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“We’re all about customer experience and enriching lives,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told Wall Street a couple of months ago.

That’s occasionally a little difficult to believe.

There’s no question that Apple is among the more customer-focused companies in the computing and technology industry. But there’s also no question that the company has a history of moves that can be tough pills for its fans to swallow.

One case in point is the iAd WorkBench/AppGratis scenario that has played out over the past few months.

This past week Apple unveiled iAd Workbench, a new mobile app advertising solution for companies that want to promote their iOS apps.  Just in April Apple pulled AppGratis, a very successful app discovery app, from the iOS app store — just five days after approving it — and then, after having had significant discussions with AppGratis over previous weeks as the company had adjusted its app according to Apple’s concerns, Apple refused to speak to AppGratis again.

appgratis-bannedCoincidence? I doubt it.

AppGratis was a free-app-of-the-day-style app that developers paid for access to in order to drive downloads of their iOS games and apps. Only iPhone owners who wanted the app downloaded it, so it was a self-selected audience, and the company was selective about who it featured. By late 2012, AppGratis was getting big enough to be able to drive upward of 500,000, and in some cases 1,000,000, downloads in just days — big enough to drive apps straight to the app store leaderboard.

Apple’s new iAd Workbench is an advertising solution for app developers. App developers who want to increase their downloads will buy ads that will be placed onto other apps, ones that users have already downloaded, and they can pay Apple per install of their app. iAds has come from rich interactive ads for 7-figure contracts with massive global brands to $50 minimum buy-ins to flog your apps.

What’s the key difference?

In scenario one, you paid AppGratis to drive downloads of your app. In scenario two, you pay Apple.

There’s other differences, and there are some nuances, sure. But that’s the core difference.

Apple was concerned about developers using AppGratis to “game” the app store top-10 ratings as well as alleging that AppGratis broke the app store guidelines. I fail to see how iAd Workbench couldn’t be used in a similar way, or how ads in any other online or mobile locations couldn’t do the same thing. And it is very clear that there are multiple other mobile app discovery solutions and ad companies who are doing the exact same thing.

I also fail to see how Apple couldn’t have devised a method of tracking downloads from AppGratis — or any other app discovery app — and adjusting the app store leaderboard to more heavily favor “organic” downloads. I wonder if something like that will be built for iAd Workbench, or if a massive spend on iAd Workbench will drive your app right up into the upper echelon of app store stardom.

iAd Workbench

Above: iAd Workbench app advertising solution from Apple

Image Credit: Apple

I talked to AppGratis CEO Simon Dawlat recently, but he doesn’t want to comment publicly. The company has been burned enough by the press, and by Apple’s reaction to it. But it’s pretty clear that success almost killed his iOS business. That — and the fact that Apple wasn’t “getting a piece.”

Which is why AppGratis is now on Android, where Google doesn’t exercise such heavy-handed control. And why, for iOS, it’s now focusing on the web, which Apple can’t control.

Which is an important point for Apple to remember.

While Apple was first to build a successful and massive mobile ecosystem with devices and apps and media, it’s not the only game in town anymore. It is the most lucrative in town, paying $10 billion to developers over the last five years, including a staggering $5 billion just in the last year. But sometimes platform owners have to do what’s good for the platform, and for third-party developers who are on the platform, not just what’s good for them.

The risk, if they don’t, is that at some point they’ll no longer have a platform.

Image credit: Nathan Makan/Flickr