iPhone App Store roulette: A tale of rejection

Apple's random rules for iPhone app approval are a recipe for trivial apps and alienated developers

Think back to May 26, 1995. Steve Jobs was wandering in the desert, fiddling with some company called Pixar that made animated movies of dancing desk lamps, and planning his next step for NeXT. Bill Gates ruled the computing world and wrote a famous memo announcing that Microsoft was falling terribly behind in dominating the Internet, which Gates was sure to be a "tidal wave." Microsoft control was slipping and he could feel it.

My brain keeps returning to the moment in time when Gates recognized the difficulty in controlling the creative impulses of the world -- because I've been twiddling my thumbs waiting for Apple to approve my iPhone App version of my book, "Free for All."

[ There are many worthwhile productivity apps you won't find at the App Store. See "21 apps Apple doesn't want on your iPhone." ]

A long time ago in March, I hatched a simple plan. I would dump the raw text of my book on the open source movement into HTML, render the HTML on the iPhone screen, and give away copies. Just for grins, I would also write a new forward to the book, call it the Gold version, charge $1 per copy, and give all of the revenues to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a charity that seems as deserving as any these days.

It was an easy idea that didn't require understanding much about the trickier parts of the iPhone API, like the accelerometer or the camera. All it takes is a few calls to a UIWebView object, a part of the iPhone OS that implements the WebKit HTML rendering engine. Boom -- it's done.

The programming for this plan was very simple, but the distribution has been nearly impossible. Apple's App Store is the only way to share your applications with the world, and it is lorded over by an inscrutable team of guardians devoted to maintaining control over the platform. During the last four months I've spent little time working on the application itself and almost all of that time waiting for Apple to respond.

A man, a plan, an App Store
It is possible to skip the App Store if you want to give your application to a friend, but even this requires getting Apple to sign off on the transfer. The iPhone wants to see a cryptographically signed note from its mother before firing up any binary code. The ad hoc distribution mechanism puts a strict limit on 100 copies and enforces this by requiring a copy of each iPhone's unique identification code to be bundled with the digital signature. Anyone who thought that cryptography was going to liberate the world was sadly mistaken.

There's also an Enterprise plan that might help companies, but it's just a Web site designed to work around the same basic limitation: iPhones won't do something unless Apple allows it. In addition, there are a number of very talented people devoted to cracking the iPhone's security layer and taking complete control of the iPhone, a process they call "jailbreaking," but that option isn't practical for most users or most developers.

So everyone is stuck with the App Store. In the last three months I've submitted slightly different versions of my book reader to Apple close to a dozen times, but the code has been approved only twice.

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