Should mobile applications have a rating system?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: November 21, 2011

A lot has gone down in the mobile application realm since July 10, 2008. This was the date that Apple's App Store for iOS opened. Since then, App Store's repertoire has grown to more than 500,000 applications available and has experienced north of 18 billion downloads. Google's Android Market has since launched as well, and has reached a respectable 295,000 applications of its own with six billion downloads. Microsoft's Windows Phone Marketplace, too, has reached a milestone of its own at 40,000 apps in only a year.

It's pretty safe to say that mobile software, or applications, are largely responsible for this ever-expanding smartphone boom. After all, where would we be without all of these applications to download and waste so much of our time? What use would we have with smartphones without apps?

To date, however, not much has been done to filter apps and games based on content rating. Apple's rigorous application approval process usually weeds out anything too vulgar or anything they deem inappropriate. And Google has implemented a somewhat functional content rating system. But no mobile apps are subjected to a true, universal rating system like television shows, movies or video games.

That all may change in the near future.

Coming from a press release over at Engadget, it was revealed that CTIA has partnered with Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB, the company that provides ratings for console and PC video games) in hopes of implementing a new rating system for mobile applications. Details are paltry at this point, but a press event is scheduled for November 29th and as Donald Melanson of Engadget notes, there seems to be a fairly strong push for this rating system as the presidents of both groups and US Senators Mark Pryor and Kelly Ayotte are to be present at the event next Tuesday.

Android and iOS have infiltrated the mobile space. Collectively, there are over 800,000 applications between the two available to users of all ages – even youngsters. I have several little cousins running around with iPods. Although there are currently some safeguards in place, there are, without question, a slew of applications out there not suitable for all users. I'm sure parents of curious and mischievous adolescents with Android phones, iPhones or iPods feel the same.

The question of whether a rating system should exist or not has a pretty straight-forward answer. Absolutely. But how practical is it? To reiterate the fact, there are 800,000 applications between the Android and iOS application stores and that number grows each and every day. When you include BlackBerry, Windows Phone, webOS (it's not dead ... yet!), Symbian and any other platform that arrives (like the Tizen project, possibly) in the next few years, the number of mobile applications available in comparison to what ESRB is used to performing their rating evaluations on is astronomically higher.

Even more important that the sheer number of applications is keeping tabs on them. How will ratings be enforced? When buying "Mature" (read: 17-years-old and up) video games in a retail store, the buyer must prove their age with a valid license, another form of ID, or be in the presence of a guardian. If at least one of these requirements are not met, the sale is refused.

When it comes to all sales being electronic, on the other hand, things become a little more gray. It's easy enough to lie about your age – just type in a date that would make you over 17-years-old. No official validation of age takes place. The only true way to monitor this is on a personal level, for parents to get involved. For instance, on Android, you can filter what is seen by the existing content ratings. Even then, it's easy enough for a kid with enough smarts (and let's be honest, most kids are more tech-savvy than their parents these days) to disable the filter, and if they really want to cover their tracks, re-enabled it.

So is a rating system for mobile applications a good idea? Sure. But is it practical? That remains to be seen. If CTIA and ESRB can introduce a more sophisticated and less permeable way to rate apps and restrict access to such apps from minors, then it has potential to be great. Otherwise, it's a futile effort and ESRB will only waste their time performing nearly a million rating evaluations, only for them to be ignored by end users.

All of this needs to be answered before we even begin to consider the acceptance from developers or content providers. It will be interesting to see what CTIA and ESRB have to present on November 29th. It's worth nothing, though, that one of the biggest advantages of a mandatory, universal rating system such as this is the possibility of stifling some of the more recent mobile malware growth.

What say you, folks? Does there need to be a universal rating system for mobile applications and games? Or do the current methods work well enough? Will the efforts of ESRB be thwarted by apathetic parents and tech-savvy kids anyway?

Image via Hello Design