Concerns about “App Store Review Guidelines”

Apple today announced the release of its “App Store Review Guidelines.” From one perspective, this is a dramatic and welcome shift in Apple’s policy — signaling a new “transparency” in Apple’s approval process. From another, it changes almost nothing. It’s still “business as usual,” except that Apple is now more open about its lack of openness.

The dilemma

In the past, developers have too often been frustrated by rejection of an app for reasons that were never adequately explained or anticipated.

Consider the dilemma that confronts developers: They have no idea whether or not their app will be rejected until after they submit it. In order to submit an app, they first have to complete it. In order to complete an app, they have to invest a significant amount of resources (time and money). If the app is ultimately rejected, the time and money invested in the app is potentially down the drain. Other than offering the app via “jailbreak” stores, there is no alternative for getting it on an iOS device.

There is almost nothing comparable to this in other environments. For example, book authors typically don’t tackle a project without getting assurance from a publisher (usually in the form of an advance) that their work will be compensated. In the world of Mac OS X software, you don’t get an advance, but you can publish your program without needing approval from Apple or anyone else.

Anything that helps developers avoid this dilemma is certainly welcome. And the new Guidelines do help. However, it’s no panacea and I find aspects of it to be troubling.

The document

The Guidelines document is divided into two main sections. The first section is an Introduction. The second section is a detailed itemized list of what to avoid if you don’t want your app rejected — from what not to do with Push Notifications to what levels of violence are unacceptable in an app.

For the most part, the list offers useful policy statements. There are a few oddities however.

For example, one item says: “Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary.” Does this mean that “amateur” satirists are not exempt? I assume so, although it is not clear to me how one defines “professional” vs. “amateur” here. Apparently, Apple defines it however it wishes.

Another item states: “Apps that exhibit bugs will be rejected.” I am sure this item is well-intentioned. Ideally, it should keep buggy half-finished apps out of the App Store.  Still, when I consider all the apps that have been updated to “fix bugs,” this clause could probably be used to reject virtually every app currently in the App Store. Apple has a lot of latitude here.

Still, having this list is much better than having no list at all.

My concerns focus more on the Introduction, which summarizes the “broader themes” of the Guidelines and which may ultimately be more revealing as to how Apple views the entire document. From the tone of the Introduction, I suspect it was written by Steve Jobs himself. I can’t imagine anyone else getting away with saying “We don’t need any more Fart apps.” But who knows. In any case, to me, the ultimate message of the Introduction is a disturbing one. To explain why, I list each item (as cited from a ZDNet article) followed by my comments:

• We have lots of kids downloading lots of apps, and parental controls don’t work unless the parents set them up (many don’t). So know that we’re keeping an eye out for the kids.

In other words, the presence of Parental Controls is meaningless as a defense for a rejected app. At one time, I had hoped that Apple would would make meaningful use of its 17+ rating. Apps given this rating could then contain content not appropriate for children. It would be up to parents to enforce the restriction via Parental Controls. Sadly, this is not the case. Essentially, this item implies that, unless an app is thematically acceptable for an 8-year-old to view, don’t expect to see it in the App Store.

• We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.

I applaud the intent of this item. I agree that we don’t need any more Fart apps. Even one is one too many for me. Still, I am concerned about the words “useful” and “lasting entertainment.” Who gets to define this? Hint: It’s not you or me. What if I think something is useful, but Apple does not? This item could ultimately be used to justify rejecting almost anything.

• If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.

Again, I applaud the intent here. I don’t want “practice apps” in the Store. But once again, I wonder about the basis used to define terms — in this case, “amateur hour.” I have some concern that this may be used to favor apps by large companies over similar, but less “professional” apps by smaller developers. I hope not.

• We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

This item is particularly disturbing. The basis for going “over the line” is to “know it when you cross it”? I’m sorry but I don’t find that helpful at all. To me, this simply encourages self-censorship and a lack of risk-taking. I imagine most developers will react to this by saying: “To avoid rejection of my app, I will stay as far away from the ‘line’ as possible.” Any app that might have gotten close to the line, but not crossed it, will never be submitted in the first place.

• If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.

Whoa! I view this almost as a form of intimidation. In my opinion, Apple is threatening developers here. While the actual text says “it never helps,” the not-so-hidden subtext is: “If you go to the press, we may retaliate by never accepting your app no matter how you revise it.” This coerces developers to become complicit in Apple’s desire to maintain secrecy regarding the approval process.

I’m not suggesting that it is wise for developers to run to the press after each and every rejection. But sometimes it is appropriate. Developers and Apple are not “partners.” It’s not a “partnership” when one side has all the power and rejections are given with no explanation.

• This is a living document, and new apps presenting new questions may result in new rules at any time. Perhaps your app will trigger this.

Put another way, this can be read as: “Even if your app doesn’t violate any of the rules in the Guidelines, we may make up a new rule just for your app and reject your app on that basis.” Nice.

Bottom line

As I look over the Guidelines, it becomes clear that very little may have ultimately changed. Yes, Apple has provided specifics that will help developers avoid wasting resources on an app that would ultimately be rejected. However, the Guidelines will likely have little effect on the sorts of apps whose rejections led to controversies over the past years. Apple is still able to reject apps for almost any reason it wishes and still provide no feedback to the developer as to why a rejection occurred.