Apple’s App Store Rejections

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.