NJ and PA online casino, sports betting apps face worrisome road

Apple’s Crackdown On Gambling Apps: ‘It’s Going To Hurt A Lot Of People’

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Apple dropped a bombshell last week when it announced iOS gambling apps now have to be built natively rather than as HTML container apps.

Building and maintaining container apps, otherwise known in tech circles as “wrappers,” rather than doing it natively is a cheaper and quicker way for gambling brands to deploy apps and gain access to Apple’s App Store.

But with the overwhelming majority of gambling apps essentially repurposed HTML5 products and websites, there is now a clamor to find solutions. This panic-inducing situation is made all the more urgent by the fact the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech behemoth has set a deadline of Sept. 3 for existing apps to adhere to the new rules.

Guideline 4.7 within the summary of the updated App Store Review Guidelines, published on June 3, states:

“HTML5 games distributed in apps may not provide access to real money gaming, lotteries, or charitable donations, and may not support digital commerce. This functionality is only appropriate for code that’s embedded in the binary and can be reviewed by Apple. This guideline is now enforced for new apps. Existing apps must follow this guideline by September 3, 2019.”

How this affects gambling companies and players

Looking at the guidelines in full point 4.7.4 applies to “real money gaming,” which according to Apple’s definition refers to sports betting, poker games, casino games and horse racing. Therefore, it would appear those with iOS apps with any or all of these gambling products will be impacted.

It seems likely that players with container apps already installed on their iOS devices will still be able to use them after Sept. 3, although Apple won’t approve future updates. Players also won’t be able to download and install container apps after this date as Apple will probably have banished them from its app emporium.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” said Stuart Godfree, managing director and co-founder of gambling apps and software developer mkodo. “Rebuilding a game will take several months; just look at the size of the [games] portfolios that people have. It’s huge.”

Indeed, mobile casinos tend to have hundreds of HTML5 table games and slot games third-party suppliers that will have to be re-written in under three months, which is nigh on impossible. “To port, an HTML5 game to be native in iOS will probably take about eight weeks,” said Godfree. “With a sportsbook, you are looking at half a year at the very least.”

The timing couldn’t be worse for online gambling

Based on that estimation, online sportsbooks with iOS apps in US states where mobile betting is legal could see their apps vanish from the App Store ahead of the 2019 NFL season, which starts on Sept. 5. That will be a big blow in states like New Jersey where mobile accounts for around 80% of sports betting handle.

“I would say, 95% of all sportsbook products are wrapped, containerized apps and there are very few exceptions to that,” Godfree said. Besides it being a “nightmare” for many gambling companies to rebuild their iOS apps natively, Godfree singles out live dealer games as a particularly tricky fix.

“If you look at the live casino products, that’s huge because it’s all real-time video deployed through HTML pages, so they are going to have to significantly change the architecture if they want these products to still go into apps. I would think that is a nine- to 12-month job.”

Even if live casino or random number generated online games were re-coded and embedded into a casino app, the sheer size of these natively built games would be so large that providing a watered-down mobile product suite would be the only option.

That’s a major headache for the NJ online casino industry to solve.

Was the writing on the wall for iOS apps?

There had been signs Apple’s stance was hardening toward container apps with a 4.2 update to its App Store Review guidelines targeting apps bereft of sufficient native functionality.

Indeed, reports of European gambling apps being rejected began to surface in the wake of the 4.2 update. This could be why the rollout of mobile sports betting apps in Pennsylvania was delayed.

Andy Daniels, managing director of UK-based app development agency Degree 53, said:

“Initially, when we started getting rejected, it seemed to be gaming apps, but just by putting some native functionality into the app you could get around it.

“We were even getting apps with very little native functionality passed no problem, but people were talking to us and saying they had been completely blown out the App Store.”

So-called ‘bad actors’ haven’t helped

Meanwhile, consultant Danny Kashti, who was head of mobile at PokerStars for five years before joining social poker’s KamaGames, partly blames the crackdown on the behavior of some in nonregulated markets.

