Apple’s App Store Rejections

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

The sheer nuttiness of Apple’s App Store approval process has been making news — again — in the last couple of weeks. First, there was Apple’s decision to reject the app version of Macworld’s iPhone & iPod touch Superguide (note: I am a contributing author to the guide). As explained by Jason Snell, the app was rejected because “because apps are not allowed to use Apple trademarks as part of their brand name.” The “trademark” was the word “iPhone” in the title of the book. It didn’t matter that David Pogue’s iPhone book app also violated this rule, and was currently in the App Store.

It wasn’t until Jason went public with the incident that Apple made the unusual move of reversing its ruling. Still, as Jason points out in his article, this was hardly the first time that an app was rejected for inconsistent, unreasonable or outright irrational reasons. In most cases, there is no reversal on appeal.

Indeed, in what could be the most undeserved decision thus far, Apple more recently rejected a 1.0.1 bug-fixed update of Rogue Amoeba’s Airfoil Speakers touch app. Why? Citing a logic similar to what was used against the Macworld app, Rogue Amoeba was told that “you may not use the Apple logo or any other Apple-owned graphic symbol, logo, or icon.” At issue was a graphic of a Mac computer, included to help users track the audio source the app was accessing. Again, it didn’t matter that the icon was already present in the 1.0 version of the app, currently for sale in the store. Rather, it took several months of “negotiating,” and Rogue Amoeba finally removing the controversial graphic, before the app was accepted. As a result, Rogue Amoeba has decided that it will no longer plan “for additional iPhone applications, and updates to our existing iPhone applications will likely be rare.”

I have read comments on Twitter and elsewhere that have come to Apple’s defense here. The position is essentially: “Mistakes will be made; the process is not perfect. But Apple continues to make improvements. Anyway, the overwhelming number of apps are approved quickly and without hassle.” Often cited as evidence in this regard is Apple’s statement that “there has been a 96 percent approval rate for App Store submissions, 98 percent of which were approved within a week after submission.”

Yes, this is true. But this doesn’t mean we should be quick to dismiss the cited problems as trivial and not worthy of our attention.

First off, in some situations, even small percentages are noteworthy. For example, suppose 4% of a surgeon’s patients died on the operating table due to errors so gross that they qualified as malpractice. You wouldn’t dismiss this as only a small percentage and thus “not worthy of attention.”

And so it is with Apple’s “errors.” It’s not only that Apple makes these wrong-headed decisions. More frustrating and ultimately inexcusable is that the “appeal process” is so poorly handled that getting a bad decision reversed too often seems almost impossible. A convict on death row would have a better chance at a presidential pardon.

Another way to look at this is to convert the percentages to absolute numbers. Apple’s latest press release states that there are now over 100,000 apps in the App Store. If we apply the above percentages to the 100,000 number, we discover that around 4,200 apps have been rejected since the App Store opened. Further, of the 100,000 apps that were accepted, at least 2000 of them took more than a week to be approved (who knows how much longer; Apple isn’t saying). These are not trivial numbers.

Returning to the percentage data, you might justifiably remove a lot of apps from the relevant pool. You could eliminate all those tip calculators, to-do lists, card games, and so on — the apps that are so innocuous that they have no chance of being rejected. Unless you are submitting one of these “safe” apps, your real chance of being rejected is the rate based on the remaining apps, not the 100,000+ total. 

Granted, it can be tricky to determine which apps belong in the safe category. For example, until recently, I would have assumed that Macworld’s and Rogue Amoeba’s apps belonged there. Still, I think we can all agree that any recalculated rejection rate will be a lot higher than 4%.

Should there even be a required approval process?

At best, the App Store approval process needs a significant overhaul. However, I continue to question whether an approval should even be required for an app to be made available.

As I have argued elsewhere, if Apple insists on censoring what gets into the App Store, they should also permit apps to be available for downloading from the Web, allowing users to manually install them. This would have the added benefit of eliminating most of the motivation to jailbreak an iPhone.

Imagine if the MPAA not only rated movies but actually decided which movies could or could not be released to the public. “We’re sorry, but the public will not be able to see Movie X because it includes an unflattering image of the Oscar statue in one scene. As this violates rule #237 of our license agreement, we rejected the movie.” The public would never stand for this. Yet, this is the equivalent of what Apple is now doing with iPhone apps.

Yes, I know. “It’s Apple’s iPhone and they can do what they want with it. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to buy an iPhone.”

Sorry. I don’t buy that argument — for the same reason I would not support allowing Toyota to block their car owners from installing a Sony audio system. Or allowing Sony to prevent their Blu-ray players from playing movies from Universal Studios. Or any other equally absurd example.

