Apple's App Store ayatollahs

Apple is quick to ban controversial content, but slow to post bug fixes on its iPhone App Store

It's OK to post an iPhone app that guides users to (legal) marijuana suppliers, but it's not OK to post a goofy little app that turns the iPhone into a simulated pot pipe. What's the difference? Beats me, but it's becoming clearer and clearer that Apple's App Store ayatollahs are way too heavy handed and need to lighten up. They are hurting consumers, developers, and ultimately, the company they're supposed to protect.

By itself, the fate of Bong is not a big deal, obviously. But Apple's heavy-handed management of the App Store is. Back in July, Apple pushed the reject button on a series of Google Voice-related apps for the iPhone. (Apple claims it didn't reject them, just that is has not accepted them as yet. I don't see a real difference.) And just as egregious is the failure of Apple to come up with a procedure that allows developer's to fix and replace buggy code in their apps in a timely manner.

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

Bug fixes? We don't need no stinking bug fixes
In the last few weeks I've spoken to nearly a dozen developers who complained about the bug-fix problem. I'm going to withhold their names because they fear retaliation from the Apple ayatollahs.

The stories I heard are all pretty similar. You spend weeks sweating through Apple's initial approval process, which can take many weeks. Sure, developers would like to get approval faster, but most understand that Apple does need to screen apps, particularly for technical flaws that could freeze the iPhone or impair battery life. It's a matter of protecting the iPhone brand, which has become one of Apple's crown jewels. And to be fair, the App Store already has more than 65,000 apps, so the volume of work is staggering.

But what developers don't understand is why Apple makes them go through a process that can be every bit as lengthy when it comes time to stamp out a bug or a misbehaving function. Most developers take a lot of pride in their work, and those in the mobile space are particularly interested in moving quickly. It is after all, the fastest-moving market we've ever seen.

Said one App Store developer: "I can turn around a fix in an hour. But I've got to wait for weeks to get approval to post it. Why doesn't Apple trust me?" Good question. Once an app has been approved, Apple must know that the developer in question is responsible. It doesn't do him or her any good to foist off junk on the customers.

Here's another idea: Develop some sort of autodetection that would pick up critical errors and disable the app. Indeed, that's exactly what the crew at Rock Your Phone, an independent app store, did. Built into their platform is a bit of code that detects errors, warns users, and gives them the option to disable the offending application. What's more, it sends a notification to the Rock Your Phone servers. If the error seems serious, says founder Mario Ciabarra, "we pressure the developer and can generally turn a fix around in an hour." If a little shop like Ciabarra's can do that, why can't Apple?

Ciabarra, by the way, was the founder of a software company named Devstream that he sold to Compuware a few years ago for serious money. I only mention that to show that he has some real developer chops and is serious about business.

Apple's Kafkaesque approval process
Flux Visual's Jason Snell thought it would be cool to build an app that mimics a tobacco-burning hookah. But then he read about an app on the App Store called Cannabis, which as the name implies, is about marijuana. Among other features, it helps users find information on how to legally obtain medical marijuana.

So he recrafted the hookah app to make the iPhone mimic a bong. You tap the app to fill the virtual bowl with leaves, drag a match to it, blow on the microphone to inhale or exhale, and get whatever satisfaction virtual weed provides.

Nope, said the Apple ayatollahs; it doesn't meet our standards. So Snell went back to the tobacco idea, resubmitted, and got the same answer: objectionable content. As Snell puts it, "How can I meet standards if I don't know what they are? It's like Kafka's trial." (If you're interested, you can buy Bong for 99 cents on at Rock Your Phone.)

I'm not arguing for or against marijuana or tobacco. But given that the iPhone 3.0 OS contains a rating system, what's the point of banning a harmless little app with an arbitrary set of standards that seems designed to trip up developers?

Again, there's a larger issue here that speaks to both Apple's approval process and, in the case of the Google Voice brouhaha, the retrograde influence on the iPhone of AT&T's stunted 3G network and avaricious business practices. As a colleague pointed out in July, Google Voice gives users a powerful set of phone tools, including free text messaging and enhanced voice mail. These tools overlap with built-in services that Apple and/or AT&T want you to use.

If that's the case, and I bet it is, why don't the Apple ayatollahs just come out and say what the standards really are, instead of stonewalling behind a ubiquitous reply of "no comment"?

That would be even more refreshing than a hit on a virtual pipe.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Reach me at

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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