After seven months of availability, Apple has requested we remove the ability to send Bitcoin from the Gliph app. We have complied in our most recent release, Gliph for iOS 1.85. This blog entry focuses on the state of Bitcoin apps the Apple App Store and Google Play, and what happened to Bitcoin sending in the Gliph app.
What makes a Bitcoin Mobile app?
Most Bitcoin mobile apps include a mix of the following categories:
- News and Information about Bitcoin ecosystem (e.g. ZeroBlock)
- Market information (e.g. exchange price tickers, currency conversion, etc)
- Mobile wallet access (wallet stored on device)
- Native front-end controls to a cloud-based wallet (e.g. Gliph, Coinbase or Blockchain.info’s apps)
The most interesting mobile apps for Bitcoin are those that allow you to actually use the currency. Practical use of Bitcoin in mobile apps includes:
- Ability to send and receive Bitcoin with QR codes, written wallet addresses or other means. (BTC transfer)
- Ability to place buy and sell orders for Bitcoin (BTC trading)
Why is it important for there to be useful Bitcoin Apps
Bitcoin skeptics don’t see the proof-of-work from mining as a good reason for there to be significant value in the currency. Instead, the focus is on whether Bitcoin has value because it is a generally accepted form of payment for goods and services.
Since Bitcoin is electronic, and many things need to be paid for on-the-go, the smartphone is the natural device for use of Bitcoin. This makes use of Bitcoin on a smartphone an important contributor to sustained value of Bitcoin as a currency.
The Android and iOS mobile platforms are the most accessible and pervasive in the world today. It is possible to “jailbreak” iOS devices and “sideload” or root Android devices to run unauthorized apps. However, the vast majority of people download their apps from the App Store and Google Play.
It stands to reason that if either Apple or Google block useful Bitcoin apps from their app marketplaces, they hinder the practical use of the currency and thus indirectly suppress the value of Bitcoin.
Rules on Bitcoin in Google Play and the Apple App Store
Google and Apple have similar policies with regard to what is allowed in their respective app stores, but completely different interpretation and enforcement of those rules.
Neither Google’s Developer Content Policy nor Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines (requires Developer account) reference Bitcoin by name. The closest allusion is in Google Play’s language about Gambling where it reads:
“We don’t allow content or services that facilitate online gambling, including…games of skill that offer prizes of cash or other value.” [italics added]
The term “virtual currency” in both Google and Apple’s rules generally refers to the coins, gold or gems that are used in mobile games like Clash of Clans. Despite Bitcoin’s value outside a particular game or platform, the use of “virtual currency” is not intended to describe Bitcoin or similar alt-currencies in either Apple or Google’s policies.
Without a clear rule against bitcoin in either store, there is a broader rule for which Apple (but not Google) has been citing in its rejection of Bitcoin applications: Neither Google nor Apple allow apps that contain “illegal” or “unlawful” activity.
Google’s Content Policy on Illegal Activities says:
“Keep it legal. Don’t engage in unlawful activities on this product, such as the sale of prescription drugs without a prescription.”
Section 22.1 of Apple’s Review Guidelines on Legal requirements says:
“Apps must comply with all legal requirements in any location where they are made available to users. It is the developer’s obligation to understand and conform to all local laws.”
Given there are no clear rules on Bitcoin in either store, and that regulation of Bitcoin is still in its early stages let’s look at how Google and Apple are currently handling Bitcoin apps in their stores.
Google’s behavior toward Bitcoin apps in Google Play
Google Play offers a lot of leeway in what can be listed for easy download using the official Google Play app marketplace. Google has banned applications for reasons including sexually explicit material (SFW), copyright infringement, and facilitation of voiding device warranties but otherwise uses a fairly hands-off approach to curation of Google Play.
Google’s terms in the Developer Program touch on virtual currencies, but only within the context of a game and use for buying game content.
As far as my research suggests, Google has yet to request the removal of Bitcoin functionality from an app or removed a Bitcoin app from Google Play. This has resulted in a proliferation of Bitcoin apps on the platform. This BitcoinTalk forum thread has a standing list of Bitcoin Android apps and widgets.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has gone on record saying:
“Bitcoin is a technological tour de force. What I don’t know is ultimately whether it is going to be legal.”
Google’s continued allowance of Bitcoin applications in Google Play may suggest the assumption that the company believes it will be legal.
