Apple CEO Steve Jobs doesn't blog much, but when he does, his words command attention. Last week, Apple published new App Store review guidelines. The seven-page document is unsigned, but some astute Apple observers argue that it's one long Jobs blog post. Yes, the same Steve Jobs who famously wrote Thoughts on Music and Thoughts on Flash is now giving us Thoughts on Fart Apps.
There's no question that Steve Jobs approved every word of Apple's new App Store review guidelines. Do those guidelines inadvertently confirm some of the worst suspicions developers have about the company's review process?
That's an important question. With Google making huge gains on its Android platform and Microsoft aggressively wooing developers for its upcoming Windows Phone 7 platform, Apple suddenly has formidable competition and is under pressure to be more friendly to developers. One result of that pressure is that they have finally released guidelines explaining how the App Store review process works. Well, sort of.
The guidelines themselves are only available to registered Apple developers, and they're written more like a blog post than an SDK. Jon Gruber, an astute observer of Apple and its politics, says, "This new document is written in remarkably casual language," and he offers this speculation: "Much of the introduction sounds as though it were written by Steve Jobs."
Indeed, the introduction to those guidelines spells out what Apple wants developers to keep in mind when submitting an app, starting with a bulleted list of "some of our broader themes." Here is the second item on that list:
We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps.
That's objectively true. I just looked in the App Store, where a search for fart turns up 772 apps sprawling over five pages. One of those apps, called Animal Farts, boasts in its approved App Store listing: "If you like iFart or Pull My Finger you will love this application."
That app was published by Graynoodle LLC, which was founded by one Phillip Shoemaker. Ironically, Shoemaker is Apple's Director of Applications Technology and "runs the App Store process," according to a story published last month by Brian X. Chen of Wired.com. (An earlier post at Valleywag has more salacious details about Shoemaker and a tweet from his personal account confirming his role in the app store process. Valleywag has an interesting follow-up as well.)
So just how helpful are the new review guidelines? It's worth reading Gruber's uncharacteristically lengthy post on the subject at his Daring Fireball blog. He quotes the following bullet points, taken directly from that same set of "broader themes" in Apple's documentation and addressed directly to developers:
- If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.
- If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you’re trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.
- We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
Some of those items are repeated in the formal section of the guidelines. For example, under the Functionality heading, Sections 2.13 and 2.14 say:
- Apps that duplicate apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them
- Apps that are not very useful or do not provide any lasting entertainment value may be rejected
If I were an iOS developer, those guidelines would drive me to drink. My app has to be "very useful" or have "lasting entertainment value," in the opinion of an anonymous reviewer. It has to look like it was created by a "serious developer" and has to be a "quality app," whatever that means. And it can't contain any content or behavior that crosses a line that is completely undefined.
And what is a would-be App Store merchant to make of section 10.6?
Apple and our customers place a high value on simple, refined, creative, well thought through interfaces. They take more work but are worth it. Apple sets a high bar. If your user interface is complex or less than very good it may be rejected.
So, even if I write a perfectly adequate, functional interface for my useful app, it might be rejected because it's "less than very good"? Really, Apple? Really?
I used to live in a community where the homeowners association had similarly arbitrary design guidelines. Building and landscaping plans had to be approved by a committee that was infamous for its inconsistency. Eventually, architects and landscapers began trying to second-guess the committee so they could get through the process on the first try and not have to do expensive revisions. Even then, half of them guessed wrong, especially if they weren't part of the good ol' boy network of builders who ran the community. That's what Apple's review process reminds me of. I do not envy developers who have to make a living in a world like that.
This is the bullet point that was most telling, though:
- If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps. [emphasis added]
That first sentence is completely reasonable. Fair, even. The second, however, is an extraordinary (and unintentionally revealing) admission. No, it says in the unmistakable voice of Steve Jobs, Apple's process is inconsistent, and yes, dammit, there's a personal component to it. Do not piss us off or we just might figure out a reason to reject you. And, conversely, if you keep your mouth shut and don't publicly criticize us, maybe we'll look more kindly on your submission.
<-- Previous page
It would be easy to dismiss that fear as over-the-top speculation, even paranoia, except for the real-world example that the guy who runs the App Store review process unthinkingly provided earlier this year. Phillip Shoemaker deleted his @graynoodle Twitter account in August, after Wired published its expose of his colorful collection of apps. But he forgot to remove the archive of that Twitter feed from his old blog page. The tweet highlighted in yellow below was sent on April 28, seven weeks after he joined Apple. It does not send a comforting message to developers:
That's a direct, shockingly public, petty, and vindictive response ("you are full of sh**") from Apple's Director of Applications Technology, the guy who apparently runs the app store process. It was aimed at Vanity Fair columnist and newser.com blogger Michael Wolff, who had complained in a blog post the day before that his app had been rejected by Apple. A search of the App Store today finds no sign of Wolff's app. Meanwhile, Shoemaker's iWiz, released the same month, after he had joined Apple as an employee, is still available. Here's what its listing promises:
Simulate the experience of urinating for a long time. Convince your friends that you'll never stop. iWiz allows you to simulate urination: faster, slower, or just a trickle.
I actually understand and sympathize with some of Apple's larger concerns here. Those same concerns apply to whoever is charged with curating the app stores for the Android and Windows Phone platforms.
If you run an app store, and that is the only outlet for customers to get apps for your platform, you have a duty to those customers to test incoming apps. If they crash, or cause your device to experience performance problems, or introduce security risks, then you should reject that app, giving the developer an opportunity to cure the problem and resubmit the app.
There are also legitimate reasons to evaluate the content of an app. If it's pornographic, violent, illegal, dangerous, or filled with hate speech, those are potentially good reasons to reject an app as well.
But Apple wants to go further. In addition to those technical and legal concerns, they also want to make esthetic judgments about the look, feel, and even the very purpose of an app. They want a "curated" app store, where ugly apps are not welcome. (Maybe Apple needs to add an "Ugly" check box to the App Store. Visit the App Store and you'll see only those apps that Apple thinks are useful and serious. But click the "Ugly" box and you can see the whole collection.)
As the voice of Steve Jobs notes in the introduction, somewhat defensively:
If it sounds like we're control freaks, well, maybe it's because we're so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products. Just like almost all of you are too.
Actually, no. You sound like control freaks because you are. Otherwise most of those 772 fart apps would have been booted long ago. Unless you want to make the case that they are "very useful" or have "lasting entertainment value."
Getting the app review process right is tricky. Apple has, finally, made a decent step in the right direction by publishing a first draft of their review guidelines. But it's only a start, and an inadequate one at that. As the guidelines note, the seven-page document represents "a formidable list of what not to do," and it leaves many questions unanswered. Crucially, while this document explains (at least in part) how Apple reviews submitted apps, it includes no details or commitments about the review process itself. Most of the developer complaints I've heard express frustration over how long the approval process takes and the lack of detailed feedback from Apple when an app is rejected.
I hope whoever is in charge of the Windows Phone App Store is paying attention. This is a great place to think different.