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

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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

27 Responses to “The Broken Record Keeps Playing: Why Apple’s App Store Approval Process is Broken”

  1. The solution is simple and has always been part of the software engineering process.

    Apple needs to add an additional approval step based on submission of product goals, descriptions and some preliminary design specifications even BEFORE development starts. This way, Apple still has control; only now, since no code is even written yet, an app can be declined without a life-altering negative impact on the developer. Designs can be altered and can be resubmitted. When the product description, goals and specifications are approved, then development can begin!

    No more spill, no more mess! A win-win situation.

  2. Matthew

    I often browse the different categories each day to see the new apps available (because the ‘new’ area is never up-to-date) and noticed that the application “Trapster” was recently released. This application is meant to avoid speed traps, traffic cams, etc and even says in the description:
    “It’s FREE, and might save you a lot time, embarrassment, and money spent on traffic violation fees and increased insurance premiums”
    Does this mean that, because Apple reviews all these applications before release, that they condone law breaking and traffic violations?

    How is it that application such as this get approved and ones such as the one is trying to release get delayed or rejected (they’ve been waiting on approval for several weeks now)?

    AND get this! 4 apps just came out in row that do the EXACT same thing! All version 1 and all but 1 is the same price! The apps are in the productivity and give users the ability to write emails in landscape mode… Mind you a good idea but I thought Apple was supposed to minimize duplicates? (*cough Sudoku *cough)

  3. Roughly has an article that pretty much puts this argument to rest. Apple clearly states in the SDK what apps can and can not do. Evidently some developers don’t read the SDK rules, or go ahead and create the app and then complain because it was rejected “after all the hard work we did in creating this app”. Either way, it is NOT Apple’s problem that it was rejected. If you read and agree to ALL the terms of service of the SDK, which you are supposed to do BEFORE downloading and using it, then don’t bitch because you went off and created something that does not conform to those terms and Apple rejects it. Evidently the creators of the thousands of other apps Apple has allowed are just fine with the process.

    Regarding the fart application, I believe Apple was completely proper in not allowing it. As an example, 99.999% of people would consider it “rude, crude, and socially unacceptable” to sit in church at a funeral and use an application like that. It’s something you just DON’T do. Arguments about “pushing the envelope”, “cutting edge”, etc etc just don’t wash in some situations, and if Apple doesn’t want their phone to be a part of acting like that, that’s just fine with me!

  4. “Some developers demand Apple try to communicate better, lest they assume the worst of the platform vendor. While that sounds plenty reasonable at face value, given the curatorial demands on the fledgling state of the App Store platform and Apple’s overall reliance on product-plan secrecy, we shouldn’t realistically expect Apple to ‘open up’ anytime soon,” as I explain in:

    Resolved: Apple is right to curate the App Store

  5. @Jt: Yeah, they’ve had 100 million DLs – but the problem is that A)They’re new. People are downloading everything they can get for free just to check it out. They’re probably tossing 9 out of 10 of them after five minutes. B)Because Apple’s screening is so arbitrary, you have to download 5 different apps that do the same thing to figure out which one does it the best. We’re not talking about demo DLs vs. purchased DLs. There are no demos, so every download does not equate to a happy customer actually using the app.

    Apple needs to either let every app in, be obscenely selective (and consistent with what they let in or not), or preferably just allow app downloads from any Web site and leave people on their own to figure out what’s good and what’s not.

  6. James Katt

    I do not believe that the Apple App Store approval process is broken.

    First, the App Store is the most successful software distributor in the world. The number of apps in the store is growing and growing. It started out with 500 apps, and now there are over 3,000 apps in just 2 months. It went from 30 million downloads in the first month, to 70 million downloads in the second month. Developers on-board the app store are making money. Some are making a lot of money. And the potential for making a lot of money is there.

    Second, Apple has provided general criteria for approval. However, Apple also has flexibility in determining what gets approved and not. The general criteria are NOT rigid criteria. Developers are very creative. As a result, Apple has to have flexibility to meet this creativeness. The creativity of developers may, for example, results in applications which are in very bad taste, which may inadvertently cause consumer mistakes such as buying something at an excessively high price. Despite the application meeting the general criteria, Apple has the right to say the App should be disapproved.

    Third, it is important for the App store to maintain fairly high quality in its App collection and consumer experience. This is a huge selling point of the App store in comparison to the experience on other platforms – such as Windows Mobile and Palm – where crap apps run amok. Apple needs flexibility in this case – over and above the general criteria – in what gets into the App store.

