Cupertino, California-based computing giant Apple has released an update to its App Store Review Guidelines that potentially opens the doors for a change in its long-restrictive policies against bitcoin and other digital currencies.
The release follows Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC 2014), an annual meetup of Apple developers that was expected to bring notable announcements for the company's customers and wider business community.
The update, made under the document's 'purchasing and currencies' section, reads:
"Apps may facilitate transmission of approved virtual currencies provided that they do so in compliance with all state and federal laws for the territories in which the app functions."
Apple had garnered the ire of the wider bitcoin community as early as 2012 when it removed wallet apps Blockchain Wallet and BitPak. While Blockchain's app was later reinstated, Apple returned late last year to abruptly pull major bitcoin wallet apps — such as Coinbase and the newer Blockchain — from its app store.
Encrypted instant message app Gliph once allowed bitcoins to be attached to messages, but developers were told by Apple it could only remain available if that feature was removed.
BitPak developer Rob Sama said an Apple representative had given the reason: "Because that bitcoin thing is not legal in all jurisdictions for which BitPak is for sale". When he questioned what laws anywhere made bitcoin illegal, the rep responded "that is up to you to figure out".
Although iOS users who installed the apps before the ban are still able to use them, no ability to update means they're often stuck with only basic functionality compared to their Android-using brethren. And should they lose or damage their device somehow, the app is gone for good.
Damage to bitcoin
The resulting embargo of any apps that allow for the transmission of bitcoins has been widely acknowledged by the bitcoin community as having a negative impact on adoption. Despite rivals' gains in recent years, Apple's iOS still accounts for 65% of mobile web traffic in the lucrative North American market.
Blockchain's app had been downloaded 120,000 times before Apple's action. Earlier this year, that company and Gliph responded with blog posts critical of Apple's lack of clarity on the issue.
Anti-Apple backlash perhaps hit a tipping point this February, when bitcoin's fervent reddit community began publicly destroying Apple devices in a video campaign designed to bring awareness to the Apple's actions.
Of course, in recent months bitcoin entrepreneurs and developers have simply become more covert in their use of Apple's own policies in order to bring bitcoin-based services to the platform.
Developers at Avalonic also produced a beta version of an entire unofficial bitcoin app store called 'Bit Store', saying their use of Apple's enterprise protocols was legally sound.
Most recently, Pheeva was about to offer its bitcoin wallet to iOS users by registering as a cooperative, meaning prospective users must first enroll in the company's community online before download.
While the cause of much enthusiasm from the community, ultimately more guidance may be required to determine whether or not bitcoin itself is an "approved" digital currency.
In addition, Section 22.1 of Apple's Review Guidelines has always contained this clause, under 'Legal Requirements':
“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.”
As a company, Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about future development, and may have an as-yet-unrevealed product which applies to the policy change.
CoinDesk is still monitoring this developing story.