Apple removed the controversial "Baby Shaker" application two days after it appeared on the App Store following strong protests from child advocacy groups.
But the incident raised questions about how Apple and other companies screen applications for sale and whether the government or some other group needs to provide oversight.
The 59p application, created by Sikalosoft, allowed a user to silence a virtual screaming baby by shaking the iPhone. A sketch of a baby crying appeared until the user shook the phone, then red X's appeared over the baby's eyes.
One description of the application noted, "Never, never shake a baby." It also advised, "See how long you can endure his or her adorable cries before you just have to find a way to quiet the baby down."
Apple posted the application on Monday and removed it Wednesday night, just hours after the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, an advocacy group, and other groups issued statements condemning the application and calling for an apology from Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
Apple officials didn't respond to requests for comment from Computerworld, although the Associated Press reported an Apple spokewoman called the game "deeply offensive" and said it should not have been approved for sale. "We sincerely apologize for this mistake," the spokeswoman said.
Sarah Jane organizers said they planned a press conference in front of the Apple store in Manhattan Thursday afternoon, even though the application was already removed from the AppStore.
"Apple owes an apology to the family members of children who have been shaken and to the general public for making this tragedy into a joke and almost encouraging shaking a baby," said Jennipher Dickens, communications director at Sarah Jane, in an interview prior to the public protest. "Imagine if a child of 10 or 11 found this application as a way to shut up a baby. It's horrible and completely irresponsible."
Sikalosoft seems to be taking the bullet for Apple in this case, posting this comment on its Web site: "Okay, so maybe the Baby Shaker iPhone app was a bad idea. You should never shake a baby! Even on an Apple iPhone Baby Shaking application. No babies were harmed in the making of Baby Shaker." Sikalosoft.com was only registered today as a Web site, and the statement posted there could not be independently verified. However, many application developers work virtually.
Still, Dickens joined others in questioning how Apple screens the thousands of applications it allows to be placed in its App Store. "It surprises me that this appeared, because Apple supposedly has a tough vetting process for applications, and developers have complained that it sometimes takes weeks and months to get them approved," Dickens said.
Dickens' 2-year-old son Christopher was shaken by his biological father when he was 7 weeks old, and he now has irreversible brain damage, she said. Dickens said her organization works to help the public understand Shaken Baby Syndrome.
App Store government oversight
Dickens stopped short of calling for some sort of government oversight of the App Store or similar storefronts. "Something like this shouldn't be overly censored, but shaking a baby is definitely wrong, and it takes corporate responsibility to deal with that. I'd expect better of an organization like Apple."
Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said Apple has been inconsistent in how it approves the thousands of applications sold through the App Store. For example, Apple seems to oppose selling applications that undercut its ability to make money through its iTunes application, but it still has allowed a free radio service, Slacker, to be sold, he noted.
On the other hand, in another case last year, Apple yanked a tethering application from Nullriver for sharing iPhone's cellular data connection with a laptop.
In another example, Enderle noted, Apple continued to allow a "tasteless" application that created flatulence sounds "evidently because it was popular."
He added, "It's not clear to me where the bar is at Apple for applications, and that makes their decisions look very subjective, which opens the opportunity for litigation."
Before Apple's apology was released, Enderle said Apple should apologise for posting Baby Shaker if indeed it was a mistake. "Ultimately removing the application implies it was a mistake to post it," he said.
On the other hand, Enderle said that if Apple posted the application out of some sense that it represented free speech, "then they need to explain that."
Enderle and others said Apple is probably no different than other companies that want to set up application stores, including Blackberry maker Research In Motion and Microsoft. The issue of violent content in computer games has also been around a long while and won't go away quickly, he noted.
If Apple and other companies want to avoid more government oversight, they need to explain their actions, Enderle said. "When they hurt groups whose goal is to protect children, it's just good in general to apologise,"he said. "Really, it was very insensitive."
He add that he is personally unconvinced that government needs to step in to regulate violent and offensive content sold in application stores. "That could do more damage than good," he noted.
Historically, Apple has been quiet when involved in controversy, and the company might need to rev up its outreach. Several years ago, Enderle said Apple caused itself trouble when it ignored calls by Greenpeace International for Apple to be more environmentally friendly.
"It was stupid to go to war with Greenpeace, and Apple finally, actually started dealing with them," Enderle noted. "Apple has come around on being green now, but they and others should learn that it's better to ride a wave than stand in front of it, " Enderle said.
Note: This blog first appeared on our sister site Computerworld