    Fourth, Apple does not have to specify explicitly the process for its criteria over and above the general criteria. The reason is that it is taken on a case-by-case basis. It is highly subjective. And it needs to be.

    Fifth, if a developer’s app is disapproved, then modify it so that it may be approved. Differentiate it from what Apple is doing. For example, there are other podcast apps available – not just the one which was disapproved. What made them different and approvable? Why not add the capacity to create your own podcast within iPhone then give it the capacity to upload it to your website. This would make it very different from what Apple is doing. What about not only being able to download a podcast, but other media – such as news video, etc. Then it would not be only a podcast app, but a general media app – such as a browser for general media. Add links to Google Video, etc. Differentiate yourself.

    Sixth, the iPhone development environment is the best environment for developing mobile applications. The App store is THE best mobile application store. These are compelling reasons a developer may want to develop for the iPhone. There are tens to hundreds of thousands of iPhone developers. The current 3000 apps are just the tip of the iceberg in what the App store can become. As such, the FEW COMPLAINERS can go ahead an leave. Go ahead, develop for Windows Mobile or Palm or Nokia or Android. The one’s that are left will benefit. As a consumer and developer, I am highly satisfied what the App store. The quality of apps is amazing. I have friends who have downloaded over 100 apps. I have paid for and downloaded more than 40 apps already. This is a highly successful venture. Good riddance to those who aren’t helping the process.

  7. As a consumer, I would prefer Apple to be more choosy about the apps it lets into the store, not less. Afterall, Apple doesn’t sell any old [email protected] in its bricks-and-mortar store, and it’s that same focus on quality which has been instrumental in building the Apple brand.

    However, I can understand the point of view of the serious developer – Apple must be very clear on the criteria it uses to screen apps. If Apple were to provide explicit feedback for each rejected app, then at least the developers would have a chance to remedy any problems and the community would have an understanding of what Apple was doing behind the scenes.

    But I guess the Apple brand was also built with a generous helping of opaque ‘mystique’.

  8. I think that some kind of 2 part process would be the best. Part 1: Submit and overview of what you app is. Apple approves or disapproves of the concept. Part 2: Submit your code. Apple approves or disapproves the code.

  9. Listen, I haven’t read through the entire SDK rules but I already have a very good idea of the kind of stuff that will fly and the kind of stuff that won’t. Apple made PERFECTLY CLEAR that apps would not be accepted that compete with the iPod software specifically. It should have been pretty obvious to the developer, had they bothered to do any research, that some form of podcast software wouldn’t fly because podcasts are built into the iPod. I could also make a friendly bet that Apple wouldn’t have let an app called “murderdrome”, or the “Psycho” app, through because of their fairly specific non-violence rule.

    As for the farting app, give me a freaking break. I am GLAD Apple isn’t letting these waste-of-space apps into the app store. it’s already TOO CROWDED, especially with those damn “e-books”, and it would be far far worse if apple let the fart app through- giving a clear signal that you can do ANYTHING. That $1000 ruby app was a good example of another useless app that was rightfully pulled. In fact, I wish apple would be a lot more selective in what apps make it. I don’t want to have to download 10 different sudoku apps before finding one that’s decent, same goes for dozens of other categories.

    Just my.02 of course, I don’t expect everyone to agree. Can’t please everyone all the time.

  10. Apple has had 100 million downloads in 60 days and who knows how much money from the sale of the portion of apps that are paid apps. They have no incentive to change anything. The few vocal developers not developing for the iPhone will be drowned out by the hordes that are developing and making money.

  11. I disagree Josh. I WON’T be in line, because the apps Apple will allow in are lame compared to the ones they don’t allow in. That’s the future. The “garage” developer might still be interested in developing for the App Store. But serious developers working for companies that actually pay them won’t be. It’s about making money. You don’t invest a ton of money with no potential payoff at all.

  12. While I understand the concern being expressed by yourself, Gruber, and others, I don’t think it really needs to be “fixed”. The money making potential of an iPhone app is high enough that most developers will take the risk and develop anyway. As long as there are potential customers lined up at the app store there will be developers who will write good apps – and the average customer doesn’t care what the approval process is, so they WILL be lined up.

  13. Thank you for this article. I think it really sums up what a lot of developers are thinking. I really think The App Store is in serious need of reform. I’ve forwarded a link to your blog to Apple’s Developer Connection feedback.