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Cupertino, You Have a Problem

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appleappsarebigIf you’re a baseball fan like I am, then you know that it in order to win, teams need more than just marquee stars. The role players, pinch hitters and relievers — all have to contribute in order for a team to win. A weak link can blow a game. Same goes for companies — every member of the team has a role to play. Why do I bring this up? Apple’s iTunes App Store and its murky and muddled policies. [digg=]

Apple’s designers and engineers have done a good job putting together what is an iconic product, the iPhone. Its software gurus have helped foster the app revolution. But it when it come to the App Store approval process, Apple is blowing it.

Let me put it in terms Apple and its management can understand: The foggy and opaque App Store approval process is as big a disaster as Dell’s DJ MP3 Player.

For months now, I have watched the twists and turns of the Apple App Store drama with a degree of bemusement. After all, the rejection (or approval) of quirky and pointless apps aimed at hormone-challenged post-pubescent boys weren’t of concern to me. I couldn’t get upset over Google Voice fiasco, but that was understandable (not acceptable) because it was coming in the way of the carrier voice service.  But lately, things have gotten a bit out of control.

The irrational approval process and reasons behind it given by the apparatchiks of Cupertino are driving developers to extreme frustration — especially those who have been Apple loyalists for years. Earlier this week, Joe Hewitt, a well-known programmer and a Facebook employee, threw up his hands in frustration over Apple’s App Store approval process and said he wants to work on a different project. (Check out my video interview with Joe Hewitt.)

No, Facebook isn’t killing its iPhone app — it is a corporation, after all, and will bend over backwards to appease Apple — but Hewitt is someone who’s made many vital contributions toward turning the iPhone into a major platform. He was carrying Apple’s water long before the rest of the 100,000 apps showed up, which is just one of the reasons why he was nominated to GigaOM’s Top 15 Mobile Influencers List earlier this year. When he speaks, I listen — plain and simple. And he expressed his anger in 140 characters.

Today, Rogue Amoeba, a company that is well-known within the Apple community for its audio-focused products, is publicly beating its head against the Great Wall of Cupertino.

Rogue Amoeba wanted to ship a bug fix for their app, Airfoil Speakers, but it took the better part of four months to get it approved. It was an arduous process, one that made the inner workings of the government bureaucracies look like a model of efficiency. The net-net, as described by company CEO Paul Kafasis in a blog post, is this:

First, be aware that Apple is acting as a gatekeeper, and preventing you from getting the software that developers such as ourselves are trying to provide you. We wanted to ship a simple bug fix, and it took almost four months of slow replies, delays, and dithering by Apple. All the while, our buggy, and supposedly infringing version, was still available. There’s no other word for that but “broken.” Right now, however, the platform is a mess. The chorus of disenchanted developers is growing and we’re adding our voices as well. Rogue Amoeba no longer has any plans for additional iPhone applications, and updates to our existing iPhone applications will likely be rare.

Others, such as programmer Jeff LaMarche, disagree with the disenchanted developers and have come to the defense of Apple. But I’m more inclined to side with Kafasis, as this is a problem that flares up more often than California wildfires.

John Gruber, who pens the Daring Fireball blog and is one of the most respected Mac-related writers out there, offers a very balanced view of the situation — and finds Apple at fault. “At a certain point good developers are just going to say, ‘I don’t need this,'” Gruber writes.

Gruber, as we’ve seen in the past, has the ear of the senior management at Apple. So perhaps his fair and balanced assessment is going to help Apple wake up from its stupor.

Apple has a very serious problem on its hands, one that can derail its grand plan. It needs to fix this as quickly as possible. Otherwise the company is going to blow the game in the bottom of the ninth — much like the Phillies in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series.

48 Responses to “Cupertino, You Have a Problem”

  1. Stand A Chance

    Om Malik you have a problem – Apple does more business on the App Store than all the other smartphones put together. Stop writing meaningless article when the process is an overwhelming success. It’s amazing a handful of developers get rejected and the sky is falling.

  2. I doubt anyone has read (or knows) what’s in the Apple/Carrier contracts. They could be obligated to review apps as everything is running over a private network. Since Apple was early to game changing the mobile space, their contracts could look entirely different than others and not allow for “trusted” developers. – Just a thought.

  3. Pete Austin

    @gbp. “three hundred thousand rejected apps”.
    @darwin. “a handful of apps have been denied”.

    Where are these numbers from? Please show your working.
    An accurate estimate of this problem would be very useful.

    • Its a guestimate , so take it off.
      Assume no APP is rejected ie.”ZERO Rejected”.

