The Secret World of Apps

Apple’s approval process is a long journey for developers—and that’s how Steve Jobs likes it

Last week, Apple went to Washington, D.C., to answer questions from U.S. lawmakers about consumer privacy in the mobile marketplace. The visit was triggered by the discovery that Apple’s iPads and iPhones tracked and kept users’ locations for up to a year, creating a step-by-step picture of users’ movements. For some, the company’s renowned “1984” commercial, warning of a Big Brother-like future, took on an ironic twist.

Apple’s partners can also find the company, with its opaque business practices—and with CEO Steve Jobs in the role of supreme leader—uncomfortably like a Soviet-styled bureaucracy. Few know this better than app developers, especially publishers, given the stranglehold Apple has on magazines with its In-App-only subscription requirement—publishers, by the way, that know better than to get on Jobs’ bad side. One Condé Nast magazine that is about to launch its app, for instance, has decided not to do a piece that might potentially offend him.

But while major companies like Condé Nast and Hearst, after much haggling with Apple’s vice president of Internet services, Eddy Cue, are slowly making their iPad subscription deals, thousands of other app developers looking to get into the iTunes store continue to have a far more complicated time of it, grappling with inconsistencies that have dogged content producers since the app store opened in 2008, and which are only getting more confounding.

The latest Apple move to perplex developers: the seemingly capricious rules surrounding a lucrative practice called “incentivized app downloads.”

Indeed, the only thing clear about the entire approval process is it could have its own story line in Terry Gilliam’s surreal, futuristic world of Brazil. Some apps, for instance, are accepted only to be rejected down the line (such as this spring’s high-profile switcheroo on the anti-homosexual Exodus International utility), while others are shot down without any acceptable explanation (e.g., the recent case of Tawkon, which measures the radiation being emitted by a cell phone).

Now, some app developers are even giving up on Apple altogether. Jason Wong, head of San Francisco startup i5labs, is among them, telling Adweek that while his app, zing!—which made it into the iTunes store—is up for renewal, he’s moving on.

“Knowing what we’d heard from blogs about Apple’s review policies, we knew it was their way, or the highway,” Wong says, but now that the process has been thrown into stark relief, he adds, i5labs has decided to take its app elsewhere.

The i5labs-created app lets users share whether they’d gotten “lucky” the night before. Its buttons included an evil laugh and a Windows-like blue screen of death for total failure, and Wong thought that the fun, barely racy content would be a slam dunk. He imagined himself vying for a slice of a fast-growing business that so far has paid developers more than $2 billion in download fees, according to Apple, a number analyst firm iSuppli projects will grow another 63 percent by year’s end. (The global app market, predicts Forrester Research, will hit $38 billion by 2015.)

He thought wrong. He signed up for Apple’s developer program (cost: $99 per year), read its guidelines, filled out the proper, lengthy forms, uploaded the app to the review site, and waited the expected week or so (which can extend, say developers, to months) to hear whether it was approved.

 

But then the problems started. Rejections were delivered in a string of emails from anonymous emailer(s) at appreview@apple.com, which detailed piecemeal the app’s infractions, as if each successive “problem” had not been included in the original application. 

They included the use of Dick Cheney’s image for the laugh (Apple says it does not publish content “that ridicules public figures,” despite other apps, such as one from Mad magazine, also containing political caricatures), and the blue screen of death, because users might think their iPhones had failed (a not uncommon reason for rejection).

Each issue was “fixed” (Cheney was axed, for instance, and, after more rejections, the death screen was replaced with a screaming robot), and the app finally made it to Apple’s promised land. But don’t look for zing! on iTunes. A wrung-out Wong says he won’t spend another $99 to renew the app—and risk, he says, another round of rejection letters.

“It’s really frustrating,” says another app developer, whose utility—a social network for parents with little kids—recently made it through the process. “You keep getting rejected, but you don’t know why. And there’s no transparency as to where you are in the process. They put you in a long line to get approval, but you don’t know how long or short that line is, and don’t even know if you’re pending review until there’s a change in status online. It’s typical of Apple—the process is siloed; there are a lot of walled gardens, and it doesn’t seem that the people in one stage know what goes on in the others.”

“Apple is like the great Wizard of Oz,” noted one attendee at last month’s AppNation conference in San Francisco, who asked his name not be used. 

(Several people interviewed for this article requested anonymity so as not to upset the Apple cart). He explains once a developer submits an app, it can take months “to find out if you offended someone over there.”

Additionally, the online forms change constantly—sometimes month to month, say developers—and without warning. 

While there have been many complaints about rejections involving Apple’s famously prudish “appropriate” standards, or about what happens when developers wander into politically tetchy territory, even those issues seem to pale besides the growing number of Apple’s inconsistent and somewhat random rejections, many of which seemingly have more to do with public opinion (read: who can yell loudest) than it does with the company’s actual guidelines.

Mad, for instance, is hardly the only publisher to find itself the exception when it comes to making fun of public figures. News-Toons, the app from cartoonist Mark Fiore, was rejected only to be accepted after he won a Pulitzer Prize (and a barrage of criticism and news stories skewered Apple for censoring his work). When asked why he bothered to resubmit his application, Fiore, on his website, wrote, “My goal is to show the inconsistency and subjectivity of [Apple’s] approval process. You shouldn’t have to win a Pulitzer or get on teevee just to get your political app approved. With the help of others, I’ll continue to push for Apple to open their doors to a wide range of satire, news and politics.”
 

