Are Apple's App Store policies ruining everything?

Many iPhone developers are worked up over Apple's application review process. It's not perfect, but it's there for a reason

There's been much ado lately about Apple's App Store policies stifling development and hurting coders. The main problems seem to be the long acceptance process and Apple's self-appointed right to deny an application that isn't in its best interests.

The concerns presented by Facebook app developer Joe Hewitt are real, but I simply cannot agree with his statement that "the review process needs to be eliminated completely." If this were a perfect world where you could trust anyone, I might buy into it. But in the world we live in, there are very good reasons why Apple has a team of 40 or so employees to test and vet every application that appears in the store.

[ You can still get iPhone apps that Apple hates; see 21 apps Apple doesn't want on your iPhone | Also on InfoWorld, go behind the Apple App Store roulette in one developer's story of attempting to code for the iPhone ]

We're not talking about computers here. We're talking about phones: devices that need to be stable, responsive, and functional no matter what -- and run on a network that soaks you if you exceed your allotted minutes or the number of text messages sent. We're also talking about Apple, a company that goes to great pains to ensure quality control over the user experience. I'd be very upset if I downloaded an application that caused my phone to crash constantly or otherwise compromised the core functionality of the device. In contrast, I've already found several applications in the Android Market that either don't function properly or crash frequently.

With the huge success of the iPhone, it's a no-brainer that some miscreants would like nothing more than to upset that apple cart, and distributing malware would be a quick and easy way to achieve that goal. I'm more than willing to accept reasonable delays in application approval in exchange for not having such a worry.

If there were no review process, it would be trivial to upload a seemingly benign application that sends several thousand text messages; calls Honduras; or sends your contact list, pictures, and voice recordings to a server in the Seychelles. If it was a popular application and hid its dark side well, it would be a disaster for Apple and all those affected. I don't buy the argument that this could not occur due to the sandboxed nature of iPhone apps. No OS is 100 percent secure -- just ask Microsoft.

But Hewitt's complaints do have some resonance. Developing an application for the iPhone or iPod Touch is arguably the easy part of the process. Once the app is functional, it must run through the gauntlet of acceptance, which can take weeks. Even updates to existing applications must pass through this screening, which can be extremely frustrating.

Hewitt also makes a valid point that Apple is not just concerned with proper application function, but also with potential harm to its interests. Clearly, Google Voice was pulled because AT&T was threatened by the service. Apple has denied or pulled other applications for similar reasons. Those actions artificially restrict the use of a device that I own.

There are alternatives. For those who like to color outside the lines, the vibrant iPhone jailbreak community has developed tools that enable even a five-year-old to jailbreak an iPhone and run whatever apps her little heart desires. There are applications available via Cydia and other unofficial application managers that absolutely should be in the App Store, but aren't. Of course, many buggy and poorly functioning apps haunt these channels as well, so buyer beware.

The bottom line is that Apple's control over the App Store isn't as bad as it seems. The company is acting like a benevolent dictator over its creation and will continue to succeed in the market as long as it refrains from overstepping its bounds. If Apple does go too far, users will look elsewhere for their phones or to third parties for their applications.

As John Gilmore said, "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." That can happen to Apple, too.

This story, "Are Apple's App Store policies ruining everything?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile, Apple's App Store, and the iPhone at InfoWorld.com.