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18 Comments Leave Your Own

daemon

Preach on Ted!

Josh

comparing app store rejections to medical malpractice where some one dies is more than a little hyperbolic.  That you felt the need to make such a rediculous comparison undermines the argument you are trying to make.  I even agree it is an argument worth considering, but having a hard time getting an app approved is nowhere near the same thing as killing a person.

Also, a similar situation for running programs on a closed hardware system already exists.  The video game console market comes to mind.  You need to pay a hell of a lot more money to get the necessary development tools for those.  For most platforms you have even harsher restrictions on what your app can contain (No Nazi symbols in Germany or pornographic images just about anywhere).  [This is probably because the industry is afraid of being prosecuted by those that believe video games are only for children and that any game should be appropriate for a 12year old so that parents don’t have to research which games they buy for their kids.]

Apple is trying to sell a device aimed at everyone.  I’m not saying that the approval process isn’t flawed, but this is not necessarily an all or nothing situation.  They obviously should fix the grossest flaws in their system.  However, a flawed system doesn’t necessarily require such a rash act as approval of everything, or of short circuting their security by allowing alternate distribution methods for apps.

Sounds to me as though you wouldn’t have bothered to post this if you didn’t have an app of your own being rejected.  Besides, why would I want to buy an app that isn’t an app, but is a book?  That has never made sense to me for any books on the app store.

derpassante

Why are we still talking about this?

Ted Landau

comparing app store rejections to medical malpractice…

? As to the medical example: yes, it was extreme. But I still believe the overall point is valid.

? As to game consoles: yes, they have restrictions. But the sense I get is that they do not exercise anywhere near the control that Apple does. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see Grand Theft Auto. Trying to prevent only what might lead to a lawsuit is not what Apple is doing.

? As to my motivation for this column, I assure you it has nothing to do with the Macworld book rejection. The book is not “mine” in any sense. My contribution is minimal. And I make zero money from its sales. If you go back and read several of my older columns, you’ll see that this column is consistent with the position I have taken for quite some time.

Lancashire-Witch

Yes, I know. “It’s Apple’s iPhone and they can do what they want with it. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to buy an iPhone.”

Well said Ted, Here’s my 2 bits - If developers don’t like the App Store Approval process they don’t have to write apps; and clearly some developers are ready to do just that.

If you, or I, don’t like it, as end-customers, then we don’t have to buy an iPhone. But I don’t see that the stupidity of the process as one of the reasons one might have for not buying a phone.

In effect, as an end-user, I don’t care about the process; only the end result. When I go into a restaurant it’s the Menu and the quality of the food and service that matters- it may be hell in the kitchen.

It could be argued that I should care about the process because if it becomes totally intolerable for everyone there won’t be an end result.
No Restaurant. No App Store. I can’t see Apple letting that happen. There must be a cut-off point at which Steve’s voice will clearly be heard above the din in the kitchen. 4% isn’t it. I wonder what it is?

Ted Landau

Why are we still talking about this?

Because the problem remains. It’s the same reason (to use another “extreme” example) we’re still talking about global warming years after the problem first surfaced.

Ted Landau

If you, or I, don?t like it, as end-customers, then we don?t have to buy an iPhone. But I don?t see that the stupidity of the process as one of the reasons one might have for not buying a phone.

Agreed. And, I would add that, just because I decide to buy an iPhone, it doesn’t mean that I have forfeited my right to complain about what I see as wrong with it.

FWIW, I have also often written about what is great with the iPhone (see this recent column for an example.

Josh

Because the problem remains. It?s the same reason (to use another ?extreme? example) we?re still talking about global warming years after the problem first surfaced.

Ah, but the expected effects of global warming effect EVERYONE. 

The problems with the app store approval process, by your own math, only affect 4,000 people/development teams.  As a non-developer who also owns an iPhone, this doesn’t directly affect me although a case could be made for it affecting me indirectly.  3 months ago when I didn’t even own an iPhone this had no possible mechanism for affecting me, directly or otherwise.

Hyperbole never helps bring clarity to a debate, only nit-picking over the appropriateness of the comparison.

Ted Landau

Ah, but the expected effects of global warming effect EVERYONE.?

To the extent that users may want an app that has been rejected, it affects them. It is not just the developers that are the losers here.

derpassante

Ted

Normally I enjoy your comments but your continued complaining about iPhone app approval is annoying for those of us who are users and not developers. 

Quoting Ted “However, I continue to question whether an approval should even be required for an app to be made available.”

