iPhone App Store roulette: A tale of rejection

Apple's random rules for iPhone app approval are a recipe for trivial apps and alienated developers

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There was one phone call from an Apple developer representative who told me that it was his job to deliver rejections by phone when they were too sensitive to travel by e-mail. There was, he said, a problem with giving my earnings to charity. Oh really? Was I supposed to spend it on cocaine and whores? No. I just couldn't mention the charity in the App Store listing. Why? Was this a version of the biblical imperative to give with your left hand so that your right hand doesn't know what is going on? He couldn't say. I was free to give the money, he said, and I could even mention this on my own blog, but I couldn't reveal it in the App Store.

Not that this matters. There are already 65,000-plus applications out there and it's difficult to find anything in the store. Typing in the name of my app title, "Free for All," brings up a long list of other applications like "iFart Mobile -- #1 Fart Machine for All Ages." I've yet to find my own app after paging through the long list provided by the so-called search button. Putting quote marks around it makes no difference. The only way people can get to my application seems to be if I lead them directly to it from my Web site. Yet Apple justifies taking the 30 percent in part because the App Store is doing some of the marketing. Fulfillment, yes, but its marketing reminds me of the GUM Department Store before Gorbachev, when any question beginning, "Do you have...?" always drew the same response: "Nyet."

When the kind phone caller with bad news asked if I had other questions, I brought up my big one about whether open source was really a "private API." That was too much for him to handle, he said. I could write the e-mail address, though, and he was sure I would get a response. When I told him that I rarely heard back, he just paused and said he was sure they would get to it. Sure.

Once again, Apple can't manage to enforce rules like the one about charity with any uniformity. Just as some PhoneGap apps slip through the mechanism, there are dozens of programs that give their proceeds to charities; they can be found by typing the word "charity" into the App Store search box. That search term seems to work well. The iFart developers aren't giving their proceeds to charity? Go figure.

Behind the Magic 8-Ball I'm not the only one who has experienced these endless inconsistencies. Here's a list of adjectives that people have used: arbitrary, suicidal, baffling, silly, ludicrous, Russian roulette, grumpy, ridiculous, giant middle finger, and many more unprintable words.

Can any company run something like the App Store, even one so absolutely fabulous and supremely cool? Central control on a large scale has a poor track record. Just as the Soviets didn't have the time to make all of the decisions about the economy with any consistency, Apple can't afford to hire the people to enforce the App Store restrictions with the care they require. I know I've never misused the UIWebView object, but I doubt the reviewers have the time or the energy to care. Apple doesn't read the code but somehow wants to enforce rules that require that level of scrutiny.

The more I talk to other developers and look at my own experiences, the more I conclude that the reviewing process isn't any better than random. Why would one version of my app be accepted and one be tossed out the door, even after I took away all references to charity? So we just submit things, cross our fingers, and submit again.

I suppose there are a few advantages to what Apple is trying to do. Given all of the seemingly arbitrary rejections, it must be weeding out some of the bad applications. Indeed, some of the postings on apprejected.com, the Web site devoted to cataloging the whims of the dieties, includes some pretty useful bug fixes, like a TableViewCell that remains highlighted. But for every bug that's fixed, a number of developers walk away dejected and bitter.

In my case, I've tried to guess what may be going through the reviewers' minds. What could possibly make the application better? So in the latest version I've even included a few more instructions to try to make the tapping interface more intuitive. They're still in the queue, but some day the users might see them. Meanwhile, I still don't understand how I was using UIWebView in unapproved ways.

Even when Apple's strictures are explicit, there are problems with trying to apply them. While Apple worked hard to write excellent UI guidelines, it's not clear that this is what the programmers or the users really need. They may help with the standard applications, but they pretty much forbid any kind of innovation. Many of the rejection sob stories come from developers who tried to "think different" about a user interface issue, in many cases because they were tackling a challenge that wasn't sussed out by Apple's crack team. Innovation is a real gamble with the iPhone. Sure, you could try to engineer a cool UI for augmented reality, or you could just follow the UI guidelines and put up a menu that lets you drill down into a list of fart jokes. There's no doubt in my mind that the famous I Am Rich app was approved because it didn't violate any UI guidelines. It didn't do anything. This is the kind of innovation that the UI guidelines encourage.

The job of wading through the App Store submissions must be mind numbing. If you let one app through that pays a portion to charity, you're sure to hear about it when someone else in the App Store starts rejecting these things. To make matters worse, someone might submit free and paid versions of the same application. If one gets rejected and the other accepted, it might look odd. Someone's going to get scolded because someone made a mistake. Or maybe no one will get scolded because everyone's busy patting one another on the back and believing the hype that the iPhone and the App Store are the greatest things on earth.

Drop in the bucket In the end, I've decided that my situation is more like the anonymous grunt hit by a distant sniper. Just as war is often modeled as a game of numbers by the generals, Apple probably could care less about most applications. Not only do individual applications add little to Apple's bottom line, but the customers' spending is probably constant. If they don't buy my Gold version, they'll just download something else. Some reports suggest that the apps are usually just a distraction and people stop using them after a day or so. People want a phone first and a chance to check the Web second. Everything else is just a cute or embarrassing gimmick.

