Is the App Store Apple's biggest PR disaster?

10th Dec 2009 | 13:00

Is the App Store Apple's biggest PR disaster?

Devs criticise approvals process, pricing and rating system

Frustration at the App Store

The App Store is regarded as a triumph: billions of downloads, millions of sales, a handful of rags-to-riches tales; and no competitor is close to matching Apple's userfriendly, app-rich environment.

Increasingly, though, dissenting voices suggest all is not well. Reports claim Apple rejects apps for bizarre reasons, and developers find a wall of silence when trying to rectify matters. And some even question the store's low prices, arguing that the flood of cheap, simplistic apps will soon render the App Store unsustainable for serious developers.

Are these complaints hot air, or is Apple about to wrench defeat from the jaws of victory?

App Store submissions

Of the issues surrounding the App Store, the application submissions policy is most controversial. The App Store is not open – developers submit completed apps, and Apple decides whether to approve them for sale.

In theory, this is beneficial, Apple ensuring 'dangerous' apps never go live. In reality, things aren't as clear-cut.

"The review process is opaque and inconsistent – frustrating at best, completely maddening at worst," argues John Gruber, who's written about the App Store on his blog, Daring Fireball.

"A particularly nonsensical rejection," says Gruber, "was eBook reader Eucalyptus, which ended up with a 17+ rating, despite downloading content solely from the free Project Gutenberg library of out-of-copyright books. It was rejected on the grounds users could download books with 'objectionable content', even though they're just books, nothing objectionable is installed by default, and all Project Gutenberg titles are accessible using Safari for iPhone".

Consistency regarding approvals is a key problem. "It hadn't occurred to me rejection was a plausible outcome," says Eucalyptus author James Montgomerie, adding that several eReaders were approved before he submitted his own.

C64 emulator rejected

Manomio had a similar shock when its Commodore 64 emulator app, called C64, was rejected. The company licensed the retro-games system and associated games, and discussions with Apple indicated Manomio's approach was within Apple's expectations. "But reports of arbitrary rejections suggested it's 'luck of the draw' if your application falls on the right desk, you get through unscathed," says Manomio's Stuart Carnie. C64 wasn't lucky and was rejected.

C64 app

If rejections detailed how a developer could subsequently get an app approved, all would be well, but recommendations are usually brief or nonexistent. Manomio simply got pointed to a clause in the App Store SDK agreement. "But that clause was never intended to block applications like ours, and other apps on the store do similar things to C64," argues Carnie.

As Apple had "set a precedent", Manomio fought back, and a recent conversation with an Apple director confirmed Manomio's original direction was sound. However, C64's review shows how random approval can be.

Unlike developing for most systems, it's not just a gamble whether an app will sell, but whether end-users will get the chance to buy it at all. This could seriously hurt future app development. Oddball rejections are the minority, but their frequency is such that some developers worry supporting Apple's platform is risky.

Carnie says his experience suggested "the review team has a checklist of do's and don'ts and no room for reasonable judgment". This doesn't bestow confidence in anyone who's worked on an app for months, which is suddenly at the mercy of said reviewers. Without assurances of approval, developers may consider other platforms as safer options.

How Apple can fix approvals, prices and ratings

Gruber reckons "Apple should switch to a policy whereby apps are only rejected on the basis of technical compliance. If an app works, uses only published APIs and does what it claims to do, Apple should release it and let the market decide."

He thinks that, as with bookshops, subjectivity should largely be removed, benefitting developers and users alike, adding that the current process is strained: "And if the store continues to grow, this will only get worse".

Developers also complain about how long approvals take, and that even minor updates to previously approved apps can be rejected. "Worse, if a critical bug is discovered, you're subjected to the standard review process, without any means to expedite an update," says Carnie.

"Sometimes, the developer has to pull the app – they can't even revert to a prior version." To solve this, Tweetie author Loren Brichter says Apple should "create a whitelist, enabling proven developers to push out updates faster".

Criticism of App Store prices

App Store prices are also criticised. At the time of writing, more than half of charting apps were at the lowest pricepoint, 59p (99¢ in the US). Often, buyers wait for prices to drop and have a warped perception of good value – it's common to see £1.19 games branded a 'rip off', despite similar games on competing systems being 20 times as expensive.

"The rush to 99 cents is fascinating, and in some regards a great experiment in economics – supply and demand," says Gruber. "But there's bias towards the cheapest apps, because of the best-seller lists. Once an app gets there, it tends to stay, due to these lists being where users go to find apps." The result is that few developers make large sums; most don't, even for apps that should be successful.

Developers are split on App Store pricing. Brichter argues Tweetie's doing well, despite free alternatives being available: "And Things is $9.99, but successful, so you should just make great apps and not rely on App Store rankings for marketing."

Montgomerie is more sympathetic, urging Apple to revisit how apps are presented: "Apple must reduce the expectation that all iPhone software should be cheap. In my childhood, videogames had separate full-price and budget charts. Something similar could work for the App Store."

Deficient ratings

Apple's ratings system is also considered deficient, its movie-like grading horribly flawed, confusing rather than reassuring. "Parents might want to restrict what children can use, but the system should indicate what an app actually does," says Montgomerie, whose harmless eReader is now rated 17+.

17+ warning

"For example, 'allows internet access' is very different to 'Frequent/Intense Mature/Suggestive Themes', and per-app restrictions would be useful – I can see parents being fine with a 13-year-old using Eucalyptus, but not allowing access to things like 'Adult Exotic Babes'…"

Overall, though, even those critical of the App Store admit Apple's got most things right. "The experience is excellent. Buying and installing apps isn't just for geeky iPhone users, but for all of them – that's a huge win for Apple," enthuses Gruber.

And rejection isn't always all bad – Montgomerie and Brichter noted sales spikes due to the extra publicity, although that's of little consolation to devs with apps that aren't eventually approved, nor anyone making random changes to apps in the hope they'll be accepted.

Apple is listening

There are signs that things are changing. Senior Apple executive Phillip Schiller recently emailed Gruber regarding Ninjawords and the App Store in general, noting: "While we may not always be perfect in our execution […], our efforts are always made with the best intentions, and if we err we intend to learn and quickly improve."

And from Apple's recent response to the FCC regarding controversy surrounding apps leveraging on Google Voice technology, it's clear Apple's suffering growing pains – apps get as little as six minutes per review and are tested twice. It's no wonder some rejections are asinine.

Montgomerie thinks recent rejections have at least been more outwardly consistent, and Schiller's openness gives cause for hope. However, on the day this article was written, Convertbot by Tapbots was rejected for having a Time icon that Apple thought too similar to the Recents icon in its iPhone app.

Convertbot

With a unit conversion app icon and iPhone icon being as dissimilar as they get (making Apple's 'confusion' angle questionable) and three previously approved Convertbot releases having the same icon, it's clear the App Store has a long way to go.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 214

Liked this? Then check out 20 classic Apple App Store rejections

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