Wednesday, February 16, 2022 [Tweets] [Favorites]

The Asymmetry of App Review

Steve:

My experiences with Microsoft dev relations over the past decade have been nothing but positive and frictionless. My experiences with Apple have been nothing but combative and “computer says no”

Via Florian Mueller:

As for “computer says no,” the problem is that Apple has to handle such huge quantities of app submissions every day that they have to automate the process to a high degree, and flexibly assign new requests to whoever is available to respond. That makes the experience impersonal most of the time.

[…]

It’s also understandable that Apple says you must submit an actual app to them to get a decision. You can’t just describe what you plan to develop and ask them whether they will approve. Here, again, the problem is not that they do it that way: the problem is that if you actually create that app and they reject it, it’s one click for them (plus another to reject your appeal) and an enormous loss for you as a developer.

Tim Carr:

That feeling every time you hit the “Submit for Review” button knowing that a single reviewer at Apple might decide your entire app was never ok and torpedoes it off the App Store - it is unique, never had that horrid fear anywhere else.

Tim Carr:

I still remember being halfway thru a long drive to a week’s vacation & having to stop in a random timmyho’s summer-hot parking lot in order to plead with an App Reviewer who actually called me, for the life of my app. Highest-stakes call of my life ever

David Barnard:

I think the asymmetry of App Review is still lost on Apple. For indie developers our hopes and dreams (and sometimes our finances) hang in the balance, for the App Review team it’s just another app rejection among tens of thousands. I know they think they get it, they just don’t.

Dave Wood:

This is my biggest problem with Apple right now. Not the payment %. That Apple alone has the power to outright kill your business.

No company should be able to decide if another company (or their business plan) should exist. That’s a job for society & the governments we elect.

Jason Snell:

If developers don’t have to bet it all on an App Store acceptance, it also means that they might be more willing to build daring and interesting apps that currently are too risky. Sure, being on the App Store would remain the goal of most developers (it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t remain the most important real estate on iOS), but many more things are possible if the all-or-nothing gamble is gone.

[…]

The App Review process has gotten a reputation as a capricious and draconian system, but Apple has probably approved many apps that reviewers aren’t thrilled about–either because they don’t want the trouble or because they’re concerned they’ll be limiting the utility of iOS itself if they don’t.

A no-longer-exclusive App Store might tighten its rules and become more opinionated. It might even be more willing to reject shady developers, blast scam apps, and decline certain types of apps altogether. Apple acts as if today’s App Store is just curating the platform, but it’s not–it’s judge, jury, and executioner. If you can fall back on telling developers to release their apps on their own, it’s easier to be a curator.

Perhaps, but there’s still the problem of the bad incentives that come from getting 30% of each scam sale.

Jeff Johnson:

Playstation and Xbox have around 2500 games each. They are truly curated.

App Store and Play Store have around 2-3 million apps each. They are not curated.

Apple would have to drop at least 99% of apps to make App Store “curated”. 20K titles is a reasonable number.

Michael Love:

This is an aspect of “consoles != phones” that Microsoft ought to push a lot more; if there were only 3000 iPhone apps and mine was one of them, I’d have no reason to complain about 30%.

(at the final PalmSource conference, they were working on a curated store charging 70%)

Francisco Tolmasky:

It’s really bizarre we cede major aspects of the @AppStore’s narrative. As stated below, anyone who uses the store knows it isn’t curated at all, but we don’t push back on that. It’s like an energy CEO saying “but if we get rid of coal plants, the air will stop being so clean!”

Part of the problem is that it’s been repeatedly shown that people aren’t built to combat such bold lies, and at such high frequency. Just about every part of the @AppStore narrative from Apple is blatantly false. So you get decision paralysis as to which part to argue against.

Ross Boucher:

It really is bizarre. If third party stores could exist, someone would definitely have made an actually curated store by now.

Francisco Tolmasky:

I’d love an actually kid-focused @AppStore, instead of an @AppStore that seems designed to get kids addicted to “games” that are thinly-veiled slot machines. But that would require losing 30% of the revenues from those games, which is the only true @AppStore guideline.

Previously:

Update (2022-03-09): tannedNerd:

I think the most frustrating part of app review is the inconsistency. Ive seen it happen while I worked at FANG level companies down to my own apps and doing contracting for startups. Each time you submit an update you are rolling the dice that a feature that was perfectly fine for every single app submission previously will be flagged for rule a violation.

A perfect example is one of the apps I do contract work for has a web view directory feature that doesn’t have any login pages on it directly, but after about 3-4 clicks you can get to one for the people who’s listings are on there. After 7 years of this app functioning exactly like this (and 1.5 years of sign in with apple existing) they decided it violated the app store rules because it didn’t feature sign in with apple... It took an app store appeal and almost 2 weeks of back and forth over the exact wording of the sign in with apple rules to get them to agree that the original reviewer had overstepped their bounds.

