Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hitting the Moving Target - the inconsistent app review process

Just when I was starting to think Apple’s review process was getting better, fairer, and more consistent, I get proved wrong. Maybe Apple’s employees are getting spring fever or something and need to take out their excess energy on their clients.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I had a couple of radio station apps rejected because the reviewer thought they should be combined into one app via In-App Purchase. Never mind that these were free apps and In-App Purchase, as the name implies, requires the extra content be something that you actually purchase. The main point was these apps were for two different radio stations, and each station wanted their own app. There are literally hundreds of these apps already in the iTunes store. Radio stations want to have their own app - they can advertise it on air (“Hey, download our iPhone app”) and they can have their own icon on the iPhone.

So, the good news for me is the two rejected apps were finally approved, but in typical fashion, Apple made no comment or explanation or ever answered my query as to what the issue was. One app just mysteriously changed state from rejected to approved without me even resubmitting it. Apple simply sent an automated message saying, “Thank you for the additional information. We will continue with the review process and will inform you of any update.” and later “Thank you for contacting the iPhone Developer Program. Our records indicate [your app] has been flagged 'Ready for Sale', and should be available via iTunes shortly.” No explanation of whether a mistake had been made originally, or whether there’s something I could have done to avoid the misunderstanding in the first place.

It reminds me of when we used to have Internet problems at a company I used to work for and we would call our service provider (the local telco at the time) and they’d say “There’s no known problem or work being done with the network.” Meanwhile, we’d look out the window and see the local telco company’s truck parked outside and a guy working on the wires. And, of course, the Internet service would mysteriously start working again after the truck drove away.

But that’s not my point. That’s just me ranting.

My point is the app review process still needs improvement. It has improved as far as timeliness goes, but it still has serious problems. Developers need some sort of consistency and transparency in the process. Receiving boiler-plate email is not helpful, especially when there is a problem that affects your business. In my case, I had several clients projects on hold. I wasn’t even sure if I could continue my existing business model of developing apps on behalf of radio stations. Actually, I still don’t know if I can for certain. I never received a definitive answer from Apple*. The last thing I want is to be doing work for a client, only to find out at the end that I can’t fulfill what was promised due to something out of my control (Apple’s review process).

Here’s another example of the app review inconsistency. Today, Tunemark Radio, an app which allows playing thousands of radio stations in the SHOUTcast directory, was rejected for the reason that “it is transferring excessive volumes of data over the cellular network.” Apple went on to explain that all apps:

- Must comply with Apple's best practices and other guidelines on how Applications should access and use the cellular network;

- Must not in Apple's reasonable judgment excessively use or unduly burden network capacity or bandwidth;

The problem is, the above two lines of text are all Apple will officially say about cellular usage. Apple will not provide any exact numbers. It’s not like we’re trying to define how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The app reviewers must be looking at a specific cut-off number. Why can’t we be told what that number is?

Last year, I had sent a formal (paid) tech support query to Apple asking for clarification on this policy. The engineer who replied stated that there was no official bandwidth usage number to stay under, but instead said I should look at the amount of bandwidth used by the Pandora app and stay around that amount. While the Apple engineer said it wasn’t an official number, he said to stay around 4.5 meg over a 5 minute time period was a safe number. That works out to around 112K/sec. And that was the advice I had followed for about a year.

Then, about 6 months ago I noticed there were many competing radio apps in the iTunes store that were using streams at the 128K/sec rate and I was receiving complaints with my apps because they did not allow 128K streams to be played over cellular. I sent another email to Apple asking if their bandwidth polices had changed and the response was no, the bandwidth limits were the same. But, I could clearly see that based on what was being approved, 128K streams were being allowed. I thought maybe 128K was considered close enough to 112K to be allowed So, I modified my apps to allow 128K, and sure enough, they were approved.

Now, this brings us to today’s rejection. Is it that 128K is no longer permitted over cellular, or was it never allowed but the reviewers hadn’t been paying attention for the past 6 months? I know one thing is certain. Based on past experience, I’m not going to get any helpful answer from Apple. In fact, I’m 100% certain of it. Here’s my query to Apple:

What is the threshold at which you determine an app is "transferring excessive volumes of data over the cellular network"? What number should the app stay under? Nothing has changed in the app in regards to cellular bandwidth-usage from this version from the previous approved 1.6 version.

Without know what number the app should stay within, it is hard for me to know what needs to be changed.

Thank you for any clarification you can provide.

Best regards,

And here is Apple’s official reply received a few minutes ago:

In order for your application to be reconsidered for the App Store, please resolve this issue and upload your new binary to iTunes Connect.

That's all. Now I’m not a man who easily curses, but this response is testing my self control. Are Apple’s replies generated by robots?? Maybe they’re using the old Eliza program to answer support queries. It certainly doesn't look like an English speaking human read my question.

Regardless, one thing I've learned is there's no arguing with the Apple brick wall. You state your case, hope to get a reasonable answer, but regardless of what answer is received, you move on. Repeated queries gets you nowhere. I’m going to have to resubmit my app, disabling the 128K access (which has been available in this app for the past 6 months) and as a result have lots of unhappy users. I’m tempted to have a dialog box pop up saying the 128K is not permitted due to Apple’s policy, but last time I mentioned something like this in my app description, Apple called me on the phone and requested I remove the text before the app would be approved. Seriously. Apple would not approve a feature of my app, but I was not allowed to mention in the description that the feature was removed per Apple’s request. Instead, I get to just deal with negative reviews from unhappy users without being able to offer an explanation.

And that’s my point. The review process seems to be a moving target, changing at the whim of Apple. This being just one example, too many of Apple’s policies are intentionally vaguely worded. It makes life for us developers more challenging than it should be. Yes, when I joined the iPhone developer program I signed an agreement giving Apple the right to reject an app for any arbitrary reason, but it still doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. And, as much as I may complain about the process, I still find the Apple development environment the best to work with given the alternatives. I’m not jumping ship just yet. It’s just unfortunate that things could be so much better.

*UPDATE: Coincidentally, about an hour after posting this, I received a phone call from Apple regarding the two radio station app rejection and subsequent acceptance. The person I spoke with on the phone wanted to clarify that Apple doesn't have a specific policy regarding single radio station apps. It is just that they would prefer that apps be combined if at all possible (such as two stations from the same company serving the same city).

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