The Secret World of Apps

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

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 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 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 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.