Apple’s behavior toward Bitcoin in the App Store
Developers have been trying to get native applications into the App Store with useful Bitcoin functionality since at least summer 2011. However, Apple has been fairly consistent in blocking or eventually removing apps that feature useful Bitcoin functionality. Apple uses two methods for preventing useful Bitcoin apps from living on iOS devices:
- By process (through normal review of a submitted app it is rejected and not allowed in the store)
- By exception (something causes Apple to re-review an application already released in the App Store and potentially remove it from sale)
Some examples of Bitcoin apps that have appeared and subsequently removed from the App Store include:
- Bitcoin Express: A “thin” wallet that used a server to track and download transactions involving its own wallet to the device but not full blocks or headers. This app was submitted for approval and rejected. The developer posted the language in the rejection as follows:
“We found that your app contains content related to bitcoins – or facilitates, enables, or encourages an activity – that is not legal in all the locations in which the app is available, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.
We encourage you to review your app concept and evaluate whether you can incorporate different content and features that are in compliance with the Guidelines. To appeal this review, please submit a request to the App Review Board.”
“About three weeks ago, I received notification that BitPak, the first Bitcoin wallet for iOS, had been removed from the Apple App store. I had not been given any reason why, just a simple electronic notification that it had been done. I was traveling at the time, and did not have the time to contact Apple to inquire about this.
About a week later, someone from Apple called me on the phone to let me know that BitPak had been removed from the App Store. The guy on the phone sounded like a nervous teenager. I asked him why this had happened, and he said ‘Because that Bitcoin thing is not legal in all jurisdictions for which BitPak is for sale.’
I inquired as to which jurisdictions Bitcoin was deemed to be illlegal [sic] in, and he told me ‘that is up to you to figure out.’ I asked him which laws Bitcoin violated, and again, he replied that ‘that is up to you to determine.’ I told the kid on the phone that he has in fact told me nothing and was most unhelpful.”
- Blockchain.info: The app for the hybrid web and offline Bitcoin wallet has been rejected multiple times, and has fluctuated in availability of useful Bitcoin features. One rejection note from Apple was posted by Blockchain.info founder Ben Reeves:
“We found that your app contains content – or facilitates, enables, or encourages an activity – that is not legal in all the locations in which the app is available, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.
Specifically, the facilitation of trading of virtual currency is not appropriate for the App Store.
We encourage you to review your app concept and evaluate whether you can incorporate different content and features that are in compliance with the Guidelines.
If you wish to appeal your review, you can submit a request to the App Review Board. The App Review Board was created for developers to appeal an app review they have concerns with. Please be as specific as possible when explaining why you believe your app is in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.”
- Coinbase: Coinbase has had two different iOS applications available in the App Store. Both have at one time had useful Bitcoin features, only to have them ultimately pulled from the store.
But XYZ app with useful Bitcoin features is still in the App Store. How come?
You may be aware of one or more apps in the App Store that still offer useful Bitcoin functionality. Why are those still available?
While we have our own guesses, we believe it is in the best interest of the Bitcoin community to avoid naming the remaining useful bitcoin apps and speculating publicly on why these apps remain in the store. Though, given Apple’s prior behavior, it is most likely a matter of time before they are removed.
Introduction to Gliph and its Bitcoin Capability
If you’re just tuning in, Gliph is an app for iPhone, Android and the web that lets you connect and communicate with people privately. Our goal with Gliph is to make peer-to-peer (P2P) transactions (like the ones you do on Craigslist) easier and more fun.
This past spring, we embraced Bitcoin and built the ability to attach a Bitcoin wallet to your Gliph account. This meant you effortlessly send Bitcoin to other Gliph users. We did this because we believe Bitcoin will be the currency-of-choice for the future of P2P transactions.
We released the Bitcoin functionality at Bitcoin 2013, You can check out the tech demo video showing off the first version Gliph on iOS with Bitcoin. At launch we also made these features available in Gliph’s Android and web applications.
We relocated the company from Portland, Oregon to incubate Gliph in the Boost VC startup accelerator this summer. You can learn more about our experience on Episode #47 of the Adam Levine’s Let’s Talk Bitcoin podcast.
Gliph’s Bitcoin Releases on iOS
Gliph is unique in that it integrates with multiple cloud-based Bitcoin wallet providers, rather than hosting wallets for users directly. This setup offers both user experience and business benefits:
- People on Gliph don’t need to know which Bitcoin wallet provider the other person is using, or handle wallet addresses. They just choose the amount and hit send.
- Gliph can focus on innovative user experiences rather than the technical and (potential) regulatory requirements of Bitcoin wallet hosting.
Over the three months at Boost VC, we did eight iterative releases of Gliph on iOS that focused on enhancing its Bitcoin functionality. These changes included:
- Refinements of the Bitcoin wallet experience
- “Instant” Bitcoin wallet creation
- Support both for the Blockchain.info and (now-defunct) BIPS web wallets.
