The Broken Record Keeps Playing: Why Apple’s App Store Approval Process is Broken

I feel like we’re a bit of a broken record on this topic, but I just don’t think people are grasping how big of a deal this really is. So let me say it right up front so you know what I think: Apple’s App Store approval process is broken and seriously must be fixed if they want to continue fostering a thriving marketplace.

Last week, my article on farting iPhone apps presented the question, “Where should Apple draw the line or should they draw a line at all?”. Comments ranged from “Apple needs to lighten up” to “You seriously think Apple should have let a farting iPhone in the store?” (as well as a “how is this more important that war, life, and death?”, but I digress). 

Then this week a “legitimate” application, Podcaster, was rejected. This time it was on the basis that “it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes.” Basically, it competes with Apple so back off.

The issue here is not one of application quality and it is not one of usefulness or utility. It is an issue of a fair and thriving marketplace where iPhone/iPod touch users get the best quality applications and the developers get an honest opportunity to make some dang money.

“But what does that mean Josh?,” you ask. Well, gather ’round.

What we can agree on

Let’s start with what I think we can all agree on. At the end of the day, what you and I would like out of the App Store is to be able to drop in to the store and be given a choice of only the applications that we want or that we might be interested in. If I don’t like sports, I don’t care about an app to track baseball scores. If politics bore me, I don’t care to see an app that shows the latest poll data. Seeing only applications that would interest us, is obviously an ideal situation.

The problem with that particular want is that it doesn’t exist. Simple as that. Apple can’t read your mind and they can’t analyze your buying trends well enough to do more than simply suggest applications you might like. “So what,” you say. The majority of users take the stand that Papa Bear Jobs knows best and that Apple using their discretion on what we get to pick and chose is a good enough solution for them. If that means the occasional gas-passing application doesn’t make it, who cares.

For most, that’s the end of the argument. If the majority of decent apps makes it through, then the majority of users will be happy.

Unfortunately, there is an issue here that’s deeper than users missing out on a few apps. The bigger issue here starts at the root of all apps…the developers (cue the thunder clap and lighting strikes!).

The Outcome

What ultimately will happen (as magnificently pointed out by Fraser Speirs) is that investment won’t be made in development for apps. Why should a developer spend literally hundreds upon hundreds of hours building a complex application if there’s a chance Apple will flat out refuse it? Why should a company invest their resources in to research and development time if Apple will just say no thanks? They shouldn’t and they won’t.

So what you end up with is a huge saturation of developers who are kicking the proverbial tires learning how to develop for the iPhone and you get a huge influx of sub-par products that Apple chooses to accept. That right there is why this issue is very important to you. Not to mention the harm done by the fact that Apple’s recent rejection of Podcaster based on “duplicating functionality” is extremely anti-competitive.

Unless something changes, what we’ll end up with is a marketplace that serves Apple’s needs more than the user’s needs, which is completely unsustainable.

Some Solutions

The current flaw in the system here is that Apple doesn’t publish any real rules or guidelines for exactly what is or isn’t acceptable in the store, leaving developers completely in the dark and forcing them to make an extremely big risk in developing something. As John Gruber states, as long as Apple’s process for approving applications stays completely vague, they need to make their market inclusive instead of exclusive.

The argument to an all inclusive market is that you get an onslaught of really, incredibly low quality apps from a bunch of hax0rs with nothing better to do. The solution there is to have a high initial fee to get a developer license (say, maybe $500). That in itself would be enough to keep out the majority of the low quality cruft, but the side effect would be that some legitimate developers who want to put out a free app would have a hard time justifying the cost.

Alternatively, Apple could just open up where apps can be sold and make the iTunes store one of the many places to get apps, thus mitigating the risk that all of their work would be completely in vain.

A third alternative is to let any and all apps in to the iTunes store, assuming they pass some sort of security audit. This would require a bit of an overhaul with how Apple currently organizes their library of apps and would also require developers to do more work promoting their app outside of the store, but in the long run it creates a competitive marketplace that ultimately creates top quality products for the user and significantly reduces the risk developers have in creating something.

At the end of the day Apple is clearly free to do as they please. But the reasons given so far for app rejection (limited utility, duplication functionality) really just hurt users and developers and even Apple. Decided what apps have “utility” implies the user can’t think for themselves and rejecting based on duplication functionality of one of Apple’s own apps is simply anti-competitive behavior…which is always, always a kick in the teeth to the end user and never a step in the right direction.

The App Developer Thought Process

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