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Through the Looking Glass and into the iPhone App Store

By deans ~ August 7th, 2009. Filed under: Observations.

Sometimes I really wish that I wasn’t an iPhone app developer.  Then, I could just sit on the sidelines and chortle about how stupid the app developers are to tolerate the treatment that they are receiving from the invisible “powers” behind the App Store.  After my time at Now Software, I swore that I would never do business with Apple again.  Now, here I am, with even less leverage.  I feel like I’m navigating through a realm where rules are made up on the fly, where both common sense and reasonable outcomes are the exception, rather than the rule and where my only option is to go somewhere else.

As I’ve thought about the relationship between the App Store and the developer community, I’ve come to the conclusion that the fundamental problem is rooted in the power disparity.  Apple has absolute power.  Developers individually, and even collectively, have essentially zero power.  Allow me to share a few, hopefully, illustrative examples of what I’m getting at.

There are gigabytes of text flowing around documenting the latest upsets, but I think that I’ll lead off with Craig Hockenberry‘s latest opus on the App Store, since it’s particularly well written and constructive.  Mr. Hockenberry presents a number of the challenges that we’re all experiencing, and proposes solutions for many of them.  He concludes with the following:

The suggestions I’ve presented above are intended to help us grow this business and keep the ecosystem healthy. Every developer’s fear is that Apple doesn’t want an open a dialog regarding the App Store. It scared the [censored] out of me when our questions weren’t answered at WWDC.

A successful partnership is one where both parties work to the benefit of the other. If our needs are ignored, it will only lead to disenchantment. Working with the developers that are driving this new platform is Apple’s best long-term business strategy.

Well stated!  Mr. Hockenberry presents a number of rational proposals that could help make the system work better for everyone.  I remember when Mr. Hockenberry was able to arrange next day (for the free version third day for the paid) approval for Twitterrific after the “twitpocalypse,” so I gather that he has some significant juice with The Organization in Cupertino.  Unfortunately, just when one begins to be optimistic that Apple might listen to some of its influential contributors, we are reminded that this isn’t a “relationship” in any real sense.  Mr. Hockenberry’s well reasoned arguments fall apart if one takes the perspective that Apple has all of the cards, makes all of the rules and feels no real pressure to engage with the developer community.  From that perspective, let’s consider another example of egregious treatment of a developer.

In this latest instance, we have the situation with Ninjawords (WARNING:  If you’re an App Store Approval team member, the post contains “objectionable” words. I know that Mr. Schiller responded. The TrueBelievers can stop yelling at me — more on that in a moment).  Mr. Gruber does a much better job of expressing outrage than I ever could, so just go read his post and then come back …  I’ll wait right here…  Are you upset, yet?

Mr. Schiller’s response to Mr. Gruber completely ignores the infinitely uneven power relationship between Apple and iPhone developers.  Apple knows all of the “rules,” makes all of the rules and serves as judge, jury and executioner.  We are left to frantically scan through our developer agreements, monitor all of the forums looking for folklore and then just take our best shot.  The folks at Matchstick Software simply didn’t have enough information to make what Apple now apparently considers a rational decision.  To assert otherwise demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the plight of the developers.  It also suggests some serious arrogance — “I know this, why don’t you?”  In this light, I find it ironic that Mr. Schiller takes Mr. Gruber to task for the reporting:

Apple did not censor the content in this developer’s application and Apple did not reject this developer’s application for including references to common swear words. You accused Apple of both in your story and the fact is that we did neither.

Given Apple’s track record of extremely limited transparency regarding their App Store approval policies and procedures, along with their previous reluctance to explain anything in more detail than citing a section of our Developer’s Agreement, one might expect a more enlightened organization to take a slightly lighter hand on this issue.