In another high-profile case, Apple, late last year, accepted then pulled the app Manhattan Declaration, which advocated “the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and religious liberty,” per its website. It was pulled after 7,000 people signed an online petition at Change.org. Apple said it was removed because it violates “our developer guidelines by being offensive to large groups of people.”

Yet barely a half year later, Apple approved an app from Exodus International, a Christian group dedicated to helping people “who struggle with same-sex attraction.” A Change.org petition—this time with over 150,000 signatures—again pressured the company to remove it from the store, which it did in March.

Jeff Buchanan, a director at Exodus, told Adweek that Apple informed them of the change via email, and that “Apple would not talk with us during the review process. This was the only communication we received.” Exodus also notes that Apple has apps targeted toward the GLBT community, and has put the Gay Christian Network’s podcasts on its iTunes store, and wonders why it won’t make available opposite viewpoints.

Which sexual content is and is not acceptable also seems to be up for grabs. In the purge of 2010, Apple kicked out some 5,000 apps over the course of a weekend due to “overtly sexual content.” They disappeared, without prior notification, supposedly to help make a store that focused on quality, not quantity.

But the purge seemed to be somewhat arbitrary (or, to be less kind, downright biased). Among the “objectionable” apps booted out of the store was Wobble iBoobs, which lets users “shake” photos of women with, yes, big boobs—clad big boobs. The Playboy app, however, appeared in the store in March. While nudity is not allowed, there’s skin, butt cracks, almost entirely exposed breasts, and poses suggestive enough to make a stripper blush. Perhaps the site’s expected large number of downloads and that fact that Apple takes a 30 percent cut from each one has something to do with it. Apple, of course, is not talking.

But while app makers complain bitterly about the seemingly arbitrary hoops they must jump through, they tend to put up and shut up. The reasons have everything to do with money. A hit app can make its developer thousands of dollars per week (some reportedly have made up to $25,000 in one day), plus Apple makes the download process easy even for apps that aren’t free thanks to its user-friendly payment system, which charges through consumers’ iTunes accounts. Additionally, the iAds system serves an estimated billions of paid impressions daily (the minimum ad buy on iAds is $500,000), making for some nice take-home pay even after Apple’s 30 percent cut of all downloads plus any content or subscriptions bought within the app.

The challenges don’t stop with the development process. Recently, Apple cracked down on practices the company decided were gaming its system to drive up the perceived popularity of some apps. Last month, it shut down a lucrative practice called “incentivized app downloads” that business site VentureBeat estimated was circulating hundreds of millions of dollars among participating developers. Here’s how it worked: The biggest hurdle to an app’s success is getting iPhone and iPad users to find it in the first place—an elusive goal called “discovery” in app jargon.

But if an app makes it onto one of the App Store’s Top 25 lists for categories such as Games, Finance, and Travel, it will suddenly be discovered and downloaded by more active users than any marketing campaign could hope to reach. If a developer could get lots of people to download an app in a short period of time, it would shoot onto the charts, igniting an explosion of further downloads. App marketers saw a way to benefit if they paid the makers of apps already on the charts—usually by promising to split future revenues with them—in exchange for having the chart topper include a prompt for a unknown app. That didn’t appear to violate any Apple policy.

Developers were thus surprised when Apple began rejecting apps that used these “incentivized downloads”—and became even more confused when Apple offered as explanation a clause in the developers’ agreement that banned faking or paying for reviews. In early May, the company confounded them again by blocking users who had used promotional codes—which Apple freely allows developers to give out—from posting ratings or reviews of apps they’d downloaded for free.

Not everyone, of course, sympathizes with the developers. “They’re almost trying to get more out of the system than they should, stretching the rules in their favor rather than the customer’s,” says Jeff Scott, publisher of the 148Apps.biz developer news site.

And many developers don’t find Apple’s approval process unfair or arcane.

“We have had smooth sailing since day one,” says Caleb Elston, head of the company that makes the Yobongo social networking app. Asked why he thinks other app makers have had it harder, he says, “I think a fair number of developers know they’re doing something risky, but roll the dice anyway.”

In the end, of course, Apple looks out for Apple—which means rejecting apps that could put the company in a bad light. No one knows this more than Israeli entrepreneur Gil Friedlander, whose Tawkon app measures the moment-to-moment radiation being emitted by the phone toward the user’s head, so that worried phone addicts can find a less than hotspot from which to make and take calls. Tawkon is available in the Android and BlackBerry stores, where it’s drawn “hundreds of thousands of downloads,” Friedlander says.

When Apple rejected Tawkon last spring, Friedlander went on the offensive, spawning a blitz of blog posts and news reports. As a result, he says, “we commenced discussions exploring how to best implement Tawkon on iPhone’s SDK [the software development kit issued to developers], which led to [a] meeting in Cupertino with Phillip Shoemaker, who complimented and encouraged Tawkon.” Friedlander adds that the talks revolved more around his use of programming hooks outside of Apple’s standard toolkit.

But Apple eventually declined. Friedlander thinks it was because Tawkon showed higher levels of radiation coming from the latest iPhone 4 model then nearing release. Frustrated with Apple’s process, Friedlander typed an impassioned email to Jobs, explaining that his app was meant to encourage safe cell phone use, not to scare people off. Jobs sent him a two-word reply: “No interest.”

It’s hardly the first time the CEO, known for his personal, sometimes antagonistic replies to emails, has closed a door without an explanation. Apple’s strengths—its single-minded focus and missionary zeal—can also be its weaknesses, especially when dealing with content producers, who, after all, have always found it difficult to flourish outside a democracy.