App Store rejections: double-standards or learning curve?

David Braue
2 December, 2008
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So, you’re learning to play chess, and your opponent helpfully advises you not to take the move you just made because it will open the door for him to wallop you. You thank him, move your piece back, take a different move, then watch in horror as he checkmates you by moving into the same place he just told you you shouldn’t go.

I’m not a developer (due to lack of spare time, not lack of interest) but this is about how I would be feeling right now as the implications of Apple’s latest iPhone update, version 2.2, settle in.

Released last week, the 250MB update adds features such as Street View and walking directions to Google Maps, a more reliable phone, better sound quality in visual voicemails, Safari interface improvements, security improvements, and more. All in all, it seems to add just about what a point release should add.

Oh, one more thing. The new version adds support for podcasts – which can now be downloaded straight to your phone via WiFi or your carrier’s mobile network.

This could be a potentially disastrous feature for many customers, who will find themselves quickly banging their heads (and wallets) against the frustration of their iPhone plan quotas if they utilise the feature too extensively. However, as they say in the business, caveat iPhoner.

The thing is, it was only three weeks ago that Apple decided it would ban a similar application, return7′s CastCatcher, that it had thrice allowed to be sold on the App Store. Previously, Apple banned a podcasting application that Apple said “duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes”.

Yeah, fine, but now Apple is releasing its own functionality, and that of course is OK?

return7′s blog notes that the 6 November rejection was on the grounds that it was using too much bandwidth, return7 appealed to Apple, which on 17 November eventually approved the application; the reasons for its reversal are not listed, but CastCatcher 24 November was approved on 24 November and is currently available through the App Store.

That’s a good thing, because for Apple to release a soon-to-be-ubiquitous iPhone update that can skull bandwidth as well as the next guy, it would be an egregious double-standard to then turn around and tell developers they can’t do the same.

This is but one example of the slow but steady march towards normalcy in the App Store, which exploded onto the scene with a bang and is quickly fighting its way towards clocking 300 million downloads and a whole boatload of cash for Apple.

Some optimistic users dismissed the CastCatcher decision as a sort of prudence on Apple’s part, suggesting it was looking after customers by preventing developers from releasing applications that would chew through their bandwidth allowances.

Yet AT&T in the US offers an unlimited-bandwidth iPhone plan, so I think Apple’s concerns must have been more about making sure the applications don’t swamp AT&T’s network. Or maybe not: with every iPhone user in the world now able to download podcasts over their carrier’s network, it may be even more of a stretch to suggest Apple was doing anything except being just a little too arbitrary.

This makes it hard for developers, who on the whole have acted in good faith in building applications for a previously untested platform (that uncertainty is of course long gone given the App Store’s success since its mid-year launch). Stories about iPhone developers striking it rich are everywhere, and it does seem to be a great clearinghouse for games if nothing else – but what of the developers trying to bring more serious or useful applications to the iPhone, but facing an uncertain future with the threat of banning?

And what of the double standard regarding Google’s Mobile search app, which Google itself has admitted violates Apple’s developer agreement by using undocumented, unauthorised iPhone APIs for controlling the proximity sensor? Why hasn’t Apple clamped down on Google and banned the app for violating terms governing development, in the same way that it has clamped down on other, smaller developers who are just trying to deliver their own interesting applications?

The first answer, of course, is that Apple taking on Google would be like a python trying to eat an elephant: it might cause some annoyance, but in the end unhinged jaws can only go so far to compensate for lack of size. The second answer, of course, is that Apple and Google are partners in online applications, so perhaps Apple is a bit more willing to forgive Google’s indiscretions.

But the third answer, and perhaps the most instructive, is that there is a steep learning curve involved in making something like the App Store work as it should, while retaining controls that prevent fiascos like the I Am Rich application. Apple is working its way up this curve, and it needs to do so quickly as the App Store evolves from an experiment in smartphone delivery into a paradigm for the mobile world of tomorrow.

Apple’s biggest test, however, will be in how tolerant it becomes of those who veer completely from its game plan – for example, the hackers who have loaded Linux onto the iPhone.

Apple cannot be happy about this. But will it slap the hackers with a DMCA violation as it has with legal adversary Psystar? Or will it simply turn a blind eye?

Apple needs to understand that people love the iPhone, and want to build things for it and do things with it, and want to share those things with likeminded people. Sometimes, this means relaxing the reins a little. As the App Store and iPhone 3G enter their first brand-new year with the Google Android-based G1 nipping at its heels, Apple will have to decide – and clarify – just how much freedom it is willing to give the developers who share the common goal of making the iPhone (and iPod touch) the world’s best handheld devices.

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