Apple Touch Platform Applications Approval Process Stirs Concern

In the past I’ve written about the Facebook platform as being the wild west of software development.  The reasoning was that 3rd party developers like myself were watching the platform shift and change on a daily basis.  The result was that functions were being introduced in beta, or replaced and deprecated frequently.

Developers working on emerging software platforms are a flexible bunch.  They’re used to having theirapplications break so long as the platform overall is being improved.  A better platform means more users, which means greater opportunity for 3rd party developers.  One thing developers do not like, however is having their software tools gobbled up an encorporated into the core of the platform.

I wrote about how this was happening in my blog post, Nationalization or Expropriation? Independent Facebook Application Developers Continue to Face Uncertainty.  Something entirely different is happening right now on the Touch platform, however.

It all started with the an application called, “Pull My Finger,” which allowed people to touch illustrated fingers in order to play back audio of flatulence.  You see, Apple, unlike Facebook, will only allow applications to become available to run on the Touch Platform devices (the iPhone and iPod Touch) after they have been reviewed by hand by an Apple employee.

Let’s take a look at the normal application development cycle for getting an application up onto the Apple Touch platform:

iphone touch platform approval process good

Now let’s take a look at the alternate scenerio:

a flowchart of an iphone touch platform approval process gone bad

As you can see, the developer has two choices when their application is rejected from the iTunes store.  A redesign scenerio could occur when their application breaks a minor rule.  For instance, early on Apple was rejecting applications that mis-used the vibration function on the iPhone.  A developer could rectify this problem by taming down their application’s vibration and re-submitting.

The give-up scenerio is based on a different type of rejection from Apple.  There have been two well-documented cases of Touch Platform application rejections by Apple because the fundamental basis of applications was rejected.  As mentioned, the Pull My Finger application was rejected because “[Apple] determined that this application is of limited utility to the broad iPhone and iPod touch user community, and will not be published to the App Store.”

More recently another rejection was delivered to someone who had created a podcasting application.  In this case Apple rejected it “since Podcaster assists in the distribution of podcasts, it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes.”

The problem faced by developers is uncertainty.  How can they know what is and what is not ok before investing development time and resources into creating an application.  The problem for Apple is that if they define exactly what the rules are for approval, there will always be exceptions.  Plus, Apple may still not know what their rules are.

Some of the blame lies with developers and their desire to play on the edges of what a reasonable and rational iPhone application idea might be. For instance, designing low-brow flatulence applications or tools that replicate existing functionality does not show a lot of creativity on the developer’s part.

In addition, the I’m Rich application made it past Apple’s application approval group initially, but when it made headlines, it was an embarassment for Apple.  Can we really blame them for being more careful now?

But just as Facebook application developers grew angry over the integration of functionality they had developed into the Facebook core, Touch platform developers deserve great communication from Apple on what is and is not ok, in order to avoid wasted effort.  Developers have indicated that applications that violate non-Apple trademarks have successfully been approved and listed for sale in iTunes.

One developer fed up with Apple’s approval ambiguity has given a number of suggestions for improving the situation, including Apple hiring a a 3rd party developer champion or evangelist, someone who can perform official coaching or pre-approval on application ideas prior to beginning a development effort in earnest.

For now, developers will have to stick to common sense in coming up with ideas for new applications for  the Touch platform.

[Update 9/20/08: I found a more detailed flowchart on the approval process here.  Also, I made a minor edit to  second flowchart to reflect the possibility that the app is approved]

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