The Fear

The NDA is dead, yes, and good riddance, but there remain serious problems with the way Apple is managing the App Store. It boggles my mind that there remain so many people who don’t see this. This piece by Dan Kimerling at TechCrunch is one example; various of the reader comments on Jason Snell’s piece for Macworld last week are another.1

One factor, perhaps, is the tendency to see everything in terms of extremes. Black or white, good or bad. But this debate is not about wanting Apple to make radical changes, such as, say, changing the iPhone from a closed platform to a more open platform a la Android. There are reasonable arguments to be made that a more open iPhone platform would be good not just for iPhone developers, but for Apple and its shareholders. But those arguments aren’t what this debate is about. This debate is about wanting Apple to make minor changes — a slight but very significant course correction.

Put another way, this is not about the big picture scope of what kind of hypothetical App Store (or Stores, plural) Apple should have created. That train left the station long ago. This is about the specific details of the App Store that actually exists, and the rules that govern it.

I believe that a closed, controlled App Store can work, but by definition that requires developers to place trust in Apple. The problem is that Apple is managing the App Store in certain untrustworthy ways. And I mean trust more in the sense of stability than honesty — like in the way you need to trust a ladder before you’ll climb it.

Here is a complete list of what Apple must do to increase developers’ trust in the App Store system:

  1. State the rules.
  2. Follow the rules.

That’s it.

This is so clear that even those who are arguing the other side — that Apple’s App Store stewardship is just fine as it stands today — have jumped through hoops in an attempt to argue that Apple’s exclusion of Podcaster was in fact in accordance with the iPhone SDK Guidelines. Kimerling, in his “Stop Complaining About Apple and the App Store” piece, writes:

When you create the platform, you set the rules. If Apple wants to restrict iPhone applications to those that do not compete with features built into the iPhone, well, they can go right ahead and do so. It is right in the SDK’s user agreement.

That’s just not true. The iPhone SDK Agreement, at least by the standards of legal contracts, is written in clear, straightforward English. (Apple’s lawyers, in the opinion of yours truly at least, are good writers.) The rules it lays down are clear. And Podcaster doesn’t break any of them.

Given any set of rules, there will always be edge cases. Judgment must be rendered, and, inevitably, some will feel edge cases were judged the wrong way. But the reason iPhone developers (and prospective iPhone developers) are appalled by Apple’s rejection of Podcaster and MailWrangler is that neither app was near any edge defined in the SDK guidelines.

Podcaster was rejected for duplicating the podcast features in iTunes and the iPhone “iPod” app. MailWrangler was rejected on the following grounds:

Your application duplicates the functionality of the built-in iPhone application Mail without providing sufficient differentiation or added functionality, which will lead to user confusion.

The word “duplicate”, in any conjugation, does not appear in the iPhone SDK Agreement. Not a word about it. And there is clearly no general rule about third-party apps duplicating the functionality of the iPhone’s built-in apps. PCalc, along with a handful of other calculator apps, duplicates every single feature of the built-in Calculator app. There are dozens of note-taking apps that compete with Notes; MagicPad goes so far as to use the same icon as Apple’s Notes app, just with different colors. There is an entire category in the App Store — an entire category — for weather apps, several of which “duplicate” the entire functionality of the built-in Weather app.

So, not only judging by the rules set forth in the iPhone SDK Agreement, but also by the existence proof of hundreds of apps currently published in the App Store that duplicate (which is really to say compete with) built-in iPhone apps, no reasonable person would have expected Podcaster or MailWrangler to be rejected.

So their rejection is problematic on three fronts. First, the submission process is such that an app rejected at the conceptual level — one that cannot be tweaked or fixed to gain entry upon resubmission, but whose fundamental premise is rejected by Apple — such an app is only rejected after it has been written. The developer does all of the work to produce the app and only then finds out it was all for naught.

Second, there are clearly rules which are not listed in the SDK guidelines. Third, in its explanations for the rejections, Apple is not stating what these actual unpublished rules are, and is instead offering as the reason this “it duplicates a built-in app” rule which, given all the aforementioned counterexamples that have been accepted into the App Store, isn’t actually a rule at all. The explanation is clearly false.

Taken together, these three factors lead to The Fear, which is that developers cannot trust the App Store process. You can spend all of the time and effort it takes to build an app, follow every known rule, and still get rejected.

