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Has the App Store Jumped the Shark?

When I first read Apple’s press release that the unexpectedly famous App Store had 100,000 offerings, and that two billion files had been downloaded so far, I wondered how we got there in the first place.

{In case you’re wondering, the phrase “jump the shark” was first coined to describe TV shows whose best days were behind them.)

The iPhone first arrived in June 2007, but Apple had no SDK or retail store for iPhone apps. You were restricted to Web-based apps, in the fashion perhaps of Google’s forthcoming Chrome OS. After lackluster success and lots and lots of clamoring from developers, Apple created the App Store, and on the surface it has been a stellar success.

But it’s been a difficult ride, and some developers have been left on the sidelines as the freight train sped past. Indeed, a few of them are complaining about the tight controls and arbitrary rulings about which apps to accept and which to reject.

In a recent interview with BusinessWeek, Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide product marketing, Phil Schiller, seemed quite candid about why Apple put its policies in place, and the potential benefits to the end-user. Consider, for example, how an unstructured app environment would function in light of those recent iPhone malware outbreaks.

Now before you begin to fret over such matters, those security issues evidently impact only those who have opted to jailbreak their iPhones, and, when setting it up, do not change the default password. So if you do the first, make sure you pick a strong password you should be all right, although I think the whole concept of jailbreaking has now been brought into question. As the doctor said in that old joke, when told that it hurts when the patient does something, “don’t do that!”

However, it’s also true you probably need tighter controls over a smartphone ecosystem. I mean, on a regular personal computer, an Internet vandal may steal your passwords. On a phone, they’ll also record all your personal and business phone conversations. It’s bad enough that the GPS tells “them” where you are, so why make your phone even more vulnerable?

I can agree with Schiller that Apple is simply playing the role of dealer here, in the same way that a store in your neighborhood decides what inventory to carry, and what products to reject. In order to be accepted for the App Store, the product must actually work and not present or exploit a potential security lapse. With the iPhone’s Parental Controls feature, there is at least some level of protection against your kids getting explicit products, which allows Apple to open up the spigots somewhat for the rest of its audience.

The trouble arises because of those gray areas, where the fate of an application may rise or fall on someone’s judgment call that may have questionable merit. Originally, a developer had no way of knowing where they stood in the pecking order, to get an idea of how long it would take for the final verdict. Some developers have protested loudly, in public, about decisions they felt weren’t justified by the facts. You have probably read about them, and perhaps they have a solid case. The process ought to be more dependable.

On the other hand, Apple says they’re getting upwards of 10,000 new submissions every single week. Some are updates to existing products and others are brand new. With a workload like that, they are clearly going to make lots of mistakes, and perhaps developers should be more patient or try harder to work with Apple to overcome potential objections. But when your income is at stake, and even a few day’s delay means potential lost income, I can see why emotions might get frayed.

In any case, even ultimate acceptance doesn’t guarantee an app’s success, any more than a book that is published is assured of best seller status. Indeed, I’ve talked to a few developers who made a fortune on one title, but had follow-up titles fare badly. That’s the luck of the draw, and nothing is guaranteed.

Yes, I suppose some developers might look at the fairly open Android platform or perhaps the Windows Mobile Platform as possible alternativces because they’re disgusted with Apple’s way of doing things and their tight control over the iPhone platform. However, the grass isn’t always greener. The relative freedom of Android also means that there are different hardware designs, varying levels of support for operating system features and no guarantee that your app will work on a large number of the available devices. Talk of gambling.

With Microsoft, their latest developer program reportedly includes a service charge every single time you submit an app for approval. If it’s rejected for any reason, even for an insignificant change, you are forced to pay yet another fee to resubmit. To Microsoft, everything they do is a potential profit center.

The real issue with the App Store is that everything is really quite new, and Apple is clearly learning from its mistakes. Remember that they don’t make money from that venture unless the developer makes money, so they are forced by the circumstances to try to do things properly, and they might even get there one of these days.