Talking Carl is a mildly famous iPhone app in which a vaguely anthropomorphic red blob repeats things you say to it in a funny voice and responds to touches and prods with giggles and yelps. Readers have been sending us some quite angry messages about a mysterious recent update to the app which replaced the cheerful Carl with a cardboard box, but it wasn't immediately obvious exactly what had happened.
The app was originally developed as a collaboration between Yann Le Coroller, a motion designer and graphics expert, and Awyse, a software publisher. TUAW spoke with both Le Coroller and Guillaume Carre, CEO of Awyse, so we could get to the bottom of the story.
Le Coroller told us that he was the initial designer of the app back in 2009, and he approached Awyse for support with getting it to market. He stated that he made "the interaction model, voices and sound design and... directed the dev on a day to day basis for two months" -- Awyse hired a contract developer to do the actual coding work. Carre, in contrast, stated that Awyse was the "original designer" of the app and that it merely "licensed the lovely character Carl" and bought the "frame-by-frame [animation] work" from Le Coroller. Clearly, both sides of the story are seeking to downplay the input of the other side here -- which is not unexpected, given what comes next.
The app was released in January 2010 for $0.99 and rapidly found a place on many parents' iOS devices -- it's the sort of software toy that young kids love. The app spent a lot of time in the iTunes top charts and gathered a solid fanbase. Funny YouTube videos were made. All was well with the world.
Throughout 2010, Awyse expanded its product base, adding new apps with more and more variant characters, and late in 2010, it added a prominent in-app ad to Talking Carl advertising these other apps. Le Coroller was unimpressed with the design and animation of these, calling them an "ugly ripoff" of the original Carl. Tensions rose until eventually Awyse tried to drop him from the project altogether. This culminated in a court case in France in which Le Coroller sued Awyse for breach of contract. On February 2, he won the case, stripping Awyse of its license to use Carl.
Awyse's CEO Carre wouldn't discuss this part of the story with me, saying only that "that is all I can write on Talking Carl. Our lawyers are on it at the moment" (note that neither Carre nor Le Coroller are native English speakers). Le Coroller stated that, to comply with the legal verdict, they removed Carl from the app in an update (replacing him with a literal cardboard cut-out). This is where users started to notice, because they naïvely hit "update all" and found their app -- the app they paid for and which, in many cases, was a favourite for their young children -- replaced with something that many people felt was inferior. It's not surprising that people weren't happy.
Having obtained rights over the app, Le Coroller quickly released a new, free version of Talking Carl as a replacement in the App Store. Shortly after, Apple removed Talking C. from the App Store, but (according to Le Coroller) not before Awyse asked them to pull Le Coroller's version as being infringing on its IP. Following a conversation between Apple and Le Coroller, the Awyse version was yanked instead, and Le Coroller's new free version stayed in the store. However, by his own admission, this version had "a few bugs and missing functionality" and quickly garnered bad reviews from angry customers who didn't understand exactly what was going on and simply wanted their app back. To Le Coroller's credit, he pulled the app, got the problems fixed, and submitted an update to Apple -- and to Apple's credit, it gave him an expedited review and the new version is already available in iTunes. This is where the situation now sits, although presumably Awyse is planning further legal action in the future.
Looking beyond the specifics of this story, the idea of content being removed from a paid-for app after it has been published in the App Store represents something of an open question in Apple's policies -- or, indeed, the similar situation where a paid-for app that relies on a web service stops working because the web service goes down (we explored this on TUAW previously.) It's clearly impractical for Apple's vetting process to extend so far as to check that all previous functionality is still intact, but at the same time, the way that iTunes is set up makes it tricky (though not impossible) to roll back to an older version of an app if you object to the latest update.
Here in the UK, Apple is acting as a retailer when you purchase from the App Store, and an app that no longer performs as it was sold would probably be regarded as a defective product; our strong consumer protection laws could leave Apple liable for issuing refunds to customers if so. It's far from clear cut, however. The situation is analogous to when Sony issued a firmware update for the PS3 which removed the "Other OS" feature, and that didn't result in any criticism from our consumer protection bodies or any penalties for Sony. In the US, it would likely fall to a class-action lawsuit to try and force the matter (as indeed happened with Sony) but when the product in question is a $0.99 app rather than a $400 gaming console, it's difficult to see anyone caring enough to take it that far.
What do you think, readers? Because Yann Le Coroller has generously made his new version of the app available for free, no-one has lost out here. But suppose for a moment he hadn't, and everyone who'd paid a buck for Talking Carl now had an inferior version -- or even no version at all, as Apple has taken Awyse's version out of the Store. In that case, should all those original purchasers be entitled to refunds from Apple?
[Thanks to Eric for sending this in]