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Cloned virtual phone number apps breaking App Store rules to increase discovery [U]

Update: Just a day after this report about multiple developers gaming the App Store with cloned apps, Apple has removed many of the ones that were pointed out by TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet.

A new report from TechCrunch today looks into how some app developers game the App Store by submitting multiple versions of the same (or very similar) app. While it looks like these apps are breaking the App Store rules, developers of these apps defend the strategy as fair game.

TC’s investigative report calls out both developers using this strategy of submitting multiple versions of the same app as well as Apple for not enforcing its policies.

Companies don’t even try to hide the fact that [they] have submitted multiple versions of the same app with different names and icons. But core features remain the same. Apple hasn’t enforced its own guideline properly and developers took advantage of that grey area.

One example is the developer TextMe, Inc. who has three different apps that serve mostly the same purpose. Notably, they all even use the same screenshots in the App Store.

The wording is slightly different for each app. TextMe Up lets you “call & text anyone in the world from your mobile, tablet, and computer”, while TextMe lets you “get a new phone number and start texting and making calls for free” and FreeTone is all about “[enjoying] free calls & texts to the phone numbers in the US and Canada”.

But if you look at the App Store screenshots, the company doesn’t even bother changing the screenshots or marketing copy.

However, TextMe believes they are abiding by the App Store rules and use the three apps as marketing and competitive strategies.

“Our apps have a different marketing target,” TextMe, Inc. co-founder and co-CEO Patrice Giami told me in a phone interview. “They share the same code base, but we can activate or deactivate some features in order to differentiate the apps. We manage that depending on the competitive environment and if we need to optimize distribution.”

The report looks into several other developers who use the same strategy as TextMe. At the end of the day, Apple could solve the problem by defining rules like these more clearly and enforcing them consistently.

While Apple is usually quite strict when it comes to App Store guidelines, it hasn’t enforced some of them. And this is unfair for app developers who play by the rules. They can’t compete as effectively with companies that know that they can ignore some rules.

This latest report comes after Apple has taken heat for hosting a controversial Saudi-based iOS app called Absher. Last month Facebook, Google, and more were caught abusing Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program.

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Avatar for Michael Potuck Michael Potuck

Michael is an editor for 9to5Mac. Since joining in 2016 he has written more than 3,000 articles including breaking news, reviews, and detailed comparisons and tutorials.