With each release we took great care to be transparent about the useful Bitcoin functionality in the app. In fact, we believed that part of the reason Gliph was allowed in app store was because the app was clear in the description, update text and screenshots about its capability.
Getting Rejected from the App Store
Bolstered in part by the appearance of two applications offering useful Bitcoin functionality in the App Store, we submitted version 1.85 of the Gliph app. This version included the ability to scan QR codes, making Gliph an easy way to pay at online checkout and at point-of-sale using QR codes from merchant solution providers like Bitpay.
The Gliph app was held in review longer than expected, then we received a note saying the app needed additional review. A few days later, we received a phone call from Apple Worldwide Developer Relations personally telling us that what we had added in version 1.85 was not going to be allowed. In addition, they notified us that we needed to resubmit an update to our prior version, 1.8 by December 3rd or risk having the app removed from the store.
We were told we had an opportunity to appeal the decision, but that it would likely end up in the exact same place. Though, they indicated Apple had changed rules in the previous year specifically in response to feedback from appeal letters.
So we took the time to carefully explain what Gliph does, why we did not think it should be rejected or changed and offered feedback to Apple on how it should handle Bitcoin. We drew particular attention to the fact that Gliph does not technically send or receive Bitcoin, but instead issues requests to web wallets for these operations on behalf the user.
While waiting for a response to our appeal, our app was unexpectedly removed from sale on the morning of December 2nd. This was despite clear communication that we would have until the 3rd to submit an update. We received a phone call in the afternoon of the 3rd, saying our appeal was denied. Asked why the app had been removed earlier than discussed, we were given a vague answer.
It felt like the representative did not understand the difference between trading and transferring Bitcoin. These are significantly different things, especially with regard to potential future regulation.
Yet, when you are a startup and independent software developer, you don’t really have much leverage with Apple and how it handles the App Store. The best you can do is say “everyone makes mistakes,” offer to re-submit the app immediately and hope they change their mind on the matter.
To that end, we’ve decided to share our appeal letter to Apple on why it should allow apps with useful Bitcoin functionality in the app store. You can download a copy here (pdf).
Is Apple anti-Bitcoin? Why?
There is a prevailing belief in the Bitcoin community that Apple is “against” Bitcoin. While no one from Apple has gone on the record to comment on the technology as a whole, we have plenty of evidence Apple is currently against offering useful Bitcoin apps to its customers. But why?
Notable Bitcoin contributor, Jon Matonis, postulated this past June that Apple is suppressing Bitcoin apps to defend its entrance into the mobile payments. That’s an interesting idea, but it relies on the fact that Apple actually began seeing Bitcoin as a serious threat to corporate strategy as early as two-and-a-half years ago.
If you believe Apple’s repeated rejection criteria of section 22.1, you could take a view that the company believes the currency will ultimately be made illegal in the United States or other important markets. Rather than be forced to remove apps once theoretical regulation comes into play, Apple is simply not allowing them to exist in the first place.
This might sync up with Eric Schmidt’s comment on Bitcoin, which was that he doesn’t know if it will become a legal thing. If this is the most fundamental reason for allowing or disallowing Bitcoin apps in either store, it suggests an interesting perspective: Google allows useful Bitcoin apps because it optimistically believes the currency will become legal. Apple doesn’t allow them because it pessimistically does not.
Among other possible reasons, we wonder if Apple simply doesn’t want to police useful Bitcoin apps in the App Store because they perceive the legal ambiguity of the currency as more trouble than it is worth. Bitcoin is still in an early-adopter phase and probably the majority of Apple’s customers are unaware the currency exists and not looking for these types of apps anyway. Better to avoid this type of software for now, and take the option to change their mind in the future.
What Now for Gliph’s Bitcoin ability?
The native Gliph iOS app doesn’t have the “Attach Coins” option in the conversation menu anymore, but it does let you create or connect an existing Bitcoin wallet, and you can view the balance. When you want to send Bitcoin, you’ll need to jump to Mobile Safari and use Gliph’s mobile web application.
While that is a solid workaround, we believe that this reduces the quality of user experience in the Gliph iOS app with regard to Bitcoin. And since heavy Bitcoin users with iOS devices will jump through these hoops, it simply hurts the otherwise seamless experience of using Bitcoin on Gliph with an Apple product.
We continue to believe that there is immense opportunity in improving the P2P transaction experience and that Bitcoin will be an important part of this. You can expect Bitcoin to be an important aspect of the Gliph platform, with or without the express approval of Apple and the App Store.