      Which still leaves with reviewing the existing 100K APPs in whatever ( 10plus Languages) for upgrades. Also APPLE doesn’t merely check for technical issues with the APP ( performance , battery …) they also are the gate keeper of the content for the most part.

      Which means every the reviewers team should know everything / anything about all of these APPs.
      That to me is a big deal.
      Much complex than the iTunes store music business.

  4. It seems to me that a way to lessen the iPhone App Approval process would be to have a “trusted developer program.” Once you have a functioning App out there that has jumped through all the hoops and been approved your App should only be subjected to an _automated_ test that determines software stability.

    Of course you would get an unscrupulous developer who pushes through a legitimate application only to replace it or augment it with something inappropriate later on, but if you crowd source this I’m sure there are more than enough puritans out there to send in morality reports on any app that dares to show a boob.

    So act as a gatekeeper, but once someone is in the gate give them preferential treatment until they show you that they can’t be trusted, then banhammer. This is the basic security model for most forums (another place where the desire for ease of access must be weighed against the desire to maintain quality) and although it is not perfect, it seems to work pretty well.

  5. What? another article about App store approval? If I had a dollar for each one of these I’d be able to retire.

    The answer to this problem is really simple, don’t buy an iPhone and don’t develop for it.

    I have a Palm Pre.

  6. Why do you care if Apple “blows the game in the bottom of the ninth”? Because you’re so desperate to keep leeching off their market share that you can’t do anything different? Or because you’re some kind of Apple fan boy? Learn when it’s time to move on, dude. Stop begging Apple to keep you afloat and start developing for Android.

  7. The app store approval process could certainly be improved but a big problem? No. 99.9 percent of iPhone users, who will never read a technogeek blog, don’t know and don’t care that a handful of apps have been denied or that the approval process can sometimes take a while. they know that for the first time they have a phone that is easy to use, can act as an iPod and can get on the internet quickly and easily.

    The Facebook guy felt there should be no approval process at all. That makes no sense of any kind. There is no story here. nothing to be learned except this egomaniacal developer needs tog et over himself. The Facebook app will continue on with no disruption.

    I own Rogue Amoeba products for the mac but they conveniently fail to mention that they wanted to use the same icons that Apple uses for the phone. If they had followed the rules regarding such things there would be no issue.

    A very serious problem for Apple? No.

  8. I for one wouldn’t mind to see the mighty Apple stumble. After all, competition is good for all of us. Here’s hoping Google Android, the Palm Pre and the Blackberry Apps community can mount a strong challenge to Cupertino.

    • OS X is OS X. If you don’t have Flash on the iPhone don’t have it on the desktop. Frankly, I am not sure who to criticize first here — Apple for approvals, or Adobe for creating near malware on the Mac. But, Apple should in no way decide what is run on a general purpose computer.

      For all of the past discussions about freedom in computing, we have Apple behaving essentially much worse than any company from the past. Emacs for the iPhone!

  9. I suspect the reason Apple wants to be a gatekeeper is that mobile devices like the iPhone are still extremely resource limited. One badly coded app could burn down your battery or eat up your bandwidth and it would be difficult for a typical user to narrow it down to what caused it. This will take away from the iPhone user experience, something that Apple cherishes. This is likely also the reason for the multi-tasking restriction.

    The reported approval delays are bad enough but the process is now running into content and suitability issues – an area of subjectivity that frustrates developers. If the approval outcomes, and therefore revenues, are unpredictable – ommercial developers at some point will stop developing.

    A human approval process is never going to scale or be entirely consistent. As suggested earlier, perhaps Apple should develop an automated approval process , say using compilers that could spot applications that are likely to technically misbehave.

    Another, or perhaps an additional safeguard, would be on-device software that curtails or blocks the usage of a resource hogging application till the user hooses to over rides it. This resource hogging could then be reported back to the app store and if enough reports come in the app could get flagged.

    In other words, let the applications go out quicker but shoot first and ask questions later if the apps misbehave on the device.

    Beyond that, Apple should get out of the content and suitability approval business. The Internet is littered with remains of walled gardens.

    These are issues that will face all application stores that pre-approve applications- Apple is just running into them earlier because of its head start.

    p.s Om – the issue is very real but the sports analogy is very tortured ;-). The mobile application “game” has no innings – the score could very well reset every device replacement cycle (~ 18 months). You also extol the power of the team over the individual – but you confess you paid serious attention to the issue when the “star” developers started to complain loudly.

  10. Apple should really be in trouble now because Om said so – first you ditched the iPhone and then whined about the hard disks of your Macbook Pro and now a couple of whiners, er, developers decided to stop developing apps,

    But what better way to get hits than to talk about stuffs that sure to get hits.

