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Summary:

In an attempt to salvage what little good will is left in the App Store developer community, Apple’s senior vice president, Phil Schiller, has fought back against burgeoning anti-App Store sentiment. In recent weeks an increasing number of apps submitted to Apple for App Store release […]

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In an attempt to salvage what little good will is left in the App Store developer community, Apple’s senior vice president, Phil Schiller, has fought back against burgeoning anti-App Store sentiment.

In recent weeks an increasing number of apps submitted to Apple for App Store release have been unceremoniously rejected. Apple’s App Store approval process has proven to be a costly and inconsistent barrier to the App Store. The most recent rejection, Ninjawords, a fast dictionary app powered by Wiktionary.org, has sparked growing unrest in the Apple developer community. Ninjawords was initially rejected on the basis that it included several words that Apple found objectionable. Apple eventually approved the app but only after several words had been censored and the app was certified with a 17+ parental control rating.

Apple is usually known for its closed-door policy when it comes to commenting on any speculation surrounding the company, however in an entirely unexpected move, Phil Schiller has publicly responded to the growing disapproval of the development community. In a letter written to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, Schiller responded directly to the accusations Apple was facing:

“… Apple did not censor the content in this developer’s application and Apple did not reject this developer’s application for including references to common swear words. You accused Apple of both in your story and the fact is that we did neither.”

Schiller continued by explaining that the developers of Ninjawords, Matchstick Software, and Gruber’s version of events wasn’t entirely accurate:

“The Ninjawords application was not rejected in the App Store review process for including common “swear” words… The issue that the App Store reviewers did find with the Ninjawords application is that it provided access to other more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries, words that many reasonable people might find upsetting or objectionable.”

Schiller’s differing version of events illustrates that there’s a clear breakdown in communication between developers and Apple when it comes to App Store approvals. This situation only goes to highlight the issues that developers encounter when attempting to enter into a dialogue with Apple’s App Store reviewers. However Schiller’s closing remarks hinted that Apple may be prepared to admit that they too can get it wrong:

“Apple’s goals remain aligned with customers and developers… While we may not always be perfect in our execution of that goal, our efforts are always made with the best intentions, and if we err we intend to learn and quickly improve.”

While Gruber seemed somewhat sated by Schiller’s response, I’m not so convinced. The folks at Matchstick Software may have a different perspective than that of Schiller on the whole debacle, but it doesn’t fix the uncomfortable and costly situation that many developers still find themselves in. Having to make changes to apps and re-submit is a timely process, almost certainly incurring additional development costs.

Furthermore, the email from Schiller certainly doesn’t excuse Apple for the blatant inconsistencies present in the app approval process. In his post discussing the email, Gruber says that, “[Schiller's response] is the first proof I’ve seen that Apple’s leadership is trying to make the course correction that many of us see as necessary for the long-term success of the platform.”

Apple may have admitted they can be wrong, but it seems that many developers are looking for dramatic and immediate changes. It looks like both Apple and the developer community are in agreement that a serious shake-up to get the App Store working effectively.

With talk of developers and pundits alike abandoning the iPhone, the coming weeks will prove important for Apple in resolving the app review process and bringing the App Store back on track.

  1. So wait, because the words that caused the rejection weren’t “common” swear words, Apple didn’t censor the content? That’s some Clinton-esque semantic fiddling there.

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  2. One blogger with lousy network coverage gets rid of his iPhone five months ago, and that’s your signal that the platform is sinking?

    I agree that Apple’s running out of feet to shoot with its App Store screw-ups, but this “the sky is falling” hysteria seems a bit over the top.

    Don’t know about where you are, but here in the sticks of West Texas, every time I go into an AT&T store, people are lined up three deep buying new iPhones. That shouldn’t be overstated as evidence that the platform is healthy, but it might indicate that some problems are simply geographical.

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  3. This, in reality, isn’t a public debate about morality. Can Apple be forced to allow an application to be sold via their store? I doubt anyone would say so.