From Apple’s perspective, especially, say, in upper management, it may be all too easy to look at what’s going on with the store — thousands of published apps, a ton of money changing hands — and not see the problem. In the big picture, from both a technical and marketing perspective, the App Store is a grand success.

The problem is that the apps that are the most interesting, the most important, are the ones that take the most work to create. And the apps that take the most work to create are the ones that are most likely not even to be made in this environment, because the risk is greater. The more work it takes to create an app, the more you lose if Apple rejects it. Going back to the ladder analogy, the higher you’re trying to climb, the more you need to trust the ladder before you start.

It’s not about a handful of developers who’ve had their apps rejected. It’s about all the other developers who are now spooked, and that the ones who are the most spooked are the ones who harbor the grandest, boldest, most innovative ideas.

Interpolation Regarding a Theory on Which Apps Apple Won’t Allow Developers to Compete With

In the absence of a revised iPhone SDK Agreement from Apple, we can attempt to guess what the unpublished rules are. With Podcaster, for example, the “follow the money” rule of thumb leads to the conclusion that Apple will not allow any competition with iTunes, because iTunes is a profit source.

This is why MailWrangler’s rejection is the one that puts The Fear in my heart. As unjust as the Podcaster rejection appears, if Apple really wants to prohibit competition with iTunes, even anti-competitively, you can at least see the thinking behind the decision. It’s foolish and unnecessary — the fact that iTunes is wide open to competition on both Mac OS X and Windows hasn’t hurt it at all — and it also quite possibly invites some sort of legal challenge, but at least there is a logical idea behind it.

But Mail? Why on earth should Apple care if some third-party email client for the iPhone becomes wildly popular? It makes no sense. iPhone users who use the built-in Mail app don’t pay extra to do so. Mail doesn’t tie users to Apple’s own MobileMe service. In fact, Mail offers specific setup help to work with Gmail, the service MailWrangler is optimized for. If you can make a replacement for Notes and Weather and Calendar, why not Mail?

I have a theory. It is more, well, emotional than logical. But it’s the only theory I can think of that makes any sense at all and fits the available evidence. The theory is that there is an unpublished rule that Apple — and in this case, where by “Apple” I really mean “Steven P. Jobs” — will not publish third-party apps that compete with or replace any of the four apps in the iPhone’s default “dock”: Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod.

Go back to Jobs’s original iPhone introduction at Macworld Expo 2007. It was a masterful presentation. Carmine Gallo, writing for BusinessWeek, calls it Jobs’s greatest presentation; I agree. Gallo describes the moment it was unveiled:

After laying the groundwork, Jobs builds up to the new device by teasing the audience: “Today, we are introducing three revolutionary products. The first is a wide-screen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary new mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.” Jobs continues to build tension. He repeats the three devices several times then says, “Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device … today Apple is going to reinvent the phone!” The crowd goes wild.

This “three revolutionary products” pitch was inordinately effective. For one thing, live, in the hall, Jobs completely fooled the crowd, yours truly included. But then as he repeated the three product ideas over and over, while icons representing the three products rotated behind him on screen, faster and faster, it started dawning on us how we’d been tricked. By the time Jobs came out and said that it was just one device that encompassed all three products, everyone in Moscone West had come to that conclusion on their own — a nifty little way of making the crowd feel clever, as though we’d figured out a riddle.

But this pitch also worked because it was true. All three of those products sound good on their own. All three in one device sounds insanely great. Jobs was introducing the iPhone simply by describing precisely what it was. A phone, a widescreen video iPod, and a breakthrough Internet communicator.

The icons in the iPhone’s default dock represent the core functionality of the device. Phone, Email, Web, iPod. With nothing other than those four apps, the iPhone still would have been a hit. Not as great, but, still, great.

Everything else the iPhone’s built-in apps do could be done, to some extent, through Safari: notes, calendars, weather, maps, stocks.

There are a few minor exceptions. SMS is one example, but that’s really just an adjunct to the Phone app. Anything that relates to the phone network — voice or SMS — is unavailable through the third-party iPhone SDK anyway. You couldn’t write your own SMS app even if you wanted to. (Apple clearly has no problem with competing chat apps — there are several IM clients available in the App Store. That’s the same basic concept as SMS, but using IP networking.)

