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HMV’s new download app removed from Apple store

By | Published on Tuesday 22 October 2013

HMV Digital

HMV’s latest attempt at entering the digital music market hit a snag yesterday just five days after launch as Apple suspended distribution of the entertainment retailer’s app from its store. The move brought to an end a polite war of words that began within a day of the all-new HMV digital proposition going live, and has forced the retail firm to rework its iOS app.

As previously reported, HMV’s first digital venture since Hilco bought the entertainment retailer out of administration earlier this year has mobile at its heart, seemingly in sensible a bid to more closely connect the in-store and online music buying experience. The HMV app allows users to scan an album cover with their phone and then access the content of said record in digital form via its 7digital-powered mobile download platform.

Although an HTML5 version of the new download store enables access via a PC, or Blackberry or Windows-powered smartphone, the focus of last week’s big HMV announcement was the proprietary Android and iOS apps, which were to be at the core of phase one of the new digital proposition. Though the former is definitely the stronger of the two in terms of experience and functionality; indeed, unless you already have an account with the retailer’s myHMV scheme, it’s not initially clear how to even enter the iOS app.

But, while the iOS app isn’t as sophisticated as its Android counterpart, HMV did have a bold statement to share about it last week, revealing in its press release that “the HMV app is the first non-iTunes-based service on Apple’s iOS platform to allow the purchase of digital music downloads through a native app experience”. For tech types, that single sentence really stood out in the more lengthy press briefing, and several media headlined their coverage of the new HMV download service by stressing that development.

Though some iPhone-users on Twitter soon noted that when purchasing tracks through the new service, the transaction with the retailer actually took place ‘out of app’ through their mobile browser, which [a] wasn’t as smooth an experience as implied in the press bumf, and [b] seemingly violated Apple’s rules for app makers.

Although not in the public domain, these rules are provided to all app developers, and clearly state that app-based transactions must take place within the app, utilising the “In-App Purchase API”. This basically enables Apple to take a sneaky cut of any monies generated. The rules go on to explicitly state that apps that link to “external mechanisms” to perform a transaction will be rejected from the Apple app store.

With these rules clearly breached by HMV’s iOS app, some assumed that the retailer must have secured some sort of landmark partnership with Apple, even though in the digital music space the two companies are head-on competitors. But HMV, for its part, was clear that this wasn’t the case, though stressed that the app had, nevertheless, been approved by Apple for distribution via its app store.

However, once the HMV app went live last Thursday morning it didn’t take long for Apple to tell the retailer that – approval or no approval – the iOS app was not in line with its rules on “In-App Purchase” and “external mechanisms”, and would need to be changed.

Understandably frustrated, Hilco CEO and HMV Chairman Paul McGowan quickly shared Apple’s declaration via Twitter, tweeting on Friday “[Apple HQ at] Cupertino demanding changes to #hmvapp despite formal approval on 15 Sep” and later: “Cupertino – ‘Remove the capability for digital purchasing or the #hmvapp will be suspended from the AppStore’ on Monday!! #GoAndroid”.

Although HMV seemed to initially resist Apple’s demands, citing that 15 Sep approval, yesterday work was underway to alter the iOS app to bring it in line with the tech giant’s rule book. Though – even as HMV was announcing that its apps had already been downloaded over 10,000 times, while further plugging them via its weekly customer email – McGowan was admitting on Twitter that his tech-heads were unlikely to meet Apple’s “unrealistic” 6pm deadline for rule compliance.

And sure enough, as Cupertino arrived at work on Monday morning the HMV iOS app was suspended from Apple’s app store.

Confirming the development, McGowan told CMU last night: “It is disappointing that Apple has chosen to suspend an app that has proven to be very successful in only a few short days despite Apple having already approved the exact same version on 15 Sep. We are unable to explain the change in Apple’s position as we have been given no explanation by them as to any difference they view between the approved version and the one suspended this evening”.

Honing in on the other elements of his firm’s new digital endeavours, McGowan went on: “The Android and HTML versions of the app are spectacular and are proving a big hit with UK consumers with downloads growing constantly over the last few days. They will also be launched in Ireland on 24th October and we have pencilled in a Canadian launch during November. The new website is also launching on 24th October and will provide a new, content-rich environment for our customers”.

It’s not entirely clear why Apple initially approved the HMV app last month, though some developers have told CMU that the tech firm’s approval process isn’t necessarily designed to check every line of its policies have been adhered to, and approval is given subject to those terms being followed at launch and beyond.

And given that it was highly unusual for Apple to clear an app so clearly in breach of its transaction polices – unusual enough for HMV to highlight this bit of functionality as a genuine USP in its own press release – it would have perhaps been advisable for the retail firm’s app team to specifically clarify the situation with the iPhone maker before going live.

Brittney Bean, whose company Songdrop recently got approval for its curation and playlisting iOS app, told CMU: “We’re very familiar with Apple’s App Store Guidelines and approvals process, having recently released our own iOS app for Songdrop, which has already notched up well over 10,000 downloads in less than a month – with none of the widespread mainstream media coverage of the HMV app!”

She went on: “The guidelines Apple issue to app-store developers are very clear that if apps do not use the In-App Purchase API to sell content then they will be rejected, and that any app using an ‘external mechanism’ for purchasing content to be used within an app will also be knocked back”.

“Anecdotally, I know that many developers now understand Apple’s approvals process to be largely automated and that apps are checked primarily to ensure that they adhere to the SDK [software development kit] guidelines issued to iOS developers, and to ensure that they are not relying on unsupported or unauthorised API calls. So in that sense it is entirely possible that the HMV app could have been approved because it was technically sound, and that it was only after it was published that Apple realised that it was in breach of the App Store Guidelines”.

HMV – once “top dog for music” of course – has sort of repositioned itself as a more independently-spirited and more sympathetic underdog since its Hilco-led revival earlier this year. With that in mind, it may well claim that big bad Apple is to blame here – an unreliable tech giant is exploiting its walled garden. And while some will probably share that viewpoint, for a retailer trying to convince the music business and music consumers that this time it knows what it’s doing in digital, falling foul of pretty basic Apple rules at the first hurdle is perhaps a little embarrassing.