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Apple has started banning many applications for its iPhone that feature sexually suggestive material, including photos of women in bikinis and lingerie, a move that came as an abrupt surprise to developers who had been profiting from such programs.

The company’s decision to remove the applications from its App Store over the last few days indicates that it is not interested in giving up its tight control over the software available there, even as competitors like Google take a more hands-off approach.

When asked about the change, Apple said it was responding to complaints from App Store users.

“Whenever we receive customer complaints about objectionable content we review them,” Trudy Muller, a spokeswoman for Apple, said in a statement. “If we find these apps contain inappropriate material we remove them and request the developer make any necessary changes in order to be distributed by Apple.”

Among the victims of the purge was a game called SlideHer, a puzzle that challenged users to reassemble a photograph of a scantily clad actress. Another, Sexy Scratch Off, depicted a woman whose dress could be whisked away at the swipe of a finger, revealing her undergarments. Such programs often appeared on the store’s list of most-downloaded apps, which are a common way for iPhone and iPod Touch owners to discover new ones.

Analysts said the apparent change in policy may have been prompted by the planned release late next month of the company’s newest device, the iPad.

The company is hoping that the iPad will be a hit with families and as an educational tool in schools — which could be a hard sell if the catalog of programs available for the device is cluttered with racy applications.

“At the end of the day, Apple has a brand to maintain,” said Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray who keeps a close eye Apple. “And the bottom line is they want that image to be squeaky clean.”

The iPad will run the same applications that work on the iPhone and iPod Touch, which demonstrated that consumers were willing to pay for software that turned their devices into gaming machines, e-readers and navigation systems. The Touch has been especially popular with children and teenagers.

“The reality is that the iPad is going to be a big platform for apps,” said Munster. “It raises the bar for Apple in terms of policing what goes into the App Store.”

Last June, Apple introduced parental controls and ratings to help keep sex-themed applications away from children.