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Sunday
Nov152009

The App Store - A Divisive Academic Exercise

If you follow app store rejections and the iPhone developer community, you've probably got some opinion on the latest travesty -- Apple rejected an update of Rogue Amoeba's Airfoil Touch. If you don't particularly care about these matters, or if you can't tolerate mixing metaphors, stop reading now.

Still reading? OK cool.

Surprise surprise, Apple rejected an iPhone app update for a cloudy reason, contradicting their earlier approval of the same app. Try and brace for the shock, this has happened before, and it happened to me.

When I was working on Downloader, I knew I'd need some file icon artwork. There were quite a few apps in the store that used Apple's file icons (the ones you see in Finder). I thought Well, Apple approved all these apps, surely it's fine if I do it too. So I dug into various app bundles and pulled out some icons. Downloader 1.0 was approved in just under two weeks, Apple icons and all.

Versions 1.1 and 1.2 followed later in the Summer. Surely if Apple had a problem with my app using their icons to identify an files on their device, they'd have let me know by now, right?

Naturally I would find out at the worst possible time that they weren't tacitly condoning use of their trademarks.

In September, shortly after putting together a list of features for 1.3, I received an email from a lawyer representing another app developer. They claimed my App's icon was infringing on their trademark. After consulting my attorney wife, I prepared a new icon and submitted Downloader 1.21. Also begged Apple politely for an expedited review (which didn't help). This was a good lesson in the realities of Trademark Law that Jeff LaMarche references, and I'm a learn-by-doing kinda guy.

Near the end of the customary 2 week review window, Apple rejected this update on the grounds that I was infringing upon their trademarks. Ah the irony, my efforts to remedy a trademark infringement were thwarted by another infringment. Can't blame Apple really, but I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Unable to comply with the original request, I had to get some new icons together to satisfy Apple, and fast.

I bought some royalty-free icons online and resubmitted 1.21. This one was approved and now I'm back to working on 1.3 (which is what I wanted to do anyways). Lesson(s) learned, legal bullets dodged.

So what's the point? There's a few:

  1. Apple's App Store review processes and standards are evolving
  2. Standards change from one app to another and even between versions of the same app.
  3. The review process is still very opaque.

Those can add up to a lot of developer frustration, and #3 seems to be the main reason people are leaving.

Many apps (including the one that contacted me to protect their trademark) continue to use Apple's trademarked images in their applications. I get the impression this is a current target in the review center, just as Network Reachability and 17+ ratings on Web Views were in the Summer.

Ultimately, I think the simplest explanation is that the App Store is not finished (matured) yet. Apple wasn't the first to do a mobile app store, but they're certainly the biggest. They're probably at version 1.2 of their system now. There's a lot of work to be done, and a lot of initiatives that will continue to be targets.

Their policies and processes are changing in an attempt to keep a controlled platform, and unfortunately we (developers) are aiming for shadows of these moving targets.

I can't say there's a simple conclusion here, except that if you're interested in selling apps on the App Store today, it seems to be more of an academic exercise than a straightforward business deal.

While I don't expect Apple to go completely transparent here, I think there will be a point at which the system matures enough where they stop tinkering with the operations and we know where the landmines are.

Clearly Joe Hewitt and Rogue Amoeba don't like the curriculum anymore, but I'm still on board (hoping the paint dries).

-Dan

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