This is the crux of the problem.  Apple has full control of approval and distribution of apps for the iPhone.  This is the first time developers for the   Mac platformor other “smart phones” for that matter have had deal with this situation and it obviously chaffs. 

I can only guess why Apple chose this route.  But if I had to guess I would fathom that Apple considers the iPhone an entirely new platform and as such didn’t want to propagate the mistakes made in the early days of personnel computers.  Apple wants to keep it closed so they can keep it safe.  No repeating of the endless viruses and other plagues that Windows OS has had to endure by opening development and distribution of applications to anyone.

Has this caused problems?  Yes.  Do most iPhone users care:  No, I think not.  So save your rants and rationalizations for the developers conference or send Steve Jobs or Phil Shiller and email.  My advise is either accept what Apple had given you or send your complaint to Apple.  These public protests are the wrong forum.  Most of your readers really aren’t interested.

derpassante

Ted

Sorry if my last post seemed too harsh.  I’m under the influence of cold medication smile

Lancashire-Witch

just because I decide to buy an iPhone, it doesn?t mean that I have forfeited my right to complain about what I see as wrong with it.


Yes but.  Your piece isn’t about what’s wrong with the iphone.

The iphone may have issues, but the app approval process isn’t one of them.
2 separate discussions - IMO.

Tiger

Devils Advocate for a second…

96% of the developers have found a way to make an app that meets the requirements and get approval. So what’s the problem with the 4%? They just don’t follow the rules?

I can understand if the rules are confusing, but if so, then the approval rate would look much more like a traditional bell curve. But 96% is a HUGE amount of anecdotal evidence that it’s really not that confusing. And in the time the App Store has been open, 104,000+ apps have been approved with another approximately 4200 that haven’t.

That means there are more approved iPhone apps than there are PC viruses? In one year’s time? Wow!!!!!

Lee Dronick

How many people does Apple have employed vetting iPhone apps? I am wondering if some are interpreting the rules and guidlines much differently than the others. There is a story in the news about a rejected app and then some supervisor takes a look at it at the job and says, “What did you reject that app? It looks fine.” I don’t know that this is the case, I am just speculating.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Any binary filtering process is going to have Type 1 and Type 2 errors. Let’s define the process as accepting acceptable apps, and let’s assume there could be a generally accepted definition of what an acceptable app will be. Apple is going to accept some unacceptable apps (e.g. baby shaker) and Apple is going to reject some very acceptable apps (bobblehead Congresspeople). Apple’s criteria may even be faulty. No ridiculing elected public officials? What is this, China? Free people, left to their own devices, sort this stuff out better by applying numerous filters, some nearly perfectly, others haphazzardly. In a free market with no control choke point, nobody hears about the baby shaker app. Similarly, nobody except those dorks that watch CNN/MSNBC/FNC all day hear about the bobblehead politician app. And nobody except those of us that have ESPN on 24/7 hear about the ESPN app. It’s a much better vision than Apple’s fake digital Disneyland.

AdamC

Remember the financial crisis, it happened because congress and alan greenspan decided to do away with the goalkeeper, they believe they can self regulate. Now you see the mess.

The vetting system should have a committee or what ever to scrutinize each app before it is uploaded to the Appstore. The inconsistency is probably due to a single person who vet and approve and upload the app which means it is arbitrary hence the inconsistency.

I also want them to have a system so there are less whiners and crybabies which give a very bad press to Apple.

Pio

I cannot judge for iPhone (I still have a 6 year old Ericsson…) but as an iPod touch user and frequent App downloader I have 3 points:

1. Apple should make a thorough test of any app submitted and approve only those that are safe for the operation of the device.

2. Opening the platform to outside download and installation (as kan be done with jailbroken devices) would bring problems. Apple can say: “You did not get the app from App Store, so we do not deal with your problem”, but that would be a huge PR debacle.

3. Apple should only check the good functioning of the apps (that it does not crash the device and does not mess with the kernel) and keep its hands out of ethics, good taste or any other subjective judgment

studentx

Your entire article only addresses half of the issue.

The applications you mentioned were rejected based roughly on censorship and trademark issues. These are questionable. While many applications you didn’t mention are rejected for technical reasons, such as using private APIs or runtimes. There are reasonable.

Apple has the right idea. They should have a screening process to maintain the stability and security of the platform. On the other hand I think censorship is a bit ridiculous. As are the trademark issues for obvious reasons. Clearly Apple should have some way for developers to use “iPhone” or iPhone like images in their titles and software.

Like I said, censorship is only half the issue and it’s getting blown way out of proportion.

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