Apple has never been one to be overly communicative with their developer community and the iTunes App Store is no exception. There is often little communication between Apple and developers when it comes to why an app is rejected or why its launch in the store is delayed. Now with the recent removal of all Google Voice related applications from the App Store – and again, with no explanations – at least one developer has had enough.
But lack of communication is only one of the issues with today’s App Store approval process. O’Reilly Research is reporting today that the incubation period for apps is now trending upward – a figure that seems to speak to Apple’s becoming overwhelmed by the number of submissions. And finally, courtesy of Apple’s mysterious approval process, they’ve accidentally let yet another “adult”-themed application into the App Store once again.
“I Can’t Say. It’s Just Against Our Policy”
For four months, the developer of a third-party Google Voice application known as VoiceCentral hosted his application in the iTunes App Store. Then, one day, it was gone. There was no advanced notice and absolutely no explanation from the company. He contacted Apple for help. After a frustrating conversation with Apple employee “Richard,” the developer realized that Apple was simply refusing to discuss the problem. The conversation, a snippet of which is embedded below, is beyond absurd (Note – the developer says the conversation is not verbatim):
Richard: “I’m calling to let you know that VoiceCentral has been removed from the App Store because it duplicates features of the iPhone.”
Me: “I don’t understand that reasoning. By that logic wouldn’t apps like Textfree, Skype, fring, or iCall be considered duplicates?”
Richard: “I can’t discuss other apps with you.”
Me: “It’s not the apps themselves I want to discuss just the lack of consistency in rule enforcement.”
Richard: “I can only say that yours duplicates features of the iPhone and was causing confusion in the user community. It’s against our policy.”
Me: “So what has changed that it is now against policy? It has been in the store for the last 4 months with no problem. There wasn’t a problem for the 1.5 months prior to that when you were ‘reviewing’ it. And this didn’t come up with any of the updates we submitted after it was already in the store.”
Richard: “I can’t say – only that yours is not complying with our policy.”
Me: “Can you tell me what portions of the app were duplicate features?”
Richard: “I can’t go into granular detail.”
Me: “Is there something we can change or alter in order to regain compliance and get back in the Store?”
Richard: “I can’t say.”
Me: “Well if we can’t figure out the issue then how will we know whether to resubmit the app. And how will we know whether to invest in any other development efforts? Future apps could be impacted.”
Richard: “I can’t help you with that”
Along with the removal of the third-party applications, Apple also gave the boot to the official Google Voice Application at the same time.
Some tech pundits reported it was AT&T who was behind the removal of these apps, since the Google Voice app essentially turns the iPhone into a dumb data device that routes calls over the iPhone’s data connection instead of over AT&T’s network – you know, the network where they get to charge you big money for long distance phone calls and such. Others weren’t so sure that AT&T was to blame, since there are still a number of other VoIP applications available in the App Store now including My Skype, TruPhone, Nimbuzz, and Fring.
Sadly, the real truth may never be known because Apple isn’t talking.
For one Apple developer, Steven Frank, watching the Google Voice debacle unfold was enough to put him off developing applications for Apple products altogether. Interestingly enough, Frank is not an iPhone developer – he develops apps for the Mac. But seeing how Apple was treating the mobile developer community left him “frustrated and disappointed,” he wrote in a candid blog post.
“I’ve reached a point where I can no longer just sit back and watch this. The iPhone ecosystem is toxic, and I can’t participate any more until it is fixed. As people have told me so many times: It’s Apple’s ballgame, and Apple gets to make the rules, and if I don’t like it, I can leave. So, I don’t like it, and I’m leaving.”
As for Google themselves, they aren’t sharing what (if any) conversation occurred between the two companies about the Voice app’s removal. But given the somewhat incestuous relationship between both industry giants (Apple and Google share two board members: Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former Genentech CEO Arthur Levinson), we’ll probably never hear from them either.
Delays, Delays, Delays
When it comes to getting an application published, there’s no doubt that Apple’s queue of apps pending approval is likely the largest in the business. That’s probably why the company is unable to offer consistent and reliable lead times for app approval to their developers. Some apps seem to get approved in a reasonable amount of time while others have actually sat in limbo for as much as six months.
And it’s not just approvals that are subjected to this process. Application updates – patches that add features and fix major problems – are stalled for weeks on end at times, too. Says one iPhone developer: “I’m not happy with delays involved, and the seemingly arbitrary favoritism that’s evident. It’s either favoritism or just general chaos.”
Today, new findings from O’Reilly Research put hard numbers to these sorts of complaints. They show that Apple’s incubation times are now trending upward. The “incubation time” is the period between the release date of an app and the date it first appears in iTunes. The release date of an app refers to the date developers upload their apps to iTunes Connect, the area where apps are managed. In between the release date and when the app appears in iTunes, Apple performs a number of undisclosed QA tests before making the app live in their store. Because a shorter incubation period translates to a more favorable position when users sort apps by release date, developers prefer to see the shortest incubation periods possible.
As more apps are launched each week, the incubation period for these apps is increasing, says O’Reilly. They found that the mean incubation period for all app categories except for Travel is now on the rise.
The findings also reveal some other interesting trends, too. For example, although more games are launched each week, Music apps spend more time in the approval process. (No doubt while Apple verifies whether or not the app competes with iTunes).
Then there is the issue of Apple telling a developer that their app will go live on a particular date but it doesn’t happen. The most recent example of this was with the new my6sense application. Because the company’s PR department had already briefed a number of bloggers with the information, articles were published anyway, albeit with an update about the delay. Unfortunately for the company, this was not the ideal situation. How awful must it have been to see post after post about the app go live without any download link included in any of them. That’s not just disappointing for the blog readers who can’t try the app right away, it no doubt affected the company’s bottom line, too.
That App Should Not Have Been Approved
Although Apple won’t reveal any details of their mysterious approval process, a number of “oopsies” and oversights lead some to wonder if there isn’t some sort of automation involved. That’s the only explanation as to why some apps, like the horrid “Baby Shaker” game (where you shake the baby until red X’s appear over his eyes) could have ever made it through. Such an oversight surely was not made by an actual person – at least not one who wanted to keep their job, that is.
Other questionable applications have also been pulled like BeautyMeter, a “Hot or Not” type of app where user-submitted photos are voted on and rated. Some users went too far with their photos, leaving Apple to finally pull the app when a 15-year-old girl uploaded nude photos of herself. That occurrence made the app go from being risque to downright illegal in an instant. Perhaps Apple just didn’t see the potential dangers of that type of application, but their latest mistake again highlights the obvious holes in their approval process.
For a brief period of time yesterday, Apple was hosting an app called theXchange whose sole purpose is to connect people who want to have sex. Clearly, this app should not have made the cut given Apple’s policies. So again, one has to wonder: what is going on with the approval process?
Apple Needs to Shape Up
There’s no doubt that Apple is struggling with the large number of apps, the high visibility of their platform, and having to balance their goals with those of their carriers like AT&T. However, the problems, the delays, and, most importantly, their refusal to discuss the issues, is starting to give the company a bad reputation. For now, the souring feelings for Apple are probably just occurring in the developer community and among and tech pundits who watch the company closely. Still, it’s already been bad enough for some developers to bow out and for some high-profiletech bloggers to announce they’re ditching the iPhone for good.
If Apple can’t address these issues in a timely fashion, then maybe it’s time for them to lift their cone of silence and say – if not why the issues have happened – then at the very least, “We’re Sorry.”