The App Store: I suggest a new strategy…

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

There's a scene in the original Star Wars, where R2-D2 and Chewbacca are playing a game. R2-D2 is clearly ahead. At one point, noticing Chewbacca's increasing frustration, C-3PO turns to R2-D2 and says: "I suggest a new strategy...let the wookie win."

That pretty much amounts to my advice to Apple regarding the iPhone and the App Store. Except instead of "wookie," substitute "iPhone users and developers."

Regular readers of my columns will not be surprised by the position I am taking here. In my most recent two articles, I've written about my dismay with Apple's "closed door" iPhone policies and about Apple's secretive and seemingly arbitrary approval process for apps.

As time goes on, the situation only seems to get worse. The most recent controversy concerns Apple's rejection of Google Voice for the iPhone. The fallout here was compounded by Apple subsequently yanking several related voice apps (such as VoiceCentral) from the App Store, despite their prior approval. The primary force behind the Google Voice rejection appeared to be AT&T, concerned about possible competition from the app.

One immediately odd aspect of all of this is that AT&T permits a Google Voice app on its own Blackberry smartphones. Apparently, if AT&T has a problem with Google Voice, it is restricted to the iPhone. This peculiarity may be due to Apple, which I suspect supported banning Google Voice as much as AT&T. It all may be related to the fact that iPhone owners are notorious for actually using features that lie relatively fallow on other smartphones.

Regardless, the situation has now gotten so bad that the FCC is investigating Apple's behavior, questioning the legitimacy of the iPhone's entire approval process.

The truth is that Apple has no clearly defined iPhone app approval process. Regardless of what rules and regulations may be spelled out in the SDK agreement, the truth is that developers too often wind up with no idea why an app was rejected or what changes are needed to get a subsequent approval. This leads to a lot of wasted time and unnecessary financial burden for developers, as I described in my interview with Chris Pavlou (developer of Bikini Babes) and was also detailed by Kevin Duerr (developer of VoiceCentral).

A statistical digression

Part of the problem here may be that the approval process has become too much for Apple to handle adequately. To see why this may be so, consider the following:

I don't know how many full-time employees Apple has working on App Store approvals. I'm going to take a wild guess and say five. Assuming this is correct, let's further assume that each person works 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year. That's a grand total of 5 x 40 x 50 = 10,000 hours of work per year.

Apple has declared that, at the end of its first year of existence, "the App Store is growing at an incredible pace with more than 65,000 apps..."

So, let's see...if we divide 10,000 hours by 65,000 apps we get about 9.25 minutes. On average, this is the entire amount of time that an employee can spend deciding whether or not to approve a particular app. This includes not only the initial evaluation, but any further time needed to deal with resubmissions, developer requests and so on.

Yes, if it turns out that Apple has more than 5 employees on this task, the allotted time increases. On the other hand, Apple's prediction is that the pace of new submissions will go up this year, making matters worse.

Whatever the specifics, I believe it is safe to assume that Apple is not devoting the resources necessary to give each app submission the time that it deserves.

A modest proposal

So what's the solution? I have a suggestion. I admit it will cost Apple some money in the short run. And Apple obviously won't like it. But I think it can pay dividends for the future of the iPhone platform.

My suggestion is to treat apps on the iPhone the same way that Apple now treats music and video. With music and video, you can download items from the iTunes Store. Or you can add your own media — acquired via CDs, DVDs or Internet downloads. It's your choice. Apple does not censor, restrict, or require an approval process for items you add from outside of the Store. What external media you put on your iPhone or iPod touch is entirely up to you.

Despite this openness, the iTunes Store does quite well. In fact, it is now the number one music retailer in the world. Clearly, Apple can compete in this arena without forcing people to use the iTunes Store.

So why not open up iPhone apps in the same way? Keep the App Store. Apple can even keep its wacky approval process if it prefers. This would still leave its existing irritations for those who choose to go through the Store. But, for those who want software that Apple does not approve, or who simply want to bypass the App Store for whatever reason, there would at least be an alternative.

If Apple did agree to this, they would probably want to keep these independent apps in a sandbox on the iPhone, separate from the location of App Store apps. That's okay. This, in turn, should allow them to impose a few "essential" restrictions. For example, I could see where they might want to prohibit external software from having access to AT&T's data networks, forcing the apps to connect to the Internet only via Wi-Fi (an iPhone-only restriction, as the iPod touch is already limited just to Wi-Fi). I could live with this. It would still open things up far more than what exists now. And it would greatly reduce the heat currently being generated by user complaints, developer frustration and an impending FCC investigation.

A few problems would remain to be worked out. The biggest one would be how to block apps that attempt to undermine the even minimal rules that Apple puts in place. But I am optimistic that a solution could be found.

Whatever sales revenue Apple might lose, it would hopefully gain back via the increased popularity of the iPhone itself over the long haul. Unfortunately, I suspect Apple is more concerned about its loss of control than a potential loss of revenue. Apple has clearly shown that it will fight any attempt to open up the iPhone. As such, I don't really expect Apple to follow my suggestion here. Still, I believe Apple will eventually have to do something to address the growing problems with the App Store. Why not try a new strategy? Maybe we can all win.

Comments

Tiger

You say the app store has a growing problem, but clearly you demonstrate that it is the App Store that is indeed growing. 65,000 apps in a year? Yet from how many of them is there actually a penny to be made? Maybe, just maybe, Apple is a LOT hesitant to open up the iPhone to apps that actually LOSE money for the company favoring those that instead either hold status quo or actually earn them pennies.