And so my guess is that while there may not be any logic, there’s at least a notion, if only in Jobs’s mind, that these four apps are sacrosanct because they define the iPhone. Everything else, both from Apple and from App Store developers, is piffle, secondary to those four apps. Harry McCracken’s recent iPhone user survey indicates that iPhone users agree that those four apps account for the most-used features of the iPhone.

But the least essential of the four is Mail. You cannot place phone calls or play music and video from your personal iTunes library using a web browser, but can read and send email through it.2 Millions of people do just that every day, including, I’m sure, many of you reading this essay. And Google’s iPhone-optimized version of Gmail shows just how well it can be done. It’s not just good for web-based mail, it’s just good, period.

And so this idea that Apple seems to have that Mail is particularly special is misguided. The Phone and iPod apps are special, because at a fundamental level they perform tasks that cannot be duplicated in a web app. But there’s nothing any more special about Mail than there is about, say, Calendar. Calendar, if anything, is more closely tied to Apple’s proprietary and commercial MobileMe service — Mail works great with any IMAP server, including Gmail, but Calendar only works for online syncing with MobileMe or Exchange.

But Apple doesn’t seem to have any problem allowing Calendar competitors into the App Store. Notes Calendar is a $3 Lotus Notes calendaring client. iExchange Remote Calendar is a $10 calendaring client for Exchange. It can’t even be explained by some sort of anti-Google bias at Apple, because they’ve also accepted SaiSuke, a $10 dedicated Google Calendar client. If these are OK, why not a dedicated Gmail email client? The only explanation is that Mail is deemed untouchable and Calendar is not.

In short, my theory is that Mail is on the do-not-compete list not because there’s any strategic reason for Apple to do so, but simply because of a vague notion that Mail is one of the iPhone’s defining apps. This notion is wrong. Mail is important, but there’s nothing about it that needs to be protected from competition.

End of Interpolation, Back to the Three Problems, Which, Due to the Grotesque Length of the Above Interpolation, I Will Remind You Are: (1) App Ideas Are Rejected Only After the Apps Are Actually Built; (2) There Exist Secret Unpublished Rules Regarding What Is Allowed; and (3) When Apps Are Rejected for Violating the Unpublished Rules, Apple Refuses to State Just What These Rules Are

One thing that would make a difference would be a submission process whereby developers could submit their application ideas to Apple in advance, to find out if they’re OK. That’s how it works on game platforms from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft — developers submit a detailed proposal and wait until they get the green light before actually building the game.

That sounds good, but there are problems with the idea. For developers, it would require an additional level of trust in Apple. Ideas are less valuable than actual implementations, but the more original an idea is, the less comfortable you are to share it. And for Apple, it would require significantly more work. They’d still need to examine and approve the actual shipping applications, but now they’d also have to examine and consider application proposals. The world’s hard drives are littered with abandoned unfinished software projects — there would surely be far more proposals submitted for consideration than there are actual iPhone applications. As it stands today, Apple is already struggling mightily to keep up with the work of approving new and updated application submissions — the typical turnaround time is between one and two weeks.

Perhaps Apple could offer this as a service limited to ADC Select ($499) or even Premier ($3,499) members. The service is needed most by the developers who are considering the biggest apps, most of whom either are already paid ADC members or wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the cost of joining. It wouldn’t be democratic, but it might make it feasible. Platforms like Wii and Xbox ship maybe a few dozen titles a month, tops. The App Store has published 3,500 titles in just three months. (And it costs far more to join the developer programs for gaming consoles than the $100 iPhone SDK fee.)

More important, though, is for Apple to address problems 2 and 3, by publishing in the iPhone SDK Agreement all of the rules they’re using to evaluate applications. If we’re not allowed to write email or podcast clients, say so. If something unforeseen comes up, Apple should make a decision, and then publish the new rule.

Rules you disagree with are frustrating. Rules you don’t know about are scary.

  1. I will also note that, to my knowledge, not a single published iPhone developer has spoken out in favor of the App Store’s current rejection policies. Those developers who have spoken are against it. Those who see no problem are not themselves iPhone developers. ↩︎

  2. Even if Apple were to come to its senses and allow third-party developers to write competing email clients, the built-in Mail app would hold one significant technical advantage, which is that it runs in the background. In fact, background processing is the one factor that unites the four dock apps. Phone, Mail, Safari, and iPod all continue running in the background; no other apps, including those from Apple, do. ↩︎