The mobile world got another reminder over the weekend that the whims of Apple’s App Store review process can make or break a mobile business. In a span of about 48 hours, Evi, a voice-recognition app that has a few things in common with Apple’s Siri, was headed for the App Store’s trash bin on Friday for being a little too similar to Siri before Apple abruptly reversed course.
TechCrunch first noted on Sunday that Evi had been flagged by Apple’s reviewers as “confusingly similar” to Siri, with True Knowledge, the company behind the app, having received notice late Friday that their app would be pulled from the App Store. True Knowledge had submitted a minor update to Evi that had languished in App Store review purgatory with no explanation for some time until Apple finally contacted the company about the update on Friday.
William Tunstall-Pedoe, CEO of True Knowledge, told TechCrunch that “I don’t think it takes too much of a leap of the imagination to realize that ‘confusingly similar’ is code for ‘competitive with’.” He went onto imply that Apple was worried about reviews of Evi–a natural language search engine that is a bit more sophisticated than Siri on certain queries–making the $199 iPhone 4S less compelling than the $99 iPhone 4, on which Siri is no longer allowed to run.
But after popular sentiment turned against Apple over the weekend, True Knowledge received a call from Apple reversing that ruling in the wee hours of Monday morning in Barcelona, where they were preparing for Mobile World Congress, sources familiar with the saga told GigaOM. Evi remains in the App Store, as noted earlier by The Verge, and Apple now plans to work with True Knowledge on creating a version of Evi that satisfies Apple’s concerns.
Sources familiar with the back-and-forth said that at this point Apple told True Knowledge it just wants the company to change the user interface of the app, rather than its basic functionality. And Apple also confirmed to the company that voice-driven search and voice-driven personal assistant features (setting up appointments and the like, planned for a future release of Evi) are fair game for outside developers within the iOS developer rules.
It’s unclear whether Apple really does mean that only cosmetic changes are necessary, or whether it’s just setting True Knowledge up with another series of hoops. Evi is similar to Siri in that it takes voice commands and returns search results, but Evi is actually the result of a True Knowledge “pivot” (read: now what are we going to do?) from a Web search company to a mobile-focused company. True Knowledge has curated hundreds of millions of facts and serves those up in response to queries, using (like Siri) Nuance’s technology to translate speech into machine-understandable queries.
Once you enter the mobile world, you find yourself having to play by Apple’s rules. Perhaps the most famous example was the showdown between Apple and Google over Google Voice, which Apple believed was confusingly similar enough to the main iPhone dialer as to restrict it from the App Store. A federal investigation led to its eventual approval and an acknowledgement from Apple that it needed to be more permissive when it came to potentially competitive apps.