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Apple Speaks: Schiller Defends App Store Approval Process

In what BusinessWeek is describing as “his first extensive interview on the subject,” Phil Schiller, everyone’s favorite Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing for Apple (s aapl), has defended Apple’s application approval process.

I’ve read through it a few times, and I’d hardly call it “extensive.” I think it’s more accurately described as “PR spin” more than anything else. Schiller’s opening salvo is actually an advertisement.

We’ve built a store for the most part that people can trust. You and your family and friends can download applications from the store, and for the most part they do what you’d expect, and they get onto your phone, and you get billed appropriately, and it all just works.

It’s obviously going to transmit good vibes to the majority of BusinessWeek readers (who likely weren’t even aware of an application approval process in the first place, never mind a problem with it) but it’s unlikely to smooth the feathers of frustrated, angry developers. See, Mr. Schiller not only defended the approval process, but said that developers actually like it.

Most [apps] are approved and some are sent back to the developer. In about 90% of those cases, Apple requests technical fixes—usually for bugs in the software or because something doesn’t work as expected. Developers are generally glad to have this safety net because usually Apple’s review process finds problems they actually want to fix.

Here’s what TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid had to say about that:

This is a laughable statement. Developers may like the concept of having an external QA safety net that helps catch bugs, but not one that’s incredibly inconsistent and penalizes them with extended delays and notoriously bad communication.

Schiller does manage to admit that Apple has made mistakes. Sadly, he doesn’t say it loudly enough. In a Social Networking era when transparency is not only beneficial to a company but almost essential to maintaining a happy customer base, Apple still can’t manage genuine “openness” where it most counts. I’m sure Misters Jobs and Schiller grudgingly decided this interview was a necessary (if bitter-tasting) step in damage-control. But it’s dripping with convoluted and downright unfriendly corporate-speak.

Here are Schiller’s comments on the matter of Apple’s recent inconsistent approach to trademark protection (brief recap; Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil Speakers app displayed a tiny icon of the remote computer to which the app was connected — Apple initially approved the app, and it proved very successful. Then someone noticed the icons were of Macs, and Apple pulled it for trademark violation).

[Schiller] says Apple is trying to make trademark guidelines more sophisticated. “We need to delineate something that might confuse the customer and be an inappropriate use of a trademark from something that’s just referring to a product for the sake of compatibility,” he says. “We’re trying to learn and expand the rules to make it fair for everyone.”

In a twist I didn’t see coming, BusinessWeek’s Arik Hesseldahl adds that Rogue Amoeba “…will soon submit a version of the app with the Apple images intact.” That’s good to know, since it was almost universally agreed (except perhaps by the most fundamental fanbois) that Apple’s actions were not only inconsistent and hypocritical — they were just plain stupid.

Kincaid summarises:

Schiller’s interview highlights how badly Apple is underestimating the negative impact the App Store is having on its reputation in the developer community… Apple may not care about losing a handful of developers to Android, but their shortsighted strategy of answering developer complaints with PR spin rather than transparency and action may hurt them in the long run.

I’ll give Apple this; it’s learning. Slowly, painfully slowly, continental-drift-slowly, but remember that the iPhone is not yet three years old, the application store even younger. In a sense, Apple is making this up as it goes, and it’s bound to take some wrong turns along the winding path toward approval process nirvana. Developers don’t expect Apple to be perfect; they will tolerate and forgive occasional missteps, but only if the channel of discourse between them significantly improves beyond where it stands today; which, so far as I can see, is a slightly updated status page on the Apple Dev Center website and, when developers get rowdy enough, the occasional intervention by Phil Schiller.

Do we need Apple to act, as Joe Hewitt put it, as Gatekeepers? Apple doesn’t vet the quality and functionality of applications built for the Macintosh; though, I wonder — were the Mac to be invented today, would Apple insist on an Application Store for the desktop Mac OS X? If so, would it offer the same reasoning for its draconian regulation of its software ecosystem?

Everyone has an opinion on how best to solve the problem; I suspect it’s all about balance. An approval process is fine so long as Apple’s rules are fair, practical and consistently applied across all apps, all the time. And if or when it screws up, Apple should admit it instantly and correct its error. So, riddle me this… if it’s so easy for the community to offer reasonable solutions, why is it proving so hard for Apple?

11 Responses to “Apple Speaks: Schiller Defends App Store Approval Process”

  1. As an end user, I want quality apps at affordable prices. I also want developers to be fairly compensated for their work. But more than anything else, I want as secure a platform as possible. I like that Apple is a gatekeeper. I think they have done a remarkable job with the approval process overall. I believe no other company could have approved that many apps in this much time as smoothly as Apple. Of course, it could be and needs to be better. Apple cannot rest on its laurels or its rivals will eat its lunch. They need to constantly improve the App Store end user selection and developer approval processes. They have already and I trust they will continue. I feel bad for the developers who expose problems in the process. But I think these situations will ultimately get resolved and make a better platform. I have to admit, though, that I think public exits of iPhone development don’t reflect as well on developers are they might think. I want to support them, but I also want them to exhaust all channels (including sharing their plight to users/public) before throwing in the towel.

