If you’ve been on Twitter lately, you’ve probably noticed your timeline drowned in gray, green and yellow squares. These posts are courtesy of Wordle, a free word game that gives you six or fewer tries to guess the correct word for the day.
The game is absolutely everywhere, growing from a handful of users to hundreds of thousands in a matter of weeks, despite being both free-to-play and originally designed by Brooklyn-based software engineer Josh Wardle for his partner.
Wordle stands out in a world of in-app purchases and loot boxes because it’s free, contains no ads, and most importantly, plays on a simple website, rather than requiring an app to be downloaded from Apple App Store or Google Play.
The choice to make Wordle a web app, rather than something downloaded from a store, makes sense, given that it was developed as a passion project rather than a company, and it’s a simple, fun game that is not really designed to make money.
A side effect of this choice, however, is that Wordle suddenly gets ripped off in app stores by other developers who sense a quick way to make money from unsuspecting users who don’t care or don’t know. not better.
Part of the charm of Wordle is that the colorful square messages you see everywhere don’t really look like advertisements; there’s no link to the game or a corny copy trying to convince you to install it: you’re on your own to find it via a quick Google search.
As a result, the average iPhone or Android owner is likely to assume that Wordle is an app and head straight to their respective app store to find it – which is exactly what I did when I first discovered it, only to find a dead end when I started playing a month ago before realizing I should just google it.
Now, however, opportunistic developers have sensed this and are creating near-exact Wordle clones in order to make money where Wardle avoided. A developer, Zach shaken, cloned the entire game down to the exact game and UI, called it Wordle, and uploaded it to the Apple App Store, charging $30 a year to play a game that should be free.
Shaken touted on Twitter on the number of users it was converting into paying customers as well as showing ads with the search term “Wordle” on the App Store. However, after widespread backlash, Shakked appeared to have pulled the game from sale, and late Tuesday published a lengthy apology and partial justification for his actions via Twitter.
In the past we have seen cloning behavior like this happen on app stores with viral games like Three and flappy bird, both of which have been cloned by the developers and refactored slightly with additional fees or additional advertising in hopes of fooling a few users and making a quick buck.
Wordle faces a threat we haven’t seen yet: the game developer is essentially being punished by app stores for choosing to build using open web technologies, rather than a native app. Not only is this kind of behavior allowed by Apple’s App Store, but there’s little recourse, because as far as Apple is concerned, Wordle doesn’t exist, given that it wasn’t built in as a native application.
There is no way for a developer of a fully functional and capable web application like Wordle to claim their name in the App Store, or list their website to bring users to the right place and defend against copycats . Google actually allows developers to upload certain types of Progressive Web Apps to the Play Store, although at the time of writing Wardle does not appear to have chosen to do so. If he wanted to defend his game on the Play Store when a clone appears there, he would at least have the choice to do so.
This could be argued that Wardle did not trademark Wordle – let alone invent the actual gameplay given that it is based on a 70s game show– but that’s not the point: because Wordle is web-based, it will continually open up to clones until Wardle develops an official app.
Apple has a long history of intentionally ignoring or degrading open web technologies that could rival its incredibly successful and lucrative closed app store. Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), a set of standards that allow websites to function the same as native apps, are only half-supported, broken, or outright ignored on iOS and iPadOS.
Web push, a standard that allows websites to send push notifications to users, has been ignored by Apple for years without any explanation despite supporting almost all competing browsers, including the desktop version of Safari. When Apple doesn’t ignore standards that would allow web apps to compete on a level playing field, it can intentionally delay them for years, a practice documented in this long and grueling list by Google engineer Alex Russell.
The inability to claim a name and link to a website, rather than creating a native app, is intentional for this reason: Apple doesn’t want users to access the web. Instead, the company is intentionally harming the open web for its own benefit, to the detriment of users of its own App Store who might be tricked into paying for something that might be free, if only they had searched the web at the square.
Update: A large number of Wordle clones, including Shakked, were removed from the App Store by Apple without comment on January 12.