    Isn’t Apple permitted to choose not to offer content via their app store based on their own decision-making matrix, and at their own discretion.

    Yes they are.

    The real issue, of course, is successfully promoting development – and communicating clearly with developers, so that they are assured to be aware of that matrix.

    In other words, It’s not really relevant what I think of an App’s content – only what Apple thinks of it. And Apple needs to make clear – what it is willing to sell.

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  4. The US is one of the countries where a lot of words are considered upsetting or not considered politically correct, you really have to go to a dictatorship country to find similar circumstances. The same goes for nudity and other issues, there are plenty of places around the world where topless people on the beaches are normal, strangers go naked to the sauna together, mild drugs can be used legally, prostitution is legal, etc.

    If Apple wants to limit the AppStore, they should implement the restriction in the US store and give the rest of the world the freedom they already enjoy.

    The same goes for their relationship with AT&T.

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  5. As I outlined in my post about structural issues with the AppStore, the only way out is the approach that Intel Inside took – publish a clear rulebook and execute as impartially as you can. Otherwise, the debate will not end. And we will not see the truly high-priced development items: Peripherals. Since they cost so much more to develop, devs will only commit money and resources if there is a clear path to approval for them. Once we see the peripherals in the AppStore, we know the problem is fixed!

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  6. When the app store approval system was first introduced, I was under the impression that its goal was to check if an iPhone app doesn’t use the iPhone’s processor or memory in ways that can crash the phone, and that it doesn’t try to access or even hack the system in a way that could compromise the entire phone.

    Instead, Apple is actually censoring content in a highly fickle way. I mean who would censor a dictionary? And to what purpose? Will angry mothers drive to Apple HQ complaining that their innocent kids found a swear word in a dictionary?

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    1. You haven’t been paying attention if you think that Apple hasn’t taken a lot of hits in the news when it’s discovered there’s an app that is somewhat questionable. There have been numerous times where apps (like Baby Shaker or ones involving nudity) have made the INTERNATIONAL news when word got out. That’s embarrassing, and it’s understandable why Apple would want to nip it in the bud, even if I don’t entirely approve of the way they’ve applied their plan.

      As for your question, “who would censor a dictionary?”, the answer is simple: every single dictionary publisher in history.

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  7. The best approach is to raise the development costs. That’ll decrease the number of “casual apps” freeing up more time for the solid developers. They should also sell a “support” package, maybe for $1000, which gives someone a “genius” at Apple and the guarantee of a bit more care in the approval process. Having to wait up to two months to find out there’s a minor problem and then resubmit is ridiculous. The other problem is that often they stop when they find a single error rather than listing all potential problems. That can make something that ought be resovled in a few days take many months.

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    1. You raise excellent points about snags in the approval process, but I’m not sure the best decision is to raise development fees. Doing this would just bring on a new wave of criticism and cries of disapproval from developers, except this time it would just be the less wealthy ones.

      Instead, what about just hiring more people to review submitted apps? This way, you’re still speeding up the process. Apple can swallow the costs of just a few more employees (even in the current recession), and they don’t have to piss off a lot of smaller developers in the process of reducing approval times.

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  8. This does not even begin to touch on the subject of Apple’s policy of making the developer pay for refunds due to pulled apps. Full refunds, I might add! Apple gets to keep their commission even when they pull the app after approval and sales. Look into VoiceCentral app from Riverturn developers (http://riverturn.com/).

    I have been using Apple products since the mid 1980′s when third party applications filled a void for Apple, allowing it to become the platform of choice for the thinking man.

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  9. [...] than a week after sending a letter to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber concerning the application review process at the App Store, [...]

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  10. [...] dictionary application (Ninjawords) or be removed from the AppStore. This prompted Apple’s Phil Schiller to write to John Gruber at Daring Fireball to respond to the accusation that Apple was censoring the [...]

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