Is Apple At War with iPhone Developers?

October 1st, 2008

Consider that thousands of applications are available for you to download from the App Store. Many are free, and most others fairly cheap. In fact, a surprising number of titles can be had for less than $5.00, but lots of new developers are prospering despite the questionable state of the world economy.

However, there are clouds circling and Apple’s methods of evaluating new applications are coming in for sharp criticism, especially after a couple of recent high-profile rejection slips.

Now understand that any retailer has the right to approve and reject the products they sell. Fledgling manufacturers will work long and hard to get their products into various stores, whether it’s a supermarket or a consumer electronics outlet. You know the competition is fierce when it comes to placement at an Apple Store, for example.

Forgetting the obvious limitations at franchises, such as a car dealer, where only the company’s own brand and perhaps a few third-party accessories are for sale, you have to realize the limitations.

On the positive side of the ledger, Apple is making it real easy for a new developer to build a volume business and operate on an equal footing with the larger companies. When they approve an application, the developer gets 70% of the action for products with a price tag, and Apple keeps 30% to cover its costs, including keeping the store available on a 24/7 basis, and that’s no easy task.

Consider, if you will, iTunes, which has trounced all competitors, including such discount retailers as Wal-Mart, when it comes to selling music. Obviously, Apple’s way of doing business has proven to be successful, and iTunes forms the technology underpinnings of the App Store.

However, as with any retailer, Apple is the gatekeeper when it comes to deciding which products to sell. They have the right to reject anything for any reason, although their agreements with developers are pretty specific about some common sense factors, such as porn and potential security threats.

There are also gray areas that are subject to interpretation, and one person may come to a different conclusion than another.

Now I don’t pretend to know what percentage of apps submitted to Apple are rejected, or just sent back for minor revisions to the interface, or to improve compatibility. However, Podcaster, an application to provide an alternate route to managing Podcasts, recently failed to make the grade, in part because it duplicated functions already available on the iPhone and might cause customer confusion.

Now without examining the application in question, consider if you’re a regular listener to a show and just happen to subscribe with both iTunes and Podcaster. This is very easy to do, if only for comparing the two alternatives. You download an episode on iTunes, but Podcaster doesn’t know that, so it thinks you haven’t retrieved the episode yet. Can you see the potential for confusion?

Before you tell me that you keep close tabs on such matters, bear in mind that there are tens of thousands of shows and some have hundreds of separate episodes. Now do you see my point?

The second application was designed to better support your Gmail accounts, and I gather it was rejected, in part anyway, because of interface issues. The developer, however, chose to go public rather than find a way to work with Apple and perhaps get a second hearing. You can bet that sort of behavior that isn’t going to help persuade Apple to alter its decision.

In all fairness, the App Store has been in business less than three months, and there are probably plenty of technological issues still to be resolved. The iPhone SDK only appeared last spring, and the controversial NDA, which covered even released software, is only now being revised. The new version will evidently only cover the product before it goes on sale, which will no doubt allow developers to talk to one another and share war stories and tips to building better products.

Then there is Apple’s own business interest, which you cannot ignore. An app may be submitted that will somehow duplicate or at least unduly compete with a product they are in the process of building for a future version of the iPhone. Obviously, Apple isn’t going to tell you what that app might be, but that would give them strong reason to want to reject the third-party entrant.

Lest we forget, Apple is not your friend. Despite an extremely loyal fan base, Apple Inc. is a multinational corporation that exists to make a profit. So even of some applications fall by the wayside, a successful Apple means a successful avenue for iPhone products to live long and prosper.

It might be a good idea, though, for Apple to institute some sort of formal preliminary review process of the plans for an application before a developer spends hundreds or thousands of hours of time, and lots of money, to create a product that, in the end, won’t see the light of day. With proper terms and conditions, that, for example, Apple isn’t guaranteeing that an application that passes the pre-approval stage gets a free pass, it would certainly give developers some important guidance about what they can do and what they can’t do.

That won’t stop the complaints, of course, but it might just help.

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One Response to “Is Apple At War with iPhone Developers?”

  1. Richard says:

    If Psystar prevailed in their lawsuit with Apple, thereby opening up access to OSX, would Woz be inclined to start a new company, or work with an existing one, which would not be so closed to developement as Apple? It seems as if he is “not amused” with the way Apple have chosen to lock down the iPhone…for that matter, who is apart from Apple?

    The iPhone 3G is surprisingly immature, with missing and disabled features and obviously desired applications missing in action. Now that other cell phone manufacturers are responding, will Apple?

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