  11. Can we boil this down to following mistakes:
    1. Assumption that Humans are rational (approval employees)
    2. Putting a none scalable solution in front of an exponential problem (approval org)
    3. Not realizing that the reality distortion field is finite

    Haven’t we seen this before. I mean Yahoo tried to organize the internet by “hand” (early bookmarks, yes I remember the Stanford bookmarks) then along came Alta Vista followed by Google with ever better algorithms to do the “organization”. In other words, in today’s world putting a human organization in front of the internet/world and expect it to be able to handle the resulting workload in any rationale way is kind of silly. Only people in the “field” will believe it works.

    My guess is if Google runs into this problem for security or marketing or what ever reasons one needs to inspect apps for a given device, they will try automate the …. out of it.
    OTOH, Google struggled with a similar problem in the 10^100 project.

    We’ll see who learns faster.

    • This is exactly the problem. Apple didn’t want apps to be the primary delivery mechanism. WebKit was supposed to suffice for most things. Alas the market decided otherwise. But, by taking the role of babysitter has created a problem that good parenting can solve. I can’t be everywhere my child is, but if there is a problem somebody will tell me about it!

      Approvals should be based on technical issues. Content should be left to the outside world. Have a problem with Baby Shaker? Call the developer! Why is this Apple’s role? Does everybody think of porn when you say VHS?

      This is seriously nuts and competition will solve the problems. It is only a matter of time before Android scales to developer needs.

  12. Well, the logistics of the App Store, the approval process and Apple/developer feedback are beyond anything so far experienced – it’s totally new territory. This fact is totally ignored in the feeding frenzy currently in place. From zero to megastore in two years with no breather in sight.
    Make no mistake, any organisation would have blood on the carpet in the same situation and as @gbp says ‘do the math’ – the stats throw up a mind-boggling number of potential hold ups and conflicts.
    I see no end to the situation unless Apple takes time-out to do a basic overhaul… now that really would throw a spanner in the works and steer even more developers to Android which is why Apple won’t do it and just continue riding the wave.
    All the other manufacturers would give a years salary to have even a fraction of the same business and the momentum going forward. Yes, they are gleeful at Apple’s current discomfort and will play dirty whilst promoting their own largely empty promises with increased frustration at their inability to make any headway whilst Apple struggles.
    Lets face it, users are pushing the whole business, not developers and when the Apple Tablet hits the shelves the resultant frenzy will dwarf the current mess. They’re going to need some huge infrastructure investment to support the new business – oh wait… they’re building a billion dollar server farm in North Carolina as we fret.
    This is typical Apple, say nothing whilst the storm rages, seemingly oblivious to it’s customers needs but building a solution in relative secrecy to move the whole scenario to the next level. Whereupon we all forget the problems we used to have because there is now a new shiny bauble to play yet more unimagined fun.
    If you think Apple is incapable of sorting out this melee – and that’s all it is, you sadly underestimate Apple’s forward thinking and strategic moves.
    I really pity all the other competitors in this space, they must be aghast and astounded at Apple’s success in such a short time. They’re now scrabbling around doing their own ‘me too’ solutions while Apple is about to move the whole business to somewhere they cannot imagine – transfixed in Apple’s headlights says it all.
    I really like the idea of Android but I just can’t see it being of major concern to Apple. Android is looking like a throwback to times when the networks controlled the users whole experience that divisively promoted their profits above user benefit in a fragmented market. Android does nothing to alter that. Only Apple(with AT&T) has moved forward in this respect. Google win’s anyway with ads whilst the handset makers and telcos penny-anti themselves into oblivion. They will complain about the Apple juggernaut but do no original planning or execution themselves. There are laughable similarities with the music labels reaction to Apple’s iTunes and these competitors probably know it.
    The stench of fear is everywhere.

  13. It’s funny how nobody has pointed the obvious: Apple has a black list of “undesirable”, yet popular companies and the Rogue guys are somewhere at the top of said list, bellow Adobe Flash.

    Why? Because Rogue provides tools that allow Apple users to get around DRM. Rogue’s products allow you to record any stream coming out of the Mac and therefore make high-quality copies of DRM material. Not all users are pirates, but then again owning a safe cracking device usually is a giveaway that you have intentions of using it.

    This is not the first time Rogue has complained about the App Store’s treatment ( At first, Apple would not approve their developer accounts and they had to register *personally* as individual developers to get around that.

    Rogue loves Apple but Apple doesn’t love back.

  14. I agree that Apple is bungling this, although I don’t know that it’s likely to inflict discernible damage on Apple’s revenues in the near future. It doesn’t surprise me that Apple rules its platform with an iron fist. What surprises me is the clumsiness of the fist. Apple has generally been more competent.

