Ratings are not enough for mobile apps

Thursday, May 19, 2011, 10:24 AM


A few recent articles discuss CTIA's call for a unified "rating" system for mobile apps. Note: CTIA is the Cellular Telecommunications Internet Association, a nonprofit that includes wireless carriers and suppliers of wireless data products and services.  The articles are informative and interesting but the rating system is still in discussion phase.

Rating systems are a practical method to help set expectations. Most are familiar with the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system for movies (NR, R, PG-13, PG, and G) and perhaps somewhat less familiar with the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) system of rating video games. 

The mobile app rating initiative is a noble venture. Parents would be enabled to make educated decisions about the apps their children want. Even though most app markets have a version of content ratings, the system needs improvement. For example, in the Android market, you won't see a content rating until you tap the “More drop-down box to get a complete description of the app. Unless a parent is conscious of its location, a rating will go unnoticed. I wasn't even aware of these ratings until I read an article discussing the new system.  I consider myself fairly informed, too.

The nice thing about the MPAA and ESRB is that when kids go get to a point of sale at the movie theater or retail store, they should be stopped by the clerk prior to purchasing mature content.  In the world of smartphones and tablets, however, there is no one waiting at checkout asking for proof of age.

More important is the issue that unless app management software is installed on a smartphone, a parent won't truly know what apps are installed. Consumers are likely to revolt if asked to indicate their age somehow on their device. This is due to privacy concerns, and even recent lawsuits against Google and Apple regarding location tracking.

A unified rating system would be well received but given the complexity of enforcing the rules, it would seem impossible to protect identities and block mature content without the aid of some type of smartphone app manager.  An app manager should be able to block downloads of mature applications, alert parents when downloads have been attempted, and describe the downloaded content.

I hope the CTIA is able to introduce a well designed rating system, but I also think it's important for consumers to recognize that it's only one tool in an overall solution. Without an app manager, kids will sneak past faster than they do at the movie theater.