Although my absolute favorite rejection has been for putting a small apology to my users that I had quarantine due to a covid exposure and thats why the app update was delayed as I was unable to work and keep my family safe. It again took an appeal and 2 weeks for the apple to realize that my app hadn’t suddenly become a covid app, which should have been obviously from the first glance at the covid flagging.

Nick Heer:

So the iPhone’s App Store is not a carefully curated selection of only the best apps for the iPhone after all. It is a flea market with a few high-profile vendors. It is completely backwards. Great developers should be rewarded for building high quality apps. Instead, they are frightened every time they submit an update to the store while watching yet another crappy horoscope app with abusive in-app purchases creep up the charts.

Update (2022-04-11): Damien Petrilli:

It’s a forgotten point but this should be addressed by the upcoming anti monopoly laws.

Apple could prevent any competition by just “forgetting” to approve their accounts.

So far, the laws don’t seem to handle retaliation unless they forbid Apple app signing entirely.

Ben Sandofsky:

Our bug fix update has been rejected because of our app preview. It was added 18 months ago with zero complaints from App Review. I am getting extremely tired of this theater.

7 Comments

As for “computer says no,” the problem is that Apple has to handle such huge quantities of app submissions every day that they have to automate the process to a high degree, and flexibly assign new requests to whoever is available to respond.

Yeah, except: 1) they’ve created this problem for themselves. As a developer, you can argue that many apps shouldn’t need a “review” at all. 2) Steve’s comment presumably isn’t just about App Review. There are lots of other areas where Microsoft’s dev relations simply has a better reputation than Apple’s.

It’s also understandable that Apple says you must submit an actual app to them to get a decision. You can’t just describe what you plan to develop and ask them whether they will approve.

Indeed, you can’t. But… why not?

If developers don’t have to bet it all on an App Store acceptance, it also means that they might be more willing to build daring and interesting apps that currently are too risky. Sure, being on the App Store would remain the goal of most developers (it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t remain the most important real estate on iOS), but many more things are possible if the all-or-nothing gamble is gone.

I’m not sure Jason is right here. Mac software never needed the real estate of the App Store, and by and large still doesn’t. Web apps don’t. Magazines used to exist; review websites do now; word of mouth exists as well.

Which isn’t to say that the App Store provides zero value for marketing and reach. But I think plenty of indie devs would do OK without it.

(Maybe that wasn’t Jason’s point? Not sure.)

Apple would have to drop at least 99% of apps to make App Store “curated”. 20K titles is a reasonable number.

Yup. And I think Jason (or John?) made this point on a recent podcast — that might be a more interesting App Store. Perhaps one that makes Apple less profit, but also one that proves valuable (in a less tangible way) to say “here’s what makes iOS a fantastic platform”. It isn’t RandomGameWhereYouCollectGems.

Florian says "Apple has to review so many apps!"

Boo! hoo! hoo! That's completely a problem of their own making.

They face a trade-off:

a/ review the apps

b/ claim it's wonderful how many free/cheap apps are available (commodify your complement)

c/ spend as little time as possible on reviewing apps, thereby producing arbitrary decisions that piss of developers

They chose a & b & c.

They could have chosen a & b (lots of reviewed apps) at higher cost to themselves, and they are so profitable that this is actually an option for them.

Or they could have chosen a (fewer reviewed apps), the way consoles do, but AFAIK that usually involves bespoke contracts between the console manufacturer and the app maker, in which they negotiate to determine whether the app is suitable for the platform.

Or they could have chosen b (lots of non reviewed apps / alternative app stores).

But they decided a & b & c was best. Coincidentally, a & b & c happens to maximize their revenue. They can claim "review works", and convince users that they are "safe" from nasty developers (and love big brother Apple in the process). And they can claim their platform has "tons of software", much of it "free", thereby making it more valuable to potential users. And they can delude themselves that since there are so many apps being submitted, there must be tons of new developers desperate to come on board, so losing a few doesn't really matter.

As Florian says, not supporting iOS isn't a real option. However ditching native toolkits and moving to React Native/Unity is... which people are now doing. I find that somewhat amusing given that Steve Jobs didn't want a 3rd party layer between developers and Apple's "innovation"... which was why he refused to support Flash.

Beatrix Willius

The first quote from Tim Carr describes perfectly what I feel when I click on the "submit for review" button.

I always think that the reviewers are paid for their number of rejections. I not dotted, t not crossed: rejection. Apple always touts that a percentage of bad software is found in the review. But how much of that is true given what we know about scams?

I love love love how the Dutch react on the shenanigans of Apple with the dating apps. The arrogance of Apple with their minimum of actions is supreme. I hope that the Dutch don't give up.

@Beatrix

I love love love how the Dutch react on the shenanigans of Apple

Me too! A great no nonsense attitude!

@ Beatrix Willius, And Apple supporters are already calling for Apple to pull out of the pathetic small country called The Netherland.

Some evidence that users are not "safe" from nasty developers due to Apple's processes:

https://blog.lockdownprivacy.com/2021/09/22/study-effectiveness-of-apples-app-tracking-transparency.html

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