The Secret World of Apps

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

Illustrations: Tavis Coburn


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, 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.”

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