The personally sad thing about this is that I’ve been actively looking for a new dictionary solution for the iPhone.  I currently use the Dictionary.com app.  It’s OK, but it’s extremely slow.  It takes a long time to start up and to display words.  I’d love to have something better, and I would have gladly bought the unadulterated version of the Ninjawords app (I hope that “unadulterated” isn’t “objectionable”).  However, since I don’t know what Matchstick felt forced to censor, I’ll just stick with Dictionary.com for awhile.  By the way, I just verified that a number of the terms that were barred from Ninjawords are openly available in Dictionary.com v1.0.1.  Dictionary.com has a 4+ rating.  The purified Ninjawords carries a 17+ rating.

One point that I’m trying to highlight is that, if the App Store process continues to be this capricious, the professional developers will be forced to shift their focus to other platforms.  We’re already being buried by the “competition.”  We don’t need to be fighting Apple’s processes as well.  While I applaud Apple for finally dealing with this fellow, I have to admit a grudging respect for the model he allegedly adopted, apparently with Apple’s full (until recently) and long-term support.  According to the post on Mobile Crunch:

“Khalid Shaikh has been making a killing off the App Store through questionable means. In less than 9 months, Khalid Shaikh and his 26-employee team (most of which are in Pakistan) have published 943 applications (thank you TapMetrics for validating these numbers). That’s roughly 5 apps a day, every day, for 250 days. All of these apps have gone through the entire Apple review process, sometimes taking as long as six weeks to get reviewed, and have been published on the App Store. Users have bought these apps in droves; Khalid has refused to give official numbers but we gather from his comments that it’s a few thousand dollars in sales per day. This business was making solid money until last Friday, July 24, when Khalid Shaikh was officially banned from the store. Without advance notice or forewarning of such an action, Apple revoked Khalid’s developer license and asked him to remove all of his apps from the store.

Whoa. Wait a second. Over the course of 9 months, Apple has accepted 900 applications submitted by Khalid Shaikh and his team of developers. Then, realizing their mistake months later, Apple tells Khalid he has to delete all of his apps?”

Now I understand why Apple couldn’t be bothered to approve the v1.2 update to iPuck in anything resembling a timely fashion.  While we’re on the subject of iPuck v1.2, I’ll share one last bit of strangeness.  The primary upgrade to iPuck in v1.2 is Scoreloop integration, which lets users compare high scores and challenge each other in the game.  We’re huge privacy freaks, and I’ve taken all of the precautions, so I didn’t think that there would be any problem until I saw this post over on iPhoneDevSDK‘s “App Store Wait Thread.”

First entry:

Hi, I hope someone in management at Apple reads these posts, the rejection I received today was unbelievable . It has been extremely hard to get Scoreloop enabled apps approved but I finally added enough warning text on the startup screens of three apps to satisfy the reviewers and get on the app store, ( Apollo XI, Tornado Alley & Bot Hive). I have 2 apps in review, after waiting 6 days they rejected one of them for the same reason that they initially rejected the other three…

But wait…, this app has the same text on the startup screen as the other reviewers required before they approved my three other Scoreloop enabled apps! ???”

The developer receives a bunch of, mostly useless, advice, then follows up a few weeks later:

“It’s been a while and I forgot to update everyone on this.

I resubmitted the same zip and it was approved within a week.”

How’s that for a predictable, developer friendly process?  I keep hearing Steven Tyler’s voice telling me that I should walk this way

Since my mother always told me that it’s polite to end on a positive note, I believe that it is an encouraging sign that Apple did, indeed, hear Mr. Gruber.  Also, happily, iPuck v1.2 was approved after I wrote this post, but before I published it.

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1 Response to Through the Looking Glass and into the iPhone App Store

  1. paul

    Dean, this is good stuff. As I read it, particularly your insightful comments about the “power imbalance”, I couldn’t help but thinking about good old collective bargaining. It requires unity and the will to carry through to make it stick, but the community of developers actually has a great deal of power. If those of us who are serious, including the big boys, would stand together, we could cut Apple’s AppStore daily revenue in half in almost an instant. What would happen if thousands of apps were removed from sale on the AppStore in the same day?

    Does our AppStore vendor agreement rule out such unified behavior? And if it did, would it be in any way binding? Is it that broken, and are we that upset? Or just a little upset?