Back in March, I attended one of the more exciting Apple press events I’ve ever been to–the one in which Steve Jobs and company unveiled their plans for the iPhone SDK and App Store. Jobs showed off the iPhone platform, introduced the App Store and explained how it worked, noted that it would be the only way to distribute iPhone applications, and said that Apple would make the final decision on which apps were and weren’t acceptable.
Here’s a brief highlight reel from the March event at Apple headquarters, with Jobs touching on some of these points:
When I heard Jobs say that Apple wouldn’t distribute each and every iPhone application that developers wrote, I thought to myself that such a policy was both inevitable and logical–but that it also had the potential of hobbling the platform, if Apple’s approval process was unclear or too motivated by self interests or the interests of carriers. I’m realizing now that I wasn’t anywhere near paranoid enough about the implications of what Steve Jobs said.
Since the App Store debuted in July, Apple has apparently listed then delisted (then relisted then delisted) Netshare, an application for tethering the iPhone to a laptop as a modem. I can’t get too irate, since the app seems to clearly violate AT&T’s terms of service. It listed, delisted, and relisted Box Office, a movie review app. I haven’t seen an explanation of what happened there, so I’ll reserve judgment. It listed then delisted the infamous It listed then delisted the infamous I Am Rich $1000 application. I was kinda amused by the prank but understand opposing viewpoints. It nixed an app called Pull My Finger. I wouldn’t go to the mat to defend it.
But the latest hubbub involving the App Store’s refusal to list an application concerns Podcaster, a program for listening to podcasts. According to the developer, Apple told him that the program was rejected because it duplicates functionality that exists in iTunes. (Only partially true, apparently: Podcaster would have let you download podcasts directly to the iPhone, bypassing iTunes–which would have been extremely handy.)
Telling a developer that his app has been rejected for duplicating features in an Apple application would seem to be another way of saying that iPhone developers aren’t allowed to compete with Apple. If so, that’s disastrous for developers and disastrous for iPhone users.
And, potentially, disastrous for Apple. Way back when, if software distribution for the Mac had been handled via a Mac App Store with a don’t-duplicate-Apple-products policy, Photoshop might have been refused distribution on the grounds that it was too similar to MacPaint. A Mac platform that hadn’t gotten Photoshop might well have been a Mac platform that died some time in the mid-1990s or so.
As iPhone developer Fraser Spiers says, Apple’s policy of rejecting applications only after they’ve been submitted means that anyone whose written an app that gets nixed has wasted his or her time. (Daring Fireball’s John Gruber also has insightful comments.) If that app was porn or malware, no problem. But as far as I can tell, Apple has not published any clear statement of acceptable and unacceptable applications. And telling a developer that he can’t duplicate functionality in an Apple application isn’t just ridiculous; it’s a policy that the company hasn’t articulated until now.
Unless, that is, you count the “Unforseen” item in Apple’s original list of limitations as giving it carte blanche to reject any application at any time for any reason:
Strangely enough, I’m not entirely pessimistic here. Apple’s actions to date with the App Store have involved repeated instances of it apparently not understanding its own policies, and therefore allowing applications in and then deleting them, or deleting them and then allowing them back in. There are other applications in the store that come as close to duplicating Apple efforts as Podcaster apparently does–such as Evernote, which is sort of a Web-enabled version of Apple’s Notes apps. I’m hopeful, therefore, that the Podcaster rejection was a weird fluke that Apple will undo shortly.
The company should also publish a detailed list of policies relating to App Store acceptance, so both developers and users know what’s kosher. It should have some sort of mechanism for developers to gain tentative approval for an application’s function, so they don’t waste time writing something that Apple would never accept. And the company just has to make clear to the world that it won’t reject apps because they’re vaguely similar to its own efforts–or, for that matter, very similar.
It could also resolve just about every issue relating to app approval by ending its monopoly on iPhone application distribution. You gotta think there are ways to do this without introducing apps into the iPhone ecosystem that would take down AT&T’s network or spread malware–presumably third-party e-commerce companies like Handango would kill for the ability to become authorized iPhone app stores, and would behave in an entirely responsible fashion if they had that option.
I believe that Apple will eventually open up iPhone app distribution–in the long term, it simply makes too much sense for everyone involved not too. I just wish I had a better handle on when it might happen. Not very soon, I’d guess.
Meanwhile, as a podcast fan who doesn’t sync his iPhone all that often, I very much wish that iPhone users, rather than Apple, had the ability to judge for themselves whether Podcaster is too similar to iTunes and therefore unnecessary.