“Many of the ‘bad actors’ in the industry are taking advantage of HTML5 and wrapper apps to distribute non-compliant apps and real-money gaming apps in non-regulated markets. We saw such instances on a huge scale in China and Norway last year.

“This is another reason why Apple is taking a stricter stance. By not taking proactive steps to prevent nonapproved and noncompliant apps from [entering] its local app stores, it put more risk on its own business.”

 Un’appy days ahead for online gambling

If Apple purges gambling container apps it’s clearly going to hurt operators’ revenue, while user acquisition costs will rise. In addition, it’s bound to disrupt natural app discovery and the customer journey.

Forcing users to play via their Safari or Chrome mobile browser can be a more awkward experience. Also, online gambling companies won’t be able to send users native push notifications and offer touch ID to log in, both of which help with retention.

But perhaps an app’s greatest asset is the way it sits emblazoned with a gambling brand’s logo on the home screen of a customer’s most personal device, their smartphone.

For Jim Ryan, CEO of Pala Interactive, which is behind Pala Casino and Pala Poker in New Jersey, Apple’s 4.7 updated guideline was disappointing but not surprising. “This is something that we have been working on for a period of time now, so none of this is new,” he said philosophically.

“Apple has been sending signals for months now that real-money gaming applications were a problem in the App Store.” As to the importance of iOS to Pala, he said: “Around 70% of our business is coming through mobile devices, [but] Apple penetration outstrips Android.

“It’s a critical component, and we absolutely have to ensure that these customers can continue to enjoy the games in a way that they are not disrupted. Anyone who has a major blip in that regard, it will be painful.”

Making alternative arrangements for gambling apps

Pala is taking steps to prevent a major blip by introducing a progressive web app (PWA) that will be available to download from its site. PWAs offer a fast, full-screen mobile experience and can be installed on a user’s home screen, in a similar fashion to native apps.

However, you don’t need to distribute products through the App Store and have apps and updates approved. And it saves having to code apps separately for iOS and Android.

“I’m not suggesting we will have native games built by Sept. 3, but we will have a progressive web app,” said Ryan.

“This will be available on our site where the user will be able to download the app onto his device – they won’t have to go to the App Store to do it. That is where the industry is going. We are not alone in that respect and will be ready by Sept. 3.”

Could Apple back down?

There is no doubt the revised App Store guidelines sent shockwaves through the industry. And right now, it’s hard to see Apple being lobbied into performing an about-face or at least coming to a compromise with app developers.

Indeed, just getting Apple to provide more clarity and answer questions is akin to “getting blood out of a stone,” said Daniels from Degree 53. He adds: “With Apple, it’s very hard to judge it; sometimes Apple will almost have a bee in their bonnet about something and then it subsides.”

Apple’s capricious behavior and the opaqueness of its App Store approval process means no one is completely sure how strictly the new guidelines will be enforced.

“How big a headache it will be depends on Apple’s enforcement, and from our experience, this is totally unpredictable,” said Adam Wilson, co-founder of Bookee, a fully native betting app in the UK.

“It’s highly probable to get a rejection on a build for reasons that are unclear and then resubmit with no changes and get it approved.”

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Side-tracked by a major distraction

While Wilson believes the reliance upon native apps will diminish over time due partly to the emergence of PWAs, right now, most operators are tight-lipped about their plans and how their iOS mobile products are impacted.

Nevertheless, a top priority will be to hire developers and app agencies to rebuild their iOS apps as most gambling companies don’t have in-house native app expertise. This is going to take time, something which is in short supply.

All the new games, sportsbooks and apps then need to be approved by Apple, as well as undergo rigorous testing in gaming labs and receive the seal of approval by regulators like New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement.

Ultimately, all this inconvenience tackling the Apple problem could stifle the industry’s progress.

Daniels said, “If everyone has got to spend the next 12 months rebuilding everything, the industry’s innovation isn’t going to be there. So, I think, from a bigger picture perspective, it’s very bad news.”

This is certainly going to be a one busy and unforgettable summer in the world of online gambling.

- Julian is a freelance journalist who has covered the ins and outs of the global online and offline gambling industry since 2011.
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