Apple’s App Store review process is hurting users, but we’re not allowed to talk about it.

It’s time we had a conversation about Apple’s app review process.

Apple reviews apps to “ensure they are reliable, perform as expected, and are free of offensive material.” But in practice the process is both slow and arbitrary. Reviews regularly take over 7 days and sometimes take weeks. It can take even longer if there’s any back and forth over the rules, a common outcome given the ambiguity and wide scope of the rules. Apps that seem totally reasonable are summarily rejected. The slow speed and poor quality of app review is hurting users.


The speed of review matters for two big reasons.

Slow reviews hurt reliability. It’s impossible for developers to anticipate all of the edge cases that may cause our apps to crash in the real world. Luckily, once an app is live, we get reports of bugs from real users. But when we go to fix them, the fix waits in the queue for a week or more. Users are dealing with bugs for weeks, the fixes for which have already been written and submitted and which Apple is holding up…in the name of reliability. Apple offers a process for expediting fixes, but it also strongly discourages their use, and even expedited review takes more than a day.

The counterargument is that developers will be more careful the first time around if they know bugs are hard to patch. This may be true, but there is no such thing as bug-free software. Needing to be more cautious about releases only intensifies the second issue….

Slow reviews impede the pace of innovation. Almost every web site you use releases a handful of small updates on a daily basis or twice-daily basis, making changes, measuring their effect, and adapting. Apple, by contrast, drags every company that builds apps into its 90's-style big-release development model, diminishing their ability to iterate quickly. Where would your favorite websites be today if they had only evolved 1/7th or 1/14th as quickly?


The particulars of the rules make this situation even more frustrating.

Apple has appointed itself arbiter of taste and speech. Imagine buying a car that refused to drive to strip clubs, or a TV that refused to show Fox News. Now recognize that we accept this behavior from a product with 40% market share. Suddenly picking a phone because of its great camera means you’re locked in to a whole moral point of view. We have a government, we have parents, we have the ability to vote with our feet, but Apple supercedes all of that in the name of protecting users, blocking apps that ridicule public figures or that show too much skin, or apps with Jobs themes, legal marijuana information, gun images, search engines, or drones. Steve Jobs once argued he was actually offering us freedom, freedom from porn. Apple says, “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book.” But apps are a powerful form of communication, and developers should be free to express all points of view.

App rules prioritize Apple over users. The best example of this are the restrictions on in-app purchases. Already awash in cash, Apple prohibits in-app purchases it can’t get its 30% cut of, leading to a situation where users cannot buy books in their Kindle app or videos in their YouTube app or comics in their comics app, even though they can on Android. In the early days of the app store, Apple rejected apps just for competing with their own built-in apps. It says a lot about Apple’s attitude that it describes the money earned from from apps as Apple magnanimously “paying developers” instead of “developers earning money and Apple taking a cut.”

The rules are subjective and poorly enforced. Stories abound of minor bug fix releases being flagged for issues that have been true of an application since version 1 or that are present in other apps. Out of the blue, someone trying to get a bug fix out is stuck making user accounts optional. Or maybe a reviewer fails to understand what an app does. Or suddenly new disclaimers are required. Or unwritten rules about TouchID are suddenly being broken. The rules are so broad — an app must be totally bug-free, cannot have hidden features (sorry a/b testing!), must have lasting value— pretty much anything can be caught up in this net. The appeal process is slow and byzantine, leaving developers to wait and pray. A lot of apps already in the store already seem to be buggy and unusable. Where is the line? Apple says, “we know it when we see it.”


Apple exists because its creators grew up in a world where any developer anywhere could write software that any user anywhere could run without having to go through an intermediary. It lauded itself as the voice of freedom in its famous 1984 commerical. But now it stands on the side of control, enforcing a totalitarian view of how its devices can be used. Anybody who has been to a hackathon and seen Android users download an app that day and iOS users be told the app will be available in a week, maybe, has seen the dark path that we are going down in the name of thin, shiny boxes with smooth animation.


There should be outrage.