  15. FYI – From my experience I’m pretty sure the app approval team is out of Australia and developer contact with the app team is via a UK call center.

    Certainly not helping the situation, and possibly even a big part of the problem in the first place.

  16. Om, I could not agree more with you. The way things are going the best iPhone developers will soon be Android developers! One day before you know it Android will have the BEST apps and the iPhone will apps that make fart sound without any Apple icons of course.

  17. Not to say Apple doesn’t need to speed things up, but it’s not the bottom of the ninth, more like the bottom of the 1st or 2nd since it’s only now that any semi-credible competitors have come on the scene. As a percentage of total apps (the 100K) are the bitches – .000005%?
    What would be funny is Apple took the poster boy of whiny iPhone developers (Joe), hired him, put him in charge of approvals – I’d predict a massive, embarrassing fail.
    I think all whiney iPhone devs should be sent down to Bentonville for a session with a Walmart buyer, they’d come back praising the iPhone approval process.

    • While Bentonville negotiates hard , there are still TARGETS , COSTCOS and Dollar shops for the Chinese to sell their stuff.
      The fact that you can make a quick buck if you can tap the 20 million iPhone customers will give APPLe the upper hand.
      Plus there is no competing app store (jail breaking + side loading) for mainstream APPS ( I know there are some for a different audience).

      Essentially these developers have to stick with APPLE.

      If there is anything APPLE can learn, its “Music Industry is different from Mobile Computing world”.
      Dumping songs into iTunes is no big deal. While each APP needs to be reviewed for whatever the policies APPLE set ( internally).

      OTOH, these whiners should quit writing APPS without making public comments.

      Overall its fun to follow these APP store rejection stories :)

      • While not quite as bad – at least reputation wise – Target/CostCo are tough also. With all, you have to not only have a product they can buy cheap, you have to convince them you’ll make them money. It’s not just submit something and 99.9% of the time they’ll eventually put it on their shelf.

        I think some developers forget what developing mobile apps was like before Apple and the fact the manufacturers took a much larger % of the take. To a certain degree iPhone app developers live a charmed life compared to most product developers in other industries.

      • Fixing the problem is simpler than you think.

        Simply define, clearly, the expectations and limitations. Apple, despite the numerous screwups they’ve had over the past year and a half has not taken the time to clearly explain why certain apps are/were rejected.

        Next, CONSISTENCY. Don’t reject one app because it has iPhone in the title, while multitudes of others have already been approved. Or reject an app for duplicating functionality, when there’s a buttload of calcs, weather apps, and notepad apps already approved.

        Do those two things and a large percentage of frustrated devs will feel better almost instantly, because if their app is rejected then it would most likely have little to do with what reviewer they got at Apple HQ.

  18. I don’t see the issue. This is how Apple has treated it’s customers and developers since Steve Jobs came back to Apple. There’s nothing new here. I guess it’s just getting publicity because of the iPhone’s popularity.

    Apple has, and always will, do what it wants, when it wants. You can either play by their rules or go somewhere else (preferably Android).

    “Think Different” right? …well, unless you think different(ly) than Apple does.

    • “I don’t see the issue. This is how Apple has treated it’s customers and developers since Steve Jobs came back to Apple.”

      There have never been any restrictions on developing or running software on the Mac. Having to pay for the privilege of running your own code on your own hardware, and then begging Apple for permission to release it to the others is most definitely a change for the worse.

      I also hope that Android gains popularity. This bizarre idea that if you can hold a computer in your hand then it should be locked down needs to go away.

  19. On the bright side, there is now a third category to entertain the developers in iTunes Connect! The yellow light says hold on for eternity while Apple decides whether your app will prevent potential business opportunities or offend a humorless politician with satire.

    Kafka could only have dreamt up this scenario. I look forward to Apple reviewing music, movies and computer apps.

  20. Om,
    Good post
    But in hindsight , what do you expect when you have more than 100K applications that are spread across about 10 – 15 languages ( which most tech journalists fail to acknowledge)
    Plus there are probably another three hundred thousand rejected apps.
    You are talking close to half a million reviews.
    Say each review takes 30 minutes ( I would say 1 hour) .
    Hmm, Do the math , you need lots of folks (more than current APPLE staff) who knows 10 -15 different languages to keep up with updates.

    • Well, I can download and install anything I want on my MBP. No problem. It was Apple’s decision to be gatekeepers of the iPhone platform, and keep it a closed system, so that they could impose their tax on every app sold. No one is forcing them to manage it that way. They should have anticipated the requirements of maintaining such a system. Since they make 30% of each app sold, maybe they need to stop being greedy and put some of that money back into the system.