Apple's Geolocation Threat: Defining "Beneficial," Apple Style

Apple this month posted a stern-sounding warning on its developer pages: make sure your geolocation efforts are designed with the user—and not an advertiser—in mind.

"If you build your application with features based on a user's location, make sure these features provide beneficial information. If your app uses location-based information primarily to enable mobile advertisers to deliver targeted ads based on a user's location, your app will be returned to you by the App Store Review Team for modification before it can be posted to the App Store."

At a glance, that sounds like a fine consumer-oriented focus, but let's delve a bit deeper. Apple is by no means coming out against geolocation. Said the memo: "The Core Location framework allows you to build applications which know where your users are and can deliver information based on their location, such as local weather, nearby restaurants, ATMs and other location-based information."

The problem is how Cupertino is defining both the good ("provide beneficial information") and the bad ("deliver targeted ads"). Who's to say that a cleverly targeted ad doesn't, in fact, potentially provide beneficial information?

Let's say, for example, that a consumer is walking down the streets of Manhattan as he reads his iPhone screen. He's using a retail search app and looking for a local store that has a particular style and size of shirt. It just so happens that one of the top answers is 40 feet north of the consumer's current location. Is it beneficial for the app to scream, "FYI. Store #2 just happens to be one door north. May I point the way? I can also show you a 50-percent off discount coupon for that shop."

No problem with that interaction; the consumer was explicitly looking for that piece of clothing in a brick and mortar. Let's change the scenario slightly. The same consumer is now walking down Madison Ave. looking at a sports news iPhone app. While reading about last night's game, the app notices that the consumer is 40 feet away from a top-notch sporting goods store. It's not as clean as the first example, but the consumer is—worst-case scenario—going to decline the info and forget about it. At best, he might find it very helpful.

Now, what if that consumer is looking at that sports news app and the phone realizes it's 6 o'clock and proceeds to put up discount coupons for two sports-themed steak restaurants that are extremely close by?

Apple could have banned geolocation use unless it's something the consumer specifically seeks, but it chose not to. Could the company be planning its own geolocation advertiser move?