  2. Bill Burkholder

    As a user, I’m glad developers have to play by the rules and be subjected to a “board of applications” review of their work. I don’t want them selling me anything that would compromise my device or my experience.

    Apple truly is breaking new ground with this platform and the App Store concept. That it is successful beyond their wildest dreams, and therefore has growing pains, is to be expected.

    What doesn’t help is for developers to jump up and down and cry, “Foul!” where there is no proven intent on Apple’s part to be unfair. A complicit Internet press isn’t helping the process, either. The situation will improve when developers engage in humble, honest dialogs with Apple over the substance of their complaints with unapproved Apps. Work with them, in good faith. I’ll bet they’ll work with you, too, as long as you’re within the boundaries they have published.

    Remember, it may be your idea, but it’s not your platform. You have to “play nice” by the rules set for you. Don’t like that? Go away. There *are* more open platforms out there. My guess is that you’ll find something to complain about them, too.

    As for us users, we’re the ones who matter. You don’t have a chance without us. Make Apple proud to host your wares, and we just might download $ome.

  3. Mantvydas

    I’m an iPhone end-user, and I don’t understand you…

    Why are you all complaining, when the result is fantastic:

    There’s apps for everything. I haven’t seen any apps that offend me in any way. What more freedom you want? Freedom to develop viruses? Freedom to develop adult stuff?

    C’mon! For me, as a regular user, it’s a safety trigger, which just works.

    • “I’m an iPhone end-user, and I don’t understand you…

      Why are you all complaining, when the result is fantastic:”

      Because they are a bunch of whining, self-centered egotistical prima donnas, that’s why.

  4. Flagging the use of non-public APIs is fair, no matter how you shake it. The guidelines prohibit it; automated checking can now reveal it. I cannot see how “fairness” comes into this; there’s really no grey area. Just because you use a 3rd party library that uses them doesn’t mean you should get cut some slack, really.

    What would be fair would be if Apple would make the tools (or some version of same) available to developers, so they could be sure they weren’t (unknowingly) using non-public APIs.

    But I can see why this restriction is there: You have issues like the “Now Playing” issues with 3.0. Cyrus was screaming from the rooftops how awful the iPhone 3.0 pre-releases were and they were crashing his apps. Boy, Apple was HORRIBLE for breaking everything. As it turns out, he had subclassed some of the Apple classes, and overloaded the built-in methods! Yeah, that’s gonna break if Apple changes the class definitions. That’s totally fair, and Cyrus was ridiculous in his outrage. After about 14 pages of venom in the Ars Technica forums, it became old.

    I’ll say this: As an end user, I WANT Apple to do what they’re doing. While it doesn’t catch everything, it is reasonably good QA and the added time buffer (of 1-2 weeks) ensures developers really do their homework before pushing something up to Apple. I do “just want it to work” from my side.

    As a developer, I’d want the platform to be locked down simply to prevent piracy. You can’t warez stuff on a non-jailbroken phone. I definitely would be a bit uncomfortable knowing that there is one authority who could unilaterally decide to not approve my app and then take away my only “honest” way to distribute my work, but I don’t truly believe Apple is rejecting things because they’re evil. I think in general many of the cases they have legitimate reasons to bounce stuff back, and in others there are probably a number of “honest goofs” with the volume of apps they have to approve. Without a single approver for all items, you’ll likely have some variance: Humans are involved :-/

  5. Still haven’t read anything compelling on this whole bad Apple issue. Would LOVE to trade these problems for what I experience in my industry and line of work (defense and aerospace consulting). In the history of mankind, perfect integration and harmony among a diverse group has proven unattainable. Inroads are made through collaboration, not saber rattling.

  6. Given the number of apps submitted daily/weekly/monthly, this is a monumental job to go through them all and approve or disapprove. Yeah, Apple is making this up as they go along because they are in new territory with no business model to follow. It’s really no different than a lot of other hi-tech companies, except that Apple’s App Store is much more visible. Google, Twitter, Ebay, and others have made it up as they went along because they were doing something completely new. It’s all growing pains. Still, Apple needs to buckle down and get the App process organized and consistent soon.

  7. Aaron Fisher

    “An approval process is fine so long as Apple’s rules are fair, practical and consistently applied across all apps, all the time”

    Erm like using an automated system to check for non-public APIs. Which TAB said last week was a bad thing. Consistency eh