Vetting the App Store approval process

Macworld.com –

The App Store has been with us for a month now, and, by many measures, it's a roaring success. Apple told the Wall Street Journal that it averages around US$1 million a day in iPhone application sales, for a grand total of around $30 million in the App Store's first month of existence. (Apple keeps only 30 percent of that under its revenue-sharing agreement with app developers, but that's still a nice chunk of change.)

Shoppers have plenty of choices--the App Store launched with more than 500 programs and the number has only swelled since then. And, on a personal note, we find our phones are that much more useful than they were just a couple of months ago, bolstered by software that is generally well-written and offers more capabilities than most of what we got from hacked, third-party programs.

Still, that's not to say there that the App Store has achieved perfection in just 33 days of operation. There are plenty of areas for improvement, with the most pressing issues centering around the process in which iPhone applications win approval from Apple and wind up for sale at the App Store.

Back in March, when Apple announced the iPhone 2.0 software beta, the company gave a rough idea of how that approval process would work. Developers would write the programs, submit them to the App Store, and, once vetted by Apple, the apps would then be available to all iPhone and iPod touch users via either iTunes or on the device itself.

It seems fairly obvious why Apple would want to approve all programs released for the iPhone--not only would this give the company a say in the quality of the programs, but it also gives the company the ability to veto programs (such as a Skype client) that might upset its wireless partners. But there have been some notable hiccups with the process. Here are five issues that have gotten attention in recent weeks, along with our proposed solutions.

Issue One: What's happening?

NetShare, a tethering app from Nullriver, disappeared from the App Store. So did Box Office, a movie look-up program. The common denominator in these and other cases of disappearing iPhone apps? The developers say they have no idea why their programs were pulled. These iPhone software makers feel that Apple needs to communicate more clearly about why previously-approved apps are no longer up to snuff.

Our solution: The developers have a point. Apple could be doing a better job at explaining what the standards are for programs in the App Store--and why particular apps don't meet those standards. And there are signs the company may be starting: after dropping the knife-wielding Slasher diversion from the App Store, Apple apparently told the developer that his program was yanked because its content could be considered objectionable. It may not be the most detailed explanation, but it's a start.

Issue Two: Where's my update?

It takes a long while for a new program--or more urgently, an update to an existing program--to get from the developer's hands to being live on the store. Sometimes too long: users end up purchasing older versions, while Apple has had updated versions for weeks. Users even write critical reviews of apps based on bugs that were fixed weeks earlier; but since Apple hasn't made those updated versions available on the store, users can't download (and don't even know about) the bug-fixes.

You can see evidence of this delay in the Application Description section of many programs (which is an area developers can modify without Apple's review). As seen in the screenshot here, some developers have taken to using this area for status updates, due to delays in getting their program updates approved. So you might see something like "Watch for version 1.1 soon (submitted to Apple on July 31st)" or "Version 1.2 fixes all known issues, and is currently under review with Apple" in this section. If you're a customer waiting on a bug fix for your $10 App Store program, messages like this are both encouraging (a fix is coming!) and frustrating (we don't know when; it's in Apple's hands!).

Our solution: If the update-approval process is this slow with just over 1,000 applications, imagine how it will work (or won't work) with 10,000 applications in the App Store. Not being privy to the App Store's inner workings, we're short on specific fixes--and simply approving all updates automatically would be a recipe for malware--but if the store is going to grow and prosper, the time required to get app updates to users needs to be reduced.

Issue Three: What's in a name?

If you were to search for Sudoku in the App Store, you'd find a slew of programs, at least four of which currently have the same name: Sudoku. That's confusing enough, but far worse is that a program's name can appear differently on the App Store, in iTunes' Applications screen, in iTunes' list of applications to sync, and on the iPhone's screen. So while "only" four apps are called simply Sudoku on the App Store, several more use that name on the iPhone itself.

As a result--as we found while reviewing Sudoku games, but also while testing other apps--if you're trying out several versions of a particular type of program, and you later want to remove one or two of them, sometimes it's impossible to figure out which is which in iTunes' sync list.

Our solution: If Apple is really vetting programs for the App Store, it should prevent duplicate names before we end up carrying around phones populated with 148 programs named Sudoku. Apple should also require that programs use the same name in all locations: in the Store, on the iPhone, and in iTunes' two lists.

Issue Four: Who let you in? (Part one)

When you browse through the store, you can't help but notice some of the more "interesting" things you can buy or download. Consider, for instance, that there are eleven different flashlight applications. Or take a look at CowToss, Crazy Mouth and Crazy Eye, iMilk, Moo, iBeer, Yes|No Free, Jared, Banner Free, Shout It, and dozens--if not hundreds--of other not-necessarily-useful titles. Should Apple have not approved such programs for inclusion in the store? One could argue that as harmless as some of these apps are, they're not doing much to improve the App Store's signal-to-noise ratio. Our solution: As strange as some of the available apps are, we don't think this is an issue--we don't think it's Apple's role to keep "useless" apps out of the store. Think of the App Store as a large supermarket: sure, somebody's making a decision somewhere about what to stock, but for the most part, they try to stock something for everyone. Similarly, if someone wants to buy iBeer, then they should have that option. Just because a program may not seem useful or fun to you doesn't mean someone else won't find it useful or fun.

Issue Five: Who let you in? Part two

The other side of the "what gets approved" coin is the quality of the program: How well does it do what it claims to do? Is it stable? Are there pieces of the program that don't work at all? Does your iPhone repeatedly crash while using it? Does it secretly send data in the background to a remote server?

Unfortunately, some apps that have been OK'd by Apple don't measure up in these areas. In our testing, we've seen more than a few applications that crash regularly, glitches within programs (including a game that started playing both the human player's turn and the computer's turn, for no reason whatsoever!), and typos and other visual oddities.

Given Apple's "we review everything" stance, there's an implied level of quality that comes from seeing a program in the App Store. It's easy to assume Apple has looked at the program--not just what the program claims to do, but how well it actually does it--and deemed it worthy of inclusion. Our experience, and that of many users, indicates such an assumption would be wrong.

Our solution: It would be great if Apple tested every app thoroughly, but the manpower necessary to do so--not to mention how subjective "quality" is--presents major challenges. So we're punting on this one. Instead, we'd like to hear your solutions. Should Apple review applications for quality before approving them? Given the volume of programs submitted, could Apple do this even if it wanted to? Should Apple tell us what its review criteria are? Is the quality of programs a concern to you as a customer of the App Store?

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