If developers have found a way to work within the system to get 65,000 apps approved, there surely is a successful formula and/or process for doing so.

It’s just that some people do not seem to like it. And apparently they have found sympathetic ears at the FCC.

Robert

What a nightmare of an idea!! Your article sounds like a theoretical concept discussion NOT how to run a business. Short run or Long run it makes no sense for a device that requires monitoring to run smoothly.

Josh

This is a case of a vocal handful getting the spotlight as though they were the majority.  The fact that Ted has interviewed one of those with an app recently pulled explains why it seems like such a huge issue to him.  Every issue becomes more real and important when someone you know is directly effected.

However, I do agree that they should outline their approval process and guidelines more clearly.  That doesn’t mean I think they should go all wild west and approve everything, or let unvetted apps be installed ala jailbreaking.  It just means that the small vocal handful that are either pushing the boundries of decency, or are moving in on “core functionality” would have less of an excuse to scream “Foul!” when their app is rejected.  It would lower the risk taken by developers. 

On the other hand, the apparently cappricious nature of the approval process is no longer a secret, and if you are developing for the iPhone now, you probably have known for a while that you could get caught without an explanation and decided to proceed anyway.

Lee Dronick

This is a case of a vocal handful getting the spotlight as though they were the majority.

Sounds like the jailbreakers.

However, I do agree that they should outline their approval process and guidelines more clearly.

That maybe a moving target, developers are coming with all sort of apps that may not have been in the plan. I wonder if Apple anticipated the App Store getting as big and as fast as it did. Maybe they do need some more people working on vetting the apps

daemon

Considering developers are universally frustrated with Apple’s app approval process, I wouldn’t say it’s just a “vocal few.”

Robert

I do agree that they should outline their approval process and guidelines more clearly.? That doesn?t mean I think they should go all wild west and approve everything, or let unvetted apps be installed ala jailbreaking.

Yes, I could not say it better. They need to get this process down and detailed, learn from their mistakes, and speak to all users about the corrections they are making to the App Review process. The verdict is still out on who is behind the recent app removals, but it will get resolved. I’m not an Apple fanboy, but I have to say I think Apple does the right thing by their customer more often than not. For example, the MobileMe fiasco where they owned up to the issues and problems and gave people credits to their accounts.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

As long as Apple puts itself between developers and users, it deserves all the grief it gets. Ted, I think your numbers are wrong. They charge $99/app, and I’d assume that reflects their marginal cost per app within a factor of 2 or so. It was probably a loss leader at first, but profitable now that they have scale. And a Magic 8 Ball app for iPhone. “Should we approve this app?” “My sources say no.”

Lancashire-Witch

That’s right - it’s a statistical digression.
I don’t think this is a resourcing or efficiency issue. It doesn’t matter how many “mythical man hours” are devoted to the app approval process. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a developer say that not enough time was spent on approving (or rejecting) their app. Who knows how many minutes are spent on each app. There could be huge variability making the average 9.25 minutes meaningless.  Adding more labour may reduce the queue time - and that is a problem that I have heard developers mention - but this issue this is not about process or Apple’s handle on Capacity Planning.

It’s about policy.
Changing the process to operate more like the media process so that the current policy no longer applies is unnecessary.

Just change the policy - easy! Isn’t it?

Well it would be if there were not two policies - one public - and the real, secret, one (henceforth known as the “Magic 8 Ball”)

Tony

Aside from the fact that I am a big SW fan, I’d have to agree with Ted that a new strategy makes some sense. Obviously, its Apple’s product and they can do what they want with it, limit what goes on it, and charge whatever they’d like. Buying the 1st gen iPhone has taught me some of that. But the sandbox and limiting data networks would protect the iPhone’s OS, prevent the app from hogging the empire’s data network and give the user the ability to do things with their iPhones that currently they can’t do. That seemingly would make all parties happy, including developers. I believe if Apple can live with Windows on their hardware by sticking them in their own boot disk, or containing them in their own app, why not have the same policy with the iPhone? Cause we certainly know that users have learned to break their iPhones out of jail and make it theirs. Why not keep some of those users with the ability to do some of those things in a sandbox, and still have them tied to the app store. Apple may make a penny or two at the same time. its just “i have a bad feeling about this” if they maintain their current approval process and closed platform. ‘Nuff said.

Patrick

Bosco - Apple charges $99 to submit an app? That’s news to me, and I’ve got seven apps on the App Store.

Lee Dronick

Apple charges $99 to submit an app? That?s news to me, and I?ve got seven apps on the App Store.

Isn’t it just $99 to become an iPhone app developer?

Lancashire-Witch

Now we know.

It’s more than 40 people.  And 2 on each app.  And an exec review board for the really difficult ones

It’s not 9 minutes -  but it’s not more than a day per app. Which means each app spends over 13 days just waiting in a queue.

And its not 65,000 a year - it’s more like 400,000

Over to you Ted to work it all out again….

Ted Landau

Over to you Ted to work it all out again?.

I haven’t had a chance to do the new calculations. But Adam Engst already gave it a whirl (http://db.tidbits.com/article/10497) and concluded that the time per app is even less than I had speculated here.

You might also want to check out my comments at the end of this article: http://www.ipodobserver.com/ipo/article/apple_we_control_iphone_app_approval_not_att/

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