Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

Summary: Do Apple's new App Store review guidelines inadvertently confirm some of the worst suspicions developers have about the company's review process? And is Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who famously wrote Thoughts on Music and Thoughts on Flash, now giving us Thoughts on Fart Apps?

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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.

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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.

Topics: Apple, Apps, Software Development

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65 comments
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  • Any developers out there?

    I'm interested in hearing from developers on any of the three major mobile platforms. What matters to you most?
    Ed Bott
    • spin

      @Ed Bott
      i would argue, money matters the most to developers, hence they are on the platform that has the most consumers willing to pay for apps and has the strictest anti-pirating measures. i guess that's the reason the majority of apps is developed for iOS (more than 250.000) and most of them are not free (contrary to the android market where more than 60% of apps are free, amateurish garbage).
      banned from zdnet
      • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

        @banned from zdnet - amateurish as in "looks" or "performance" or both? Plenty of Apple store apps are not perfect either, due to shoddy AI in certain games and imperfect 'virtual physics' in others...
        HypnoToad72
      • Yes.....

        @banned from zdnet

        Developers want to make money and yes Apple/iOS is a great platform.
        but # of apps is not that important as long as it/they have the ones you want & need.

        Smart devs can still make money on free to user apps. If you want to specialise to only one platform, iOS is as good as any.....but why limit yourself.

        All systems have their "qualities", advantages & shortcomings, real & perceived, for both the developer & user.........
        LazLong
      • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

        @banned from zdnet

        "...60% of apps are free, amateurish garbage".
        You have statistics to back up this assertion?


        "90% of Science Fiction is crud; but then, 90% of everything is crud" - Sturgeon's Revelation
        hiraghm@...
    • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

      @Ed Bott Offering refunds would be the most effective to control crapps (crap apps). I guess Jobs never really trusted the market or the customer
      essin
      • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

        @essin - Actually, I think Microsoft is taking the right approach with thei Marketplace: All applications published on the marketplace MUST offer a free trial version. It's up to the developer whether they limit the trial by time, depth or any other metric, but a free trial version is required.

        This way users get to try-out apps BEFORE they commit money.
        De-Void
      • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

        @essin

        De-Void has an interesting point. The developer of "Replica Island", which is an excellent game made by a Google developer, did a careful study of the Android market before releasing his game. He noticed that almost all of the most downloaded games had free trial versions available.
        hiraghm@...
    • Three? iPhone, Android, and ...

      @Ed Bott <br><br>I guess #1 <em>should</em> be Symbian, which would make iPhone #2 and Android #3, but you clearly don't mean that. Blackberry? WinMob? Are we going by App catalog size? In that case, I believe that Palm's application catalog is, at this point, the third largest with close to 5,000 apps in the mainstream and beta catalogs, so do you mean webOS? Just <em>who</em> is your number 3?
      x I'm tc
      • Windows, of course

        @jdakula <br><br>A lot of developers still sell apps for the Windows Mobile platform, and I expect there to be a very large developer base for Windows Phone 7 as well.
        Ed Bott
      • @ED Somehow I knew you'd say that?

        Again I'm wondering what you mean when you say "top three".
        Current marketshare (handset/devices sold, platforms in use)?
        Most Apps?
        Most Developers/development?
        or something else

        If those recent/current Gartner #'s (marketshare) are somewhat accurate, the list for 2010 looks like:

        #1 Symbian at 40.01%
        #2 Android at 17.7%
        #3 RIM at 17.5%
        #4 iOS at 15.4%
        #5 a tie between Windows Phone & Other at 4.7%

        yes things will change and WP will be some where in the top 6?
        LazLong
    • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

      @Ed Bott I'm a developer on android. There are a few things that really matter to me. The first is choice of language. While this one isn't immediately apparent on Android, if you can compile something to a binary using GCC you can in turn use it on Android through the NDK. In addition, if you can write an interpreter for something in Java or C you can use it on android (hence a mono/.NET toolkit for android).

      That's really a specific application of my overarching thoughts on development. I think freedom is the most important aspect. I value my right to be able to do whatever I feel like to my device and write whatever sort of app I want. The android market is partially curated, however, where android stands apart is its ability to run non-market apps and the ability to have third party markets. I think that's an important aspect because it means Google can't shut you out because you write an app that competes with one of theirs. I think the freedom that's afforded to developers not only promotes a better community, but also promotes better free market outcomes.

