Commentary

Ratings Coming To Apps

MovieRatings

The CTIA today unveiled plans at its annual spring conference to develop a ratings system for mobile applications by the end of 2011. The program would be based on its existing Guidelines for App Content Classification and Ratings, which promulgate voluntary self-certification of apps.

The stated aim is provide parents the information needed to determine which titles are appropriate for their children amid a rapidly growing selection of apps and app stores. That the CTIA is pushing for an app rating systems is hardly surprising given the explosion of the space, typified by the breakout success of "Angry Birds" in 2010. Apps have entered mainstream entertainment culture, if not on the scale of traditional media like movies, videogames and TV.

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So it follows apps would be added to that list of major media categories that already have their own voluntary rating regimes. In fact, the CTIA guidelines for app classification call for reliance on existing third-party ratings system wherever possible. They also mandate rating tiers to inform consumers as to the characteristics of application content and its suitability for appropriate audiences. Perhaps the closest analog for apps are videogames, since many apps are mobile games, and games are among the most popular type of apps.

That would make it natural for the CTIA to look to the Entertainment Software Ratings Boards' videogame industry ratings, which use a letter-based system to classify titles according to seven age-specific categories from early childhood (EC) through teen (T) to Adults Only (AO).

Apple has already implemented an age-based rating system for game apps sold via the App Store and published more explicit guidelines on app content last September. So it's not hard to image app stores more generally adopting a system that parallels the ESRB ratings guidelines.

As part of the process, the CTIA is also issuing a request for proposals to build and maintain an online questionnaire and database system for the purpose of rating app content. This system will allow developers to enter information about their app's content, during the on-boarding process at participating app storefronts. Based on the information supplied, age-appropriate ratings would be applied to each title.

Controversy usually attends the development of any ratings system, so it wouldn't be unusual for the effort to create app rating to hit some bumps along the way. One hurdle could be that apps embrace a variety of content formats making it more difficult to come up with a consistent set of standards. But in the end, it seems likely some type of ratings will be applied to apps as an increasingly pervasive medium.

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