There is every indication that the App Store doesn't contribute very much to the bottom line of many developers, either. If there are 65,000 apps and 1.5 billion downloads, the average number of downloads is about 23,000. If you subtract some of the irresistible free applications like Facebook and Yelp that are just fancy Web pages, it becomes clear that selling even 1,000 copies of your application is a pretty big accomplishment.

It's worth putting these numbers in context. PalmGear.com claims more than 32,000 apps available in its store alone. That doesn't include all of the other places on the Web where there are incredible things for Palm OS like a GCC compiler, a native PDF-rendering tool, and countless others. There's no magic 1.5 billion number coming out of Palm because is marketplaces aren't modeled after the old Soviet May Day parades where stuffed shirts on the reviewing stands count the obedient ones marching in step.

Apple must be missing many opportunities because the uncertainty must be killing the incentive for developers. One of the reasons the App Store may be filled with bottom-feeding apps like iFart is that developers are afraid to risk serious development time on the platform. Even the lists of serious apps that "can save your life" are generally populated by dutiful little virtual notepads. Most probably took 10 minutes to code and three months to get through the approval process.

There is every indication that Apple's regulated marketplace is descending into mediocrity, just like the Soviet economy. It wasn't long after the PC appeared that software packages like AutoCAD and Photoshop started costing hundreds of dollars. The old Windows platform is still a very fertile ecosystem for innovation. Today, the software for a PC can cost five to ten times as much as the PC that runs it. This kind of development and investment can't happen for the iPhone as long as anonymous gatekeepers are able to delay projects by weeks and months with some seemingly random flick of a finger. It's one thing to delay a homebrew project like mine, but it's another thing to shut down a team of developers burning real cash. Apple should be worried when real programmers shrug off the rejections by saying, "It's just a hobby."

It's not even a hobby for me any longer. I had a list of ideas to tackle after I finished the no-brainer of dumping some HTML into a UIWebView. It doesn't look like that's going to happen. I'm starting to move away from native code and concentrate on building Web applications that can be tuned to the mobile version of Safari. Just for grins, I'll make sure they work on WebKit just to give those Android and BlackBerry users a real boost. When I make mistakes, I'll be able to fix them immediately. There will be no need to ask, "Mother may I?" If I want to use a cross-site library to reach both iPhone and BlackBerry users at once, I'll be able to do it without getting accused of using some "private API."

So if you want to read "Free for All GOLD," forget about searching the App Store. You can read it on my site in all its glory. Send the bug reports directly to p3 (at-sign) wayner.org. And by all means, donate directly to the Committee to Protect Journalists. One hundred percent of your donation will go to them; Apple won't take anything.

Lessons of the Internet Back in 1995, Bill Gates took one look at the Internet and scrapped his dreams of dominating online life with MSN. Apple would do well to look over his memo because there are indications that the beautiful design and wonderful experience of the iPhone can't withstand the tidal wave of ingenuity out there. Creativity will find expression, and bored developers waiting for approval will check out other platforms. BlackBerry sales beat iPhone's earlier this year. Although RIM may try to emulate Apple's mistakes with its own walled garden, there are still other distribution mechanisms available to BlackBerry developers.

The Windows Mobile folks are also mindful of the need for open channels. When I interviewed Jay Roxe, group product manager of Windows Mobile, for another article about smartphone development, he outlined all of the different ways that a Windows Mobile developer could distribute a new program. Microsoft may run its own stores, but there are a number of other competitors and there's nothing to prevent you from giving a Windows Mobile app away from your own Web site, either.

[ Dive deep into mobile 2.0 technology with InfoWorld's "mobile 2.0" PDF special report. ]

Microsoft isn't alone with this openness. Symbian and Palm apps are freely available. Let's hope that Palm follows through with promises to make the Palm Pre backward compatible because there are more than 40,000 applications available for that platform -- apps that work perfectly well without currying the favor of some central bureaucracy.

Any enterprise shop would be insane to try to bet their company's livelihood on the iPhone. Oh sure, you've got to dabble in it now because the boss and the boss's boss have snorted all of the hype about the 1.5 billion downloads, but the random approval process is a real disaster for anyone trying to innovate in the simplest way. You've got to be willing to add an extra two or three months of salary for your team after development in order to get approval. Testing is a pain, and if you miss something, your users will be stuck with the old code until you can get a new version past the Iron Curtain.

I have no idea what Steve Jobs was thinking back in 1995, but I do remember what he was still thinking in 1984 when he hired Chiat/Day to create a wonderful commercial that defined the personal computer revolution. Who can forget the audience of reverent drones and the big screen on the stage? It used to be funny to note the similarity between the crowds in the old commercial and the audiences at Macworld Expo, sitting at the front of their seats in rapt attention and waiting for the big head on the screen to tell them what to think. The humor is slowly fading, though, and I can't help but feel that Apple's iPhone division has become everything the old company mocked in 1984.

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