Collecting antiques is getting harder but not impossible when it involves smartphone and tablet apps. Apple and Google are limiting the availability of apps that have gone too long without an update – but the two companies aren’t being equally strict about it. For now, each allows a workaround.
Apple announced April 29 that it would consider an app neglected if it had “not been updated within the last three years” and had “not been downloaded at all or extremely few times during a rolling 12-month period.”
Meeting both criteria would lead to the app’s developer getting a warning of the app’s possible removal from the App Store – which, since that’s the only practical way to distribute an iPhone or iPad app, amounts to a death sentence. Developers have up to 90 days to ship an update to lift that threat.
This policy represents a retreat from an earlier rule that Apple had revealed through emails to developers this spring: Two years without an update would make an app subject to removal, with only 30 days to ship an update.
What happens when an app is removed from the store?
In either case, users with the app already installed should be safe. “Your app will remain fully functional for current users,” Apple’s policy reads – including support for in-app purchases. And backing up an old iPhone or iPad device and then restoring that backup to a new phone or tablet should move the app over.
Many developers remain unamused by this policy.
“This is another reminder that Apple controls all distribution of iOS apps, which means that these rules, and any others, can leave developers and users without choice,” emailed Brent Simmons, developer of NetNewsWire and other apps.
Apple declined to comment on the record but confirmed that outside of titles removed for being malware, an app no longer available in the App Store will transfer to new devices via the backup-and-restore process.
“It doesn’t make sense to keep apps on the App Store that crash on launch, or that have been entirely abandoned,” emailed Adam Engst, publisher of the long-running Apple newsletter Tidbits. But outside of that, he wondered whether this rule helps users much – people can decide for themselves whether old but functioning apps offer value or not.
Engst’s suggestion: “It would seem better to hide the app on the App Store to prevent new downloads while still keeping it available for existing users who are upgrading or transitioning in such a way that they can’t copy from their old device.”
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Google’s approach to old apps is different
That is the approach Google will take starting Nov. 22. In April, the company announced what amounts to a two- to three-year policy: Android apps, which already have to specify the most recent Android release they support, can’t fall more than two years behind the current Android release.
If that rule were in effect today, when the current release is the 2021-vintage Android 12, apps would have to support at least 2019’s Android 10.
The penalty is less harsh than Apple’s: Google’s Play Store will hide non-complying apps from users who haven’t installed them before and whose devices run a newer version of Android. Everybody else will still see the app in the Play Store.
And even if an app vanishes from the Play Store – for example, the nifty augmented-reality Measure app that Google deleted from the Play Store last year – it can live on for individual users who transfer it from one Android device to the next using Google’s phone-migration software. At least until an operating-system update leaves it crashing on every launch.