With Google's app storefront crossing the 100,000-title mark, the company unveiled its own rating system to help users better navigate the growing catalog just before Thanksgiving. Android Market until now has been known as a largely unrestricted environment for downloads, compared to Apple's more tightly controlled App Store.
Google's new app rating system roughly parallels that of Apple's, with its four categories -- "All," "Pre-Teen," "Teen," and "Mature" -- similar to the 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+ age levels employed by its rival. Like Apple, Google lets developers assign ratings to apps, but reserves the right to "re-rate" a given app if the company believes the app's been labeled incorrectly. Any apps or games that do not include a rating will be treated as "Mature," according to a blog post last week by Eric Chu, Google' mobile platform program manager.
The subject-based guidelines accompanying the Android Market ratings are in some ways more detailed than those for the App Store, and may also be more permissive. For one thing, they don't set out explicit age ranges appropriate to different material. The Android rules, for instance, also require apps that include references to drugs, alcohol or tobacco products or their use be rated "Teen" or above -- a level corresponding to Apple's 12+.
But Apple's system requires that users must be 17 or older to buy apps that include content featuring drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Its 12 and above category allows for "infrequent mild language," while Google's seems to go a bit farther by permitting "profanity or crude humor" at the "Teen" level or higher. Both guidelines allow "simulated gambling" for that age group.
The Android Market guidelines, however, do specifically ban hate speech and advises that apps with "inflammatory content that may be offensive to many users" be rated "Teen" or higher. They also say that apps rated as "All" shouldn't ask for location information, but that's OK starting at the "Pre-Teen" level. Huh? Developers are likely to scratch their heads figuring out those aspects of the Android Market ratings -- as they have with the those for the App Store.
Any content rating system generates controversy because it ultimately involves subjective judgment, unlike a technical standard. Apple all but acknowledged when issuing new App Store review guidelines in September that stated the company will reject apps "for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line." Apple cited Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about not being able to define pornography, but "knowing it when I see it" to back up its judgment calls about apps.
Ratings for mobile apps invite even more confusion, though, because app stores don't adhere to a single consent rating system as do the video game, movie and TV industries, respectively. With a growing field of app storefronts from manufacturers, carriers and others, it makes more sense to adopt a standard rating system common to each -- for the benefit of developers as well as consumers.