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"App Name Squatting" : A view from outside the crowd.

In the last few days I've noticed increasing ripples through the blogosphere on the subject of "App Name Squating" in the iTunes App Store. I thought it was time to pose an alternate view, admittedly from our perspective

On Friday I noticed a tweet from a tech blog (I can't remember which) announcing the spectre of people doing the equivalent of domain name squatting with iTunes App Store names. I read through the linked article and came to a reference at the end to a solution proposed by Slashdot. It was this "solution" and subsequent posts on other blog sites over the weekend, most notably Gruber's reference today (bless him and his tech aggregating) where it appears that the general consensus is that this evil needs to be stamped out, and Apple should do something about it.

Just to explain, for those that don't know, iTunes Connect allows you to partially register your application (including it's name) at any time during the development process. As long as you enter the name and fill in all the relevant fields with any sort of data, you can stake your claim on any given name. The key is the “Upload binary later” field, which allows you to delay setting the App Store approval process in motion. It is a legitimate technique in my opinion to register and protect a product name you have IP invested in. And I think every dev should know about it and do it once they have a firm idea of their App's name. 

Gruber suggests a possible alternative, but I am not sure how it would work. He suggests that App names should perhaps not be unique. By that I presume he could mean there could be two TweetDecks, one which is a Twitter App, and another which is an eBook on birds? As far as I know this already happens to some degree. We have an App with effectively the same name as an App with another purpose altogether, both in the App Store. Their's is preceded with "The", ours is not. We didn't even know their App existed until we published ours! It is not possible at the moment to have two Apps with the exact same name letter for letter in the App Store, even in separate sections, as far as I know. Even so I think Gruber's suggestion is imperfect, at best, and then gets worse. He suggests perhaps anyone should be able to register any name (at least prior to publication). If anyone could register any name, and it's the first to market that gets to keep it, then we are in even more trouble than we are supposedly in now!

My problem is not that something perhaps should be done about abuse. I actually agree that if there is some kind of wholesale scam going on to derive people of interesting new Twitter App names, then it is worth bringing in some kind of oversight. Just like the wholesale App Spamming that Apple brought to an end itself by kicking certain developers out of the App Store permanently.

But, we do need to stop for a moment and take stock.

All the various articles that refer to this briefly mention two key points. I am not sure if they all originally spawn from one angry developer or not. But the viewpoint is not being thought through properly in my opinion, and people are kind of fanning the flames of a fire that doesn't really exist by syndicating this stuff over and over again.

The article that Gruber linked to is here.

In it (as in others) it suggests that a Dev. who worked for a certain period of time on an App idea with a certain name, was dismayed that the highly original name they came up with for their App was already registered in the App Store. Horror! And worse still it wasn't even on sale!

The App Name in question is, wait for it, "Twitch".

Normally I have some sympathy with most App Store related rants. I really don't with this one.

Now, recombu are very open in that they disclose that the App Developer Atomic Antelope are "friends" of theirs. So perhaps this affected their judgment. If this was my friend I would have bought them a drink, and then had a friendly laugh with them about their naivete. Because to me if you have been working on an App for a few months (I presume they put some time into "Twitch") and have decided on a name for it, it seems absolutely obvious that you buy the domain name (if you can), register the App Name, and have the T-Shirts made *before* you are ready to come to market. You do it as early as possible. You do it the day the name becomes important to you. If the name really comes to you that late in the process then it's not that important to you or that keyed to elements of design in your product, obviously.

You don't think of your name, or order the web design, print the packaging etc. on the day you bundle the App! Unless of course you develop 24 hour iPhone Apps. And not everyone develops an iPhone App in 24 hours - thank the Lord!

Frankly, being aware of your product name and trying to secure it seems like a business 101 principal to me. Alternatively you have a working title and then brainstorm for App names at the end and take pot luck with what's available. It's your choice.

I honestly have very little sympathy for Atomic Antelope here I am afraid. But I wish them well, and hope they find a solution, and their App sells well - whatever it ends up being called.

