Bikinis and the App Store Approval Process

Search for the word “bikini” in the iTunes App Store and you’ll come up with a collection of apps that feature photographs of scantily-clad females. You’ll even find a Sports Illustrated SI Swimsuit 2009 app wading into this water.

Almost all of these apps are rated 17+, the most restrictive level of iTunes’ ratings system.* According to Apple’s own description, apps rated 17+ may contain “frequent and intense offensive language” as well as “sexual content” and “nudity.” Don’t believe it! So far, you won’t see anything more extreme than what appears in an SI swimsuit issue. If you were hoping for something akin to NC-17 rated movies, you’ll be disappointed.**

What exactly do these apps do? Most of them amount to little more than a slide show. Personally, I’m not sure what the attraction is here. If all you want are photos of half-naked or even entirely naked people on your iPhone, you have better and cheaper options. For starters, using Safari, you could go to any one of the zillion pornographic sites on the Web, save your “preferred” images to your Camera Roll and create your own custom slide show. The best of the iPhone apps may have “classier” photos, but little else to offer. Maybe that’s enough.

My awareness of all of this began when I happened upon one of these bikini programs while wandering through the App Store. It was Audio Match: Bikini Babes. Attempting to go beyond a mere slide show, this app is a Concentration-style matching game. Your goal is to match different sounds of a female voice (ranging from playful to mildly erotic) so as to reveal one of a dozen photographs of bikini-clad females. When completed, you can save the picture for future viewing.

As a result of a Twitter-exchange, I linked up with Chris Pavlou, the developer of the game. Chris was a Windows and Linux developer before shifting to iPhone development. I was intrigued at the possibility of getting an insider’s look at the iPhone App approval process, especially for an app as “on-the-edge” as Bikini Babes. So I asked if I could interview him for this column. He agreed. Here is an edited and paraphrased version of our conversation:

Did your app get rejected the first time you submitted it?


What sort of feedback did you get from Apple as to why it was rejected?

There was almost no feedback. Their response mainly pointed to a section of the App guidelines where it said that apps should not contain anything “obscene, offensive or pornographic.” According to Apple, my app fell into at least one of those categories. But they did not tell me which one. Was the problem with the sounds or the pictures? Or both? Was it one particular photo or all of them? Was the overall game viewed as offensive or as pornographic? I had no way of knowing.

I wrote back asking for further explanation, but received no reply. I have heard of cases where Apple calls a developer to describe exactly what changes need to be made. But that did not happen to me. All I could do was guess at what changes were required, resubmit the app and hope for the best. It was very frustrating. I began to worry that the game would never be approved.

I am in the process of trying to get another Audio Match game approved (featuring lingerie instead of bikinis). It has been rejected twice already. Somewhat to Apple’s credit, on the second rejection, Apple singled out one photo as an “example” of their objection. But they still offered no explanation as to why it was was objectionable. To me, it seemed no different than the other photos, none of which seem objectionable.

Further, there is no way of knowing whether the cited photograph was the only objectionable one or just the first one that they found. I don’t know if they looked at all the photos or if they stopped looking after finding one they considered objectionable. They did say the picture was an “example” — so there could be more. It all makes it very difficult to figure out what to do next to get your app approved.

So how did you finally get Bikini Babes approved?

First, I enabled a special preview mode for the reviewers. This allowed them to preview all the sounds and pictures without actually having to solve the puzzles. I believe they were worried that, otherwise, there might be some objectionable picture or sound that they did not get to see or hear. I understand this position and the preview mode solved the problem.

I was very reluctant to change any of the photos. I paid a good deal of money for royalty-free access to them. I couldn’t afford to start paying for substitute photos when I didn’t even know if the app would ever get approved.

So I eliminated some of the sounds that I thought might have been a problem. I also changed the suggested rating from 12+ to 17+. Either of these may have done the trick, because it was accepted on the next submission.

However, you never really know what led to a decision. Perhaps a different person reviewed my app on the final submission and they used different criteria than the prior person(s). Or perhaps Apple had modified their internal criteria between my submissions, making it now easier for 17+ apps to get accepted. I just don’t know. I can say that the review criteria does not seem to match the rating system they’ve put in place.***

Clearly you found the approval process less than satisfactory. What would make it better?

Given what a big undertaking the whole iPhone developer program is and how many developers joined the program, Apple is doing a great job managing it. Especially when you consider that the App Store has been up and running for only about a year and how much has happened and changed during that year.

Still, the review process needs some improving. Aside from needing clearer criteria and more useful feedback, as I’ve already said, I’d very much like there to be a way to have content pre-approved. In my case, for example, I’d like to be able to show them proofs of the photos I intended to use, before I had to pay for them, and have Apple tell me if they have any problems with them. That could have saved me a lot of headaches.

The process also takes too long, especially when you get rejected. You may have to wait 2-3 weeks between submissions. And each new submission is like starting completely over. It’s not treated like a follow-up to the previous submission, at least it doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems like you go back to the end of the queue.

Sometimes a problem could be fixed within minutes. If Apple gave the developer a chance to fix it before outright rejecting the app, it would save everybody a lot of time and money. I know of a few cases where they did do this, but I believe it is more common that they do not.

How are the sales of your game going?

Not as good as I would like. It’s hard to get much visibility in the App Store. Within days of Bikini Babes being listed in the Store, the app had moved so far down the list of newly added apps as to have no visibility at all. Some app categories could use sub-categories, especially Entertainment. And all the Top 25, 50 or 100 lists only promote what’s already popular. Same thing with the What’s Hot lists. Unless you get lucky and your app is chosen to be featured.

It’s also hard to charge a decent price for an app. The current system almost forces you to charge next to nothing, the so-called “rush to the bottom.”

Any final comments?

Despite the problems I’ve had, I have to say that writing for the iPhone is still a good overall experience. Apple has been especially great at providing a set of developer tools that make it as easy as possible to write apps. And the developer community is generally good at helping with all kinds of questions. I try to help out myself when I can. So the development process is pretty straight forward. But getting your app approved and noticed is very challenging.


*New in iPhone OS 3.0, you can use iTunes ratings to limit what apps may be downloaded to an iPhone. To set a restriction, tap Settings > General > Restrictions > Enable Restrictions. Then tap Apps from the Allowed Content section to select from the available options.

** The content of many 17+ rated apps does not even come close to the definition of the rating. For example, Instapaper is an app that allows you to “save Web pages for later offline reading.” It has a 17+ rating. Why? Apparently because, by Apple’s standards, any app that links to the Web requires a 17+ rating. To me, this pretty much shreds the usefulness of the entire ratings system.

*** As one example, the ratings system specifically says that 17+ apps may contain “offensive language.” The iPhone SDK agreement, however, states that an app must not contain anything “offensive.” Which is it?