Apple’s iPhone App Store acceptance process–at its worst, anyhow–has always reminded me of dealing with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. For developers, it can feel scary, mysterious, and arbitrary. And even though companies that sell software through the App Store are in business with Apple, that hasn’t meant that they’ve had much clarity into what was going on, and why.
But today, Apple is opening the curtain, at least a little. It’s instituting some changes and clarifications to App Store approval policies and amending the documentation it provides to developers. Engadget’s Nilay Patel has a good summary.
The rule changes now permit developers to use programming tools other than those provided by Apple to produce software, which apparently means that creators of Flash-based apps (and ones created using environments such as RunRev) can port them to the iPhone. (That’s a surprising development given that it wasn’t all that long ago that Steve Jobs was cogently arguing that this would be a terrible idea.) It’s also clear that developers can choose to use third-party ad networks such as Google’s AdMob–rather than Apple’s iAds–to embed ads in their programs.
So far so good. But it’s the new expanded explanation of why Apple rejects some iPhone apps that’s most interesting. It’s fascinating for its bluntness (“If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps”) and the way it codifies Apple’s ability to be arbitrary (“new apps presenting new questions may result in new rules at any time”).
It’s certainly a more current and comprehensive guide to iPhone acceptance and rejection policies than the comments Steve Jobs made when the App Store debuted back in 2008:
In a way, there’s no major news in the expanded guide to acceptance rules: All it does is document policies that anyone who follows the neverending story of app rejections already knew were in place. But with the policies out in the open, one common theory about specific rejections–that they were made by loose-cannon Apple staffers who weren’t following the rules–won’t come up nearly so often. We now know that Apple reserves the right to nix apps because it’s not keen on the interface, or finds the subject matter annoying, or just plain doesn’t like the program in question. The company still has all the leeway it needs to make whatever decisions it feels like making.
As I read the rules, these clauses stuck out:
“Apps that duplicate apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them.” That doesn’t sound like a tragedy if the submitted app is nothing more than more of the same. But what if it’s the best app yet in a particular category–or simply one with features that a meaningful minority of iPhone sers might like? I suspect that it would be approved in theory, but it’s up to Apple’s approval staffers to determine what’s new and better. We know from two years of app acceptances and rejections that it’s extremely tough to be consistent.
“Apps which appear confusingly similar to an existing Apple product or advertising theme will be rejected.” and “Apps that look similar to apps bundled on the iPhone, including the App Store, iTunes Store, and iBookstore, will be rejected.” I’m all for reducing confusion, and it’s reasonable enough for Apple to prevent other developers from merely cloning Apple apps. Here’s what leaves me uneasy, though: Apple could use these rules to give itself a monopoly on any product category it chooses. There have been times in the past when this seemed to be the company’s policy.
To be fair, though, almost all the recent evidence suggests that Apple is OK with competition: There are multiple music apps, VoIP phone services, and even (WebKit-powered) browsers that take on the bundled iPhone apps and do it well. (For which I’m very grateful: I use Atomic Web Browser instead of Safari, and listen to Rdio far more than I do the iPod app.)
“Apps that create alternate desktop/home screen environments or simulate multi-app widget experiences will be rejected.” and “Apps that alter the functions of standard switches, such as the Volume Up/Down and Ring/Silent switches, will be rejected.” No shock here–we already knew that these rules were in place. But I’d love to see the day come when Apple permits deep customization of the user interface, in a way that desktop OSes have always done. (Here’s a Pollyannaish possibility: Maybe it’s banning these ad-hoc customizations because it plans to introduce formal features that permit this kind of stuff in iOS 5.0.)
Having read the new rules, I still feel deeply conflicted about the App Store. On one hand, there’s something broken about a process that permits hundreds of fart apps but makes it impossible for Google Voice to reach users. The new documentation, while extensive, is still rife with wiggle room: Some developers are going to invest time and resources building apps only to find that Apple won’t approve them. (Worse, other developers won’t bother to build cool apps at all unless they’re virtually positive that they won’t be shot down.)
But here’s the thing: Apple may be an imperfect steward of its mobile platform, but it’s less imperfect than all its competitors. For all its limitations, the App Store still has by far the best and most innovative smartphone apps, in by far the largest quantities. I still believe that the best possible app store would provide third-party developers with far more latitude than Apple’s store does. But you couldn’t prove that theory from the current state of the laissez-faire, largely disappointing Android Market.
I remain a long-term optimist, one who believes that a more open iPhone would be good for both iPhone owners and for Apple, and that Apple will eventually come around to that line of thinking. (Actually, there’s plenty of evidence that it already has–today’s iPhone is a much more open device than the 2007 model which didn’t permit third-party apps, period.) So when the company says that its App Store guide is a “living document,” I choose to take that as an encouraging sign. Why couldn’t a living document ultimately result in rules that are less restrictive rather than more so?