Next the article outlines that even more ridiculously you can't contact these supposed "squatters" to offer to beg, borrow, steal or buy the name from them, or perhaps litigate them (they don't suggest all those options, I am just extrapolating other possibilities).

So this begs the question, why would they be "squatting" these names?

How are they going to profit? Is this really a longterm cynical plan like early URL speculating? 

Do these people expect to get away with extorting Devs eventually?

How are they going to contact them?  

Are we going to see App Store name trading sites spring up? 

Does anyone here have any opinions on this? 

It seems more likely to me that some enterprising Dev somewhere plans to develop "Twitch" themselves, and good luck to them I say. If they'd nicked "My Great App Name" from me I'd salute their foresight and ingenuity and wish them well - go about my day - and then come up with another name.

We are actually 3 years into a long term project at my company. An offshoot of that project is a relatively long term iPhone / iPod product. The reason this is a "long term project" is because it's our belief that you can either push out "lots and often" at low prices to the App Store, or focus on producing a quality App and then price it accordingly and market it enthusiastically as a mature product rather than a toy. We may be wrong. But that's what we are trying, and as such we do need to protect our IP in the name. If for no other reason other than to stop our graphic designer quitting when we ask him to re-skin the entire App 24 hours before launch!

Luckily we already own the domain name, and have T-Shirts. And also luckily (or so I thought) we have registered the App Names for our product in the iTunes App Store. But we don't plan to push out the final version of this app for a few months yet... Meanwhile our App is dormant in the App Store. We are "squatting" in the technical sense of the word - if there really is one for Apps.

Slashdot's solution to App Store name squatting was for Apple to periodically flush inactive names. Those of us who develop for the iPhone know that there are certain things we'd like Apple to actually "flush" from time to time to do with the App Store. But that's another matter altogether! Personally, obviously, I'd rather indiscriminate name flushing wasn't the solution. Because in our case it would expose us to losing a legitimate App Name we want to protect as we are in active development of a title with that name. I also don't want to feel we have to now rush development to protect our IP, and compromise our product - which of course we won't ever do.

 This final comment from recombu doesn't really make sense to me either:

"So there you have it, it seems that the Apple iPhone app store is open to abuse from app name squatters and encourages legitimate developers to squat in fear of losing out. We have sent an email to Apple asking for a comment and are awaiting a reply. We hope this unfair system is changed soon, otherwise iPhone developers will find it difficult to get good names for their apps." 

What do they suggest? Not a lot. Just that it's bad, and Apple should fix it!

How?

To me it seems very simple:

Obvious massive abuses or dormant names of over, say, 2 years old, or associated with dead accounts should be flushed. I am sure Apple already have something like this in place, simply to keep their servers running into the future. Other than that I believe Apple should let people get on with it.

Apple have shown they are able to react to critical issues in the App Store, sometimes not as quick as we'd like, but they do get there in the end.

Other than that people who are wanting to work as professionals in the software industry and publish to the world should practice a little common sense. If someone beats them to the punch they should roll with it and put the blame fairly and squarely on their own lack of foresight. What they should not do is enlist blogger mates to fight some imagined battle against an unseen evil.

Devs. or companies registering names for genuine future products to protect their IP, or simply to gain market advantage by securing a good name is plain and simple - just business. If they don't plan to use the name they shouldn't register it, obviously. And if they change their plans later they should ideally relinquish the name. But at the end of the day how do you police that? More importantly how do you police that fairly?

Rampant speculation is perhaps another matter altogether. But as of right now I don't really believe it's an issue other than one imagined by those that come second in the name queue.  

What do other people think? 

(After writing this I wondered if it's me who's got caught up in the ripplings in the blogosphere, and this is a non-issue which will disappear by Tuesday. But as of right now I'd rather get my views on record, because I don't want to find out in a few weeks time that I now have to login to iTunes Connect every day to check that I still have an App Name for the iPhone product I've worked on for the last 6 months.)

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