      The other big thing I really care about in the iPhone developer agreement is the blanket NDA. It makes it impossible for developers to organize amongst themselves and form a community (legally anyhow). It also makes it impossible to have community supported opensource apps because you can't discuss development.

      All-in-all the big thing I care about as a developer is freedom. Freedom to do as you like with your hardware, freedom to develop what you'd like, and freedom to talk about the process in any way that you choose.
      snoop0x7b
    • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

      @Ed Bott

      I'm working on developing games for Android. My first thought in this was not making money.
      What matters absolute most to me is creative freedom.
      Yes, I very much want to make money selling apps. Which is why I'm focusing on making the games I work on as high quality as I can, so they will stand out from the crowd and become popular. I don't want to sell one copy of an app for a thousand dollars. I'd be happier selling a thousand copies of an app for one dollar, each. And the latter is a much more achievable goal Yeah, maybe I'm stupid, but as I said, making money's not my top priority. Doing what I love and having other people appreciate my work is more important.
      hiraghm@...
  • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

    Gruber's post was generally the same length as any of his other essays. When he writes his essays, some are longer and some are shorter. Most of his posts are call-outs to other's writings and for those he keeps his comments terse. Click the "Archive" link to view the items he originates. While the App Store piece is the longest of the month, a mid-August piece called "January Jones" looks longer. The App Store and approval process has been a topic of interest at Daring Fireball for a long time, and he has criticized Apple about process opacity and delays.<br><br>Frankly I'm not sure what your point is with tonight's essay. What gets in and what doesn't is now a bit more clearer, but, frankly, Apple is very brand aware and anything that embarrasses it is going to get yanked. That might be the way to read advice about going to the press. You make Apple look bad gratuitously and they are going to say "Out of the pool."<br><br>It's their store and it never was and never will be a flea market, excepting future anti-trust agreements which would occur only if all the other capable phone manufacturers somehow tank the sector. So far, they all have adapted well, with the arguable exceptions of Nokia and RIM, who are still selling, my aspersions nonetheless, lots of units.<br><br>But, sure, whatever. Apple's App Store is a SCARRRRRRY place. Be-waaaaaaaaare.<br><br>Software development is risky. Arbitrary decisions by Apple are yet one more factor on the side against developing for its phones. Market size, including iPad and iPod Touch, is a factor to weigh against the downside. Getting in the app store is a first step, then you got to market. Make your choice. Do your thing. Commercial software development is not for the faint of heart.<br><br>Incidentally, I go by the rule the thing is by who puts their name on it. If Steve Jobs didn't put his name on it, it was by someone else. I'm sure Jobs approved it and approved the informal nature of the writing. I'm also sure the attorneys gave it a thumbs up as well and may have called for changes in the drafting process. Somebody has to keep an eye on restraint of trade rules and regulations. I wouldn't read anything in particular about the form, except, thank God, it wasn't written from lawyer to lawyer. That's a breath of fresh air and I would expect a little bit of applause - not a lot - from the working small-shop coder.
    DannyO_0x98
    • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

      @DannyO_0x98
      The fact that an application may be rejected simply by being "less than very good" is not something a developer wants to hear. Especially if it's their first time developing for iOS.
      ZackCDLVI
      • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

        @Zc456 - in a "free market", wouldn't anything be allowed for sale and the "market" to decide what would be right or not?

        Apple certainly isn't "free" for one thing...
        HypnoToad72
      • RE: Apple's new review guidelines: Thoughts on fart apps

        @HypnoToad72<br>Then developers might as well not be "free" ether. Well, better get the lock pick cause I'm jailbreaking.
        ZackCDLVI
  • given the number of iFart apps

    Apple needs to purchase the defunct company that put together the iSmell technology. Yes, there is a technology that starts with "i" Apple does not own.

    They were trying to sell a hardware peripheral that would release scents on command. Oddly enough, I am not joking, the technology is for real.

    Unfortunately, the company got caught when the dot.bomb went off and the investors went chicken. So it can probably be acquired for fire sale prices. This would be a perfect addition to the next-gen iPad and iPhone devices.
    A.Lizard
  • Apple Elitism: Discrimination

    Do what you want, but only if I deem what you do is acceptable.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • Apple wants a worthwhile app store

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate ... where every application is actually useful for something, and not just a parking lot for ten million junk apps.
      This is the value of a closed system. Apple isn't going to reject quality, useful apps.
      HollywoodDog