8 rules users should insist on for quality iPhone apps

Apple should tighten, not loosen, its App Store criteria and keep the App Store way ahead of all the wannabes. These developer rules help do the trick

Apple's taken some heat for setting the bar too high for admission to its iPhone App Store, as well as for making the App Store the exclusive source for downloadable software. The fact that Apple is judging quality and safety at all, instead of just providing an online catalog, is being swung as a marketing hook for mobile platforms that fancy themselves more open, but a cynic would wonder whether they're really tearing down the empire that they simply didn't think to build first.

The App Store is transforming the way software is conceived, developed, sold, and supported, and this high-margin, low-effort, iTunes-inspired model that favors selling lots of cheap apps over a few costly ones will spread. But even when the day comes that the App Store is no longer unique in concept or penetration, the standards to which Apple holds its App Store contenders will set it, and the iPhone platform, apart. Apple signs off on everything the App Store sells for security and compatibility. The App Store isn't just 50,000 apps; it's 50,000 apps that work on your phone and don't ship your contacts to a .ru site. That continuous, voluminous vetting is heavier lifting than any of Apple's competitors is willing to commit to. That's why there's no genuine App Store rival yet.

[ InfoWorld's Bill Snyder argues that Apple's control-freak tendencies are out of hand at the App Store -- and good for no one. | Discover the 21 apps that Apple doesn't want on your iPhone. Get the best iPhone apps for business and IT in InfoWorld's iPhone apps finder. ]

As an iPhone user, I don't want Apple to back off its standards. Where money is involved, I not only want Apple's strict App Store standards to stay in place, I want to raise the bar by demanding guidelines that reflect the pivotal role that a mobile device, which is inseparable from its applications, plays in modern life and work.

To that end, I humbly present "New Rules for App Store Developers." Freeware, games, flashlights, and trial balloons are exempt, although all my rules are easily within the reach of even a one-person iPhone development shop (which also describes me).

Rule 1: Stick to the UI style guide. This rule really clotheslines newcomers to mobile software and coders hurriedly porting from other platforms whose apps assume pointing devices, hardware buttons, or real keyboards. Apple can't reject software that needlessly utilize user-drawn buttons or low-res bitmapped graphics, or that ignores iPhone standard gestures beyond tap. But I can. I know that apps that veer from Apple's style guide break accessibility and blunt Apple's ability to increase an app's functionality by updating its frameworks.

Rule 2: Read user comments regularly, even the ugly ones. The bug list for your current release, buyers' wish lists for the next, and all your competitive disadvantages are in the comments. The commentary signal-to-noise ratio varies -- if Apple moderates comments, it uses very lax standards -- but when users see a developer routinely transform their sensible wishes into features, they become more devoted, vocal, and forgiving.

Rule 3: If you harbor the stereotype that iPhone users are all English-speaking, city-dwelling Mensa members under 30, please step aside; you are not the next App Store millionaire. Before you slap a price on your app, use up all of your free licenses to make sure it is spread to as diverse a group of private, external testers as possible, or at least test in a variety of suboptimal scenarios. The breadth of your take on the term "diverse" as it applies to users is a measure of your app's potential.

Rule 4: If your app wants permission to use iPhone notifications, present an airtight case for it or expect to be turned away. iPhone users should understand that permitting notification in apps that don't clearly explain and limit its use is like opting in for junk SMS or IM, only worse. When you grant notification rights, a vendor can interrupt what you're doing to pop up a text box, pop up a modal dialog box that requires a response (thereby hijacking the touchscreen from your foreground app), or play an audio clip. iPhone notifications will be hailed as a green field for opportunistic marketing, but I'm not worried about protecting users. After all, the mechanism that most iPhone users will choose for opting out of inappropriate, intrusive notifications is to uninstall the app that's causing them, an action that immediately severs the app vendor's notification link to the user.

Rule 5: Respect "free." Nothing is a bigger turnoff than downloading something advertised as freeware but that turns out to be adware, trialware, nagware, or is in some other way wired to wringing money from a $0 download. If users are willing to put up with adware or its variations, they might just pay for your app, and that's the better way to make money. A newer category of price abuse that I call "mallware" distributes deceptively priced apps that are next to useless until multiple in-app purchases are made. I'm not saying these aren't legit ways to make money. Just don't call any of them freeware.

Rule 6: Please don't use the shake gesture to erase, delete, or clear anything unless you give me a way to disable it. I've discovered that walking, waving "hi," tossing my backpack into the car, having too much caffeine, and driving over a speed bump are among the more reliable shake triggers. When I actually try to shake, it seldom works.

Rule 7: Don't pass the baton to Safari without warning me first. If I tap Help or any other button or hyperlink in your app, you can be sure that I did not intend for your native app to quit and be replaced by a browser session that offers no way to return to the task with which I wanted assistance. Of course, you already persist the full application state on exit and restore in on launch so that I can pick up where I left off, right?

Rule 8: Support inverted portrait mode. An undocked, resting iPhone may find itself in cup holders, center consoles, car door shelves, or shirt or jacket pockets. These venues call for inverted portrait mode, with the loudspeaker and microphone at the top. You can actually hear a podcast or driving directions, and (gasp) use the iPhone as a speakerphone while driving, and you can turn the ringer down to a discreet level. Unfortunately, this is the only rotation angle not supported in Safari and most other angle-agnostic apps. You can see inverted portrait mode in action in Voice Recorder. Pointing the mic toward your mouth makes a world of difference.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.