will be back before long, and they'll be displayed on the online equivalent of fresh new shelving.

To keep things simple, let's call anything up to and including February 2010 the "pre-porn era." While Apple happily approved titles from well-known publishers like Playboy and Sports Illustrated, as well as lesser lights like On The Go Girls and Iugo Mobile Entertainment, it didn't categorize them as uniquely as, say, the neighborhood video store would typically treat its adult material. We're all familiar with the stereotype of the cordoned off section at the back of the store, the one kids aren't supposed to enter. The App Store wasn't quite as segregated during this era, so apps with "overtly sexual content" were finding their way into other, more mainstream areas of the online resource.

It was the Web-based equivalent of putting soft-core next to Pixar's latest release. Until it had a way of keeping the iffy stuff permanently under wraps, Apple's only real solution was to remove it entirely while it programs a workable, long-term solution.

Another wall in the garden

That solution will likely take the form of an "Explicit" section in the App Store. Developers are already atwitter over reported sightings of this new category, and Apple's non-confirmation notwithstanding, it would result in a virtual kind of back-of-the-store section -- one that would keep the kids from accidentally encountering things they shouldn't...and developers from complaining that their more mainstream, seriously-themed titles were appearing cheek by jowl (I know, ew, but humor me here) with the titillating ones. Walling off the garden solves the conflict neatly just as it sets the stage for ongoing profits from this growing market space.

In Apple's post-porn era, which essentially begins now, segregation of content is crucial as the iPhone OS universe continues to expand beyond the original phone-based device. The iPod touch has become the de facto choice of today's kids and teens. For parents not ready to go the full-on cell phone route with their kids, the iPod touch is the ideal compromise as it isn't a simple game machine like the Nintendo DS/DSi and Sony PSP, and it doesn't come with the monthly hit from a wireless carrier. The iPad will extend this even further, as schools are actively exploring the tablet device's educational potential. You can't very well have questionable titles creeping into the mix when the principal is doing her research.

How do you define it?

If you're a parent, of course, this entire discussion doubtless makes you feel a little dirty. Porn, after all, is the scourge of the Internet. We can debate all day how we choose to define the various grades of porn, but ultimately there will be no agreement. Apple's "overtly sexual content" is someone else's soft-core porn. And to my prudish, spinster aunt who never smiled for as long as I knew her, the swimsuit catalog that appeared in her mailbox like clockwork every spring was the pornographer's equivalent of a ticket to a very hot, eternal place.

In any form, pornography's pervasiveness defies the imagination just as it opens up business opportunities for those with the cojones to set the morality of it all aside for a bit. As a profit-seeking, publicly traded company, Apple is simply pursuing a market opportunity that presented itself when developers first decided to push the boundaries of skin -- and taste -- and got the first of those now-disputed 5,000 apps approved.

The fact that Apple has decided it doesn't want porn ruling its platform doesn't mean it doesn't want porn at all. It simply means that Apple wants to rule everything that goes on in its software universe. That some of the titles may be considered by some pornographic, or overtly sexual, or whatever, is irrelevant to the company. In the coming months, Apple will put the proper controls and processes in place to effectively manage the content and the revenue it's expected to generate.

Anyone who thinks the same thing isn't about to happen on every other mobile platform in existence is at risk of misunderstanding just how critical this skin-flecked revenue stream is to everyone's future business. Android and BlackBerry users? You're next.


Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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