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

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If this count sounds a bit sketchy, it's because it is. In preparing this text, I just discovered that one database at itunesconnect.apple.com tells me that the Gold version of my application was rejected. But the e-mail note I received two days ago just said that it was "requiring unexpected additional time for review." Is it rejected or am I just waiting for the reviewer to come back from a meeting? Other developers confirm that notes like this are the equivalent of a sailor on shore leave in Marseilles saying, "I'll call you."

One of my two applications -- the free version without the new forward -- was accepted and published by the App Store after several months of rejection. I like to think of this as a victory even though the charity version with the new forward was rejected again about the same time. The only difference was an extra block of text. It wasn't even HTML -- just ASCII. Somehow the bouncers patrolling the velvet rope decided that one twin with slightly shaggier hair couldn't join the other at the bar.

[ If not the iPhone, then what? See "How to choose a mobile development platform," "A developer's-eye view of smartphone platforms," and "The cross-platform option: Web apps for smartphones." ]

Even this success has been frustrating for me because some users started complaining about the scrolling mechanism I implemented in JavaScript. I like the idea that a single tap at the top or bottom of the screen sends the HTML scrolling up or down. The problems the new users found never appeared in testing, no doubt because the testers were too familiar with the app. (Remember, ad hoc distribution rules make it onerous to recruit testers.)

There are other problems. If I were distributing the software, I could communicate directly with the customer. The bug reports would come to me. There would be a direct link. Apple, though, controls all of the interaction. Users' complaints show up only in the product reviews. There's a URL for support listed in the store, but Apple owns the customers.

So I guessed a bit, duplicated some of the users' problems, and rushed out a bug fix. There was no need to scramble, though, because the App Store team took about two weeks to approve the dozen or so new lines of code I had added to my application. What was the holdup? Who knows, but users continued to be frustrated, and I couldn't get the new code to them even if I knew who they were. Other developers report the same problems trying to fix bugs.

Even when you seem to be home free, you're not. Two months after the first acceptance and several weeks after approving version 1.0.2, the mysterious masters of secrecy decided there was something very bad in the code. The App Store rejected the app anew. Where it stands now, I don't know.

New and new again
The bottleneck in the approval process is amplified by a weird structural effect the App Store shares with Craigslist. The newest apps get the most play on the front pages of the App Store, so everyone has an incentive to upload a new version as often as possible. It's pretty clear that the iPhone users spend much of their browsing time on the list of the newest applications; getting a new version approved leads to a burst of sales. (Forget about the thesis of "The Long Tail.") Craigslist doesn't bother filtering, but the App Store does, and this just means more work for the bouncers at the door. Everyone is frantically trying to get reapproved, so the workload is endless.

Some developers suggest that the reviewers are delaying approvals to reduce the effects of this clamoring for attention. That is consistent with the way that I often got a rejection notice almost exactly one week after I submit the app. My personal conspiracy theory is the approval team is rated on statistics, such as how many applications are processed within a week of being submitted. But maybe it's something else. We get to know about Dick Cheney's plans at the CIA, but some secrets are better protected.

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