The App Store: I suggest a new strategy...

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.