iOS gambling apps must move from HTML 5 to Cocoa

Apple Extends Compliance Deadline For Online Gambling Apps To March 2020

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Apple has extended the compliance deadline for its anti-HTML 5 policy by six months to March 3, 2020.

This change to its App Store Review Guidelines, which it originally announced in June, has become a huge problem for many iOS developers — particularly those in the online gambling industry.

The revised deadline relieves some of that pressure, but complying with new Apple policies will continue to be an issue for many operators for the foreseeable future.

The “wrapper” issue with gambling apps

The change in question involves the use of code written in HTML 5 but “wrapped” for use within an iOS app.

Developers like using the HTML 5 language because it’s cross-platform and web-friendly. It allows them to distribute web content in mobile form through the process of wrapping — wherein the app effectively functions like a dedicated browser loading a locally-stored copy of the website.

Apple doesn’t like that approach. It would prefer that its apps have a consistent look and feel that differentiates them from both websites and apps on other platforms.

The June changes to the Guidelines forbid the use of HTML 5 code for any real-money transaction, including gambling. Apps built using now-prohibited language need to be rebuilt in Cocoa, the native language for iOS applications.

Apple set a deadline of just three months when it first announced the change, drawing howls of protest from developers around the world. Sportsbooks and online casinos were among the loudest dissenters, since a majority still rely heavily on HTML 5 for their mobile products.

Most viewed three months as an impossible target, and it now appears that Apple agrees. Even with another six months added, though, it’s still a daunting timeline for many of those affected.

Compliance involves more than translating code

Since different programming environments are commonly described as “languages,” the task of porting code from one to another is usually considered similar to translation. That’s not quite the case here, however.

That analogy is apt when it comes to transcribing low-level, line-by-line instructions. But the real challenge facing developers here is rebuilding their front-end graphical interfaces using Cocoa’s UIKit.

A better analogy for that task would be taking something like a Lego model and trying to recreate it using another building toy, where the parts come in somewhat different shapes and sizes. It might not be as much work as starting from scratch, but it presents challenges far beyond the mechanical transcription of code lines from one syntax into another.

Making things worse for the online casinos is that most offer hundreds of games, and those games are typically not developed in-house. Rather, the casinos deal with third-party developers to acquire the rights to offer the games.

Trying to comply with Apple’s new requirements on a short timeline is not just a technical challenge, but one of logistics and prioritization. It also may be legally thorny when it comes to things like brand agreements and development contracts.

Why did Apple change the deadline now?

Affected companies have pleaded their case since day one, but Apple seemed disinclined to listen until the original deadline passed. It only announced the extended deadline on Sept. 6, three days after it was supposed to start removing non-compliant apps.

Why, one might wonder, did Apple not set a more reasonable deadline from the start?

It’s possible, though dubious, that Apple might have been surprised at how many apps were still noncompliant after the deadline elapsed. After all, enforcing the ultimatum puts a certain burden on Apple as well. Not only does it have to identify and remove all the offending apps, but any app it removes is bound to appear for reapproval down the line.

If a majority of developers are trying to comply but haven’t had enough time yet, it may be considerably less work for Apple to just give everyone another six months.

Something still doesn’t add up

That being said, it’s hard to imagine Apple developers not realizing that the original three-month deadline was too tight for what they were asking. It’s possible that there was an internal communications breakdown, and perhaps the team responsible for setting the deadline either didn’t hear or chose to ignore such warnings.

The other possibility, though, is that the original deadline was intentionally unreasonable — and something of a bluff.

If Apple set a nine-month deadline to begin with, developers likely would have said that was unrealistic as well. They’d likely have asked for an extension anyway, before finding themselves in crunch-mode trying to meet the target next spring.

Whether it was intentional on the part of Apple or not, the three-month deadline forced developers into a panicked crunch right away. That makes it more likely that they’ll be able to meet the new, longer deadline.

As a bonus, Apple now has an example of leniency to point to in defending itself against future accusations of being draconian in enforcing its guidelines.

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Crisis still looms, though further off

The six-month extension is a boon for operators who develop their products entirely in-house.

Online casinos relying on third-party developers still have a lot to work out between now and March, however, and Apple may simply be delaying the crisis rather than averting it.

Furthermore, the deadline extension only applies to operators with apps approved prior to the changes in June. Those trying to get new apps into the market remain out of luck. That’s especially problematic in the United States, where the piecemeal approach to regulation means every new legal state requires new apps.

We’ve already seen the impact Apple’s policies had in Pennsylvania. It took a month between the first online casinos going live in the state and the first iOS app from Hollywood Casino. At launch, it included just four slots options and one video poker game.

Until developers find a solution, this may just be the new and unfortunate reality for iOS users. They may have to wait longer than their peers on Android or desktop platforms to access new online gambling products, and their options may be more-limited when they do.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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