Think about how much ink has been spilled over Amazon vs. Hachette, TimeWarner vs CBS, Verizon vs. net neutrality, Google vs. Yelp. Here we have a gatekeeper, which also has lock-in, and it has found the only reasons to close the gates that could be worse than profit: paternalism and complacency.

Many of us are afraid of retribution for speaking out too loudly. Apple has, unbelievably, made a threat explicitly in writing: “If your App is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.” If Apple made good on its promise to penalize developers who complain in public, who would we appeal to?

Others of us are so caught up in Apple’s beautiful products that we forgive them any offense. (This line of thinking is particularly pernicious. It does Apple and its users a disservice when we buy into Apple’s FUD about Android, or support their self-aggrandizing stories of innovation, or apologize for their avoidable design flaws and hardware limitations, or overlook their anticompetitive obsession with lock-in and value extraction. Even if we love Apple, everything they do merits clear-eyed criticism and hands-on comparison with Android.)


It would not be that hard for Apple to use its vast resources to make its review process faster through automation and hiring. (Google is able to review Android apps in near real-time and the world has not ended).

Even better would be if Apple loosened the restrictions on app contents. Why not let users decide what’s objectionable, what’s useful, what’s too buggy, instead of trying to be our nanny? Apple could even whitelist apps that pass its bar to be easy-to-discover in the store, while letting users find objectionable apps via search or direct links.

And Apple should also supplement TestFlight, which purports to make it easier to share pre-release software but still involves waiting for a review, with a way for users to install apps outside of the store without intermediaries, the same as has existed without incident on Android since the beginning.


I don’t know how we get there. Sometimes I wish the biggest app developers would get together and delist their apps for a day, just to show how much pain this process causes. It’s a testament to the crazy dystopia we’re in that I’ve been waiting to write this post until I was unemployed so there wouldn’t be blowback to anybody I worked for. But there is strength in numbers. It’s time to start talking about this.


Postscript

I got a lot of interesting replies on Twitter, and there were a few general themes that seemed worth talking about in more than 140 characters.

1. “Apple’s App Store is very helpful, just look at the ugly crashing malware copycats on the Play store”

Apple’s process does get credit for doing a good job protecting users and developers, but

  • At least in my experience, the rumors of malware and poor app quality on Android are greatly overstated.
  • It’s hard to say with credibility which platform has the most stable apps.
  • It’s much more plausible that Apple’s store has prettier apps and generates more revenue because it has the wealthiest, most tech-elite users than the review process itself.
  • The weight of the current process far exceeds what would be needed to keep the store clean and polished, versus, say, relying on automation and whitelisting.
  • There is certainly no reason to threaten developers who complain about the specifics of the process in the public.

2. “Users choose to use Apple products. Nobody is making anybody do anything.”

How many users do we think choose iPhones because they won’t encounter apps that make fun of political figures, and how many do we think choose iPhones because they work well as smartphones? As I discuss above, users are locked in to much more than what they are trying to buy.

Users are also not aware of the obstacles they put in front of developers making apps for them when they choose an iPhone, even though this ends up impacting the quality of the apps they use.

The situation is a little bit analogous to having the government pass a law you dislike. Yes, technically, you can leave the country, but that’s not an especially viable option, and you’re more likely to try to have the law changed.

3. “You sound like just one guy who doesn’t know anything about what really happens.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. This post comes from repeated experiences developing popular apps, talking to developers at some of the largest companies in the industry, and from hearing from indie developers.

If there was any doubt, look at the number of people who have recommended this post, tweeted about it, commented above, or even shared their own experiences on Twitter.

After writing this, I was sent a recent post also about how developers are cowed into not criticizing Apple. The top of the Hacker News thread about it is heartbreaking, “I’m 17 years old and a developer on the app store. The App Store feels opaque and like a black box where I submit builds with little to no feedback or control. I get paid when Apple decides, and could be eradicated from the App Store at a moment’s notice.”

4. “You should just be glad Apple built this platform that lets you reach all these people.”

Just because something is useful does not mean it is beyond reproach. And in this case we have so many points of comparison with Android and the web which also let developers reach so many people without as much control, it’s worth asking what is appropriate and necessary.

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