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To restrict or not to restrict: The conundrum for operators and app stores: T-Mobile USA burned in Android Market gaffe

Apple continues to draw flak for keeping a tight rein on its App Store, but T-Mobile USA is learning that Google’s free-for-all marketplace can be a dangerous place to play.
The latest offering to get the boot from Apple is a mobile version of “Knife Music,” a detective thriller by David Carnoy that features some racy language. Apple cited a clause in the iPhone SDK barring “obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind” as well as “other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod Touch users.”
That’s an extremely broad touchstone, of course, and Apple doesn’t shy from using it. Other offerings on its ever-growing blacklist include Murderdrome (too violent), iBong (too dopey), iBoobs (too breasty), chess (too free, apparently) and I Am Rich (way too far from free). Meanwhile, Apple reversed course and changed its policy regarding the booming (and mystifying) flatulent-app space, paving the way for top sellers such as iFart Mobile – which is ringing up thousands of dollars a day – and Pull My Finger.
Google, on the other hand, has drawn heaps of praise for taking a laissez faire strategy with Android Market, which allows developers to simply upload their applications without restrictions. (It’s worth noting that Google was wise enough to install a kill switch, however.)
But that openness comes with a price – and it’s T-Mobile, not Google, who’s footing the bill. Several subscribers have complained of unexpected data charges on their G1 phones due to third-party applications that continued to run in the background even when data-roaming settings are switched off.
The carrier was forced to issue an official statement warning that some Android Market offerings “have the ability to override your data settings when in use. Customers are informed whether an application will use this feature prior to downloading,” the statement continued, “but should also be aware when traveling outside the country.”
The controversy was limited to a handful of users and a few techie blogs, it seems, and T-Mobile was spared the call-center costs and PR nightmares that accompany massive customer-relations snafus. But it illustrated once again that while Apple and Google may be moving the needle in wireless, it’s carriers – not their partners – that are ultimately held responsible by consumers.
Yes, Apple’s policy can be heavy-handed, self-righteous and arbitrarily imposed. And detractors (like the commenters here) will continue to bemoan Apple’s efforts to serve as a hand-holding nanny in a free market.
But network operators still have the most to lose in these early days of mass-market mobile applications. A rogue Android Market offering doesn’t just mean increased customer-care overhead, it’s likely to boost churn. That danger will increase as more sinister applications come to market and the risk of wireless viruses and other nasty threats appear.
T-Mobile just got a tiny taste of what’s in store for operators that try to leverage an unfettered marketplace. Apple’s approach may be stifling and restrictive, but it’s a strategy that’s paying dividends for AT&T.
After all, it’s not like anyone is going to switch operators in order to access Murderdrome.

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