Where do I sign up?

Baseless app rejections, an unsustainable pricing structure, piss-poor developer relations and a blackbox review system. Where do I sign up?

If you had asked me at this time last year how I felt about the AppStore and developing for the iPhone platform I would have told you about what a great experience it is. Apple has developed a wonderful software development platform that makes it easy for developers to build great looking, functional applications. Unfortunately to go along with the excellent software development tools, they’ve offered us a horrific, and at times hostile, experience when it comes to distributing our applications.

With the latest app rejection being Google Voice, I am one step closer to selling off my iPhone products and focusing entirely on the Mac once more. I can’t help but feel that I’ve wasted the past 9 months of my life building on a platform that is so hostile and anti-developer.

Baseless App Rejections

Google Voice isn’t the first app to be rejected for bullshit reasoning. Alex Sokirynsky pioneered the baseless rejection movement when his Podcaster application was rejected for duplicating functionality already present on the iPhone. He didn’t do himself or other developers a favor when he tried circumventing the system and selling his app via Ad Hoc distribution, but I can certainly understand the sentiment. It’s hard to accept that something you’ve invested months of time and resources into developing has been flat out denied for sale because the gatekeeper has deemed it unacceptable.

Sean Kovacs, the developer of the third-party Google Voice app GV Mobile suffered the same fate as the official Google app, only his app actually made it in the store for a time. He received a call from Apple informing him that his application was being removed from the store for the same duplicating functionality reasoning.

Rather than saying duplicating functionality, I wish Apple would just own up and say why they are really rejecting these apps: they compete with existing Apple products or Apple’s carrier partners. Google Voice and GV Mobile compete with Apple & AT&T by offering an alternative to hefty minute and SMS plans.

Google’s a billion dollar company and can afford to take a loss on the development time it took to build their Google Voice app, but in the case of Kovacs, a source of income was taken out from under him. I can’t help but look behind me whenever I’m working on an iPhone product if/when Apple is going to pull my income source out from under me because it doesn’t please someone in Cupertino or at AT&T HQ. What happens when Apple decides to release a tasks app for the phone? What about a Twitter client? Are the existing solutions going to receive the same phone call as Kovacs?

It’s a bit of a slippery slope argument, but what if Apple adopted this same shut down the competition policy on the Mac? If Apple had the same distribution system in place for Mac OS X as the iPhone, it’d certainly be plausible that Fraser Speirs would be out of business. His FlickrExport product competes directly with iPhoto 09’s native Flickr exporting functionality and his newly acquired Changes app is competition to the inferior FileMerge.

An unsustainable pricing structure

As I wrote in Done Point Oh, there are two problems with the pricing of iPhone applications presently. The first is that they are too low on a whole to support future versions of products after release. If you aren’t featured on the AppStore homepage, you’re not making much money: certainly not enough to make a living doing this.

The second problem is in message. Apple is quick to tout the success stories of the AppStore, but these folks are a minority. Consumers still think anyone that is building software for the iPhone is going home at night and fucking a bag of money, but it’s just not the case.

I have been working on a 2.0 version of FitnessTrack for the past month, but I spend far too much time asking myself if its even worth doing the update given how little revenue it actually brings in compared to Today. I have to sell 8 copies of FitnessTrack a day to equal the revenue I earn from a single Today purchase. When you’re not featured on the AppStore front page, that can be a daunting task.

Piss-poor developer relations

I’ve had nothing but frustration when it comes to dealing with Apple on AppStore and iTunes Connect related matters. The only way to interact is via email. Whether its a review, payment or contract related issue, you send Apple an email and hope that they will get back to you within 30 days. If you try calling the ADC hotline about your issue, they ask that you email the appropriate address and someone will get back to you.

When I was first getting my account setup, Apple was refusing to accept my bank’s wire transfer information saying that it was invalid. After two weeks worth of back and forth via email it was at a standstill where Apple said one thing while my bank said the other. My bank offered to contact Apple directly to try and work the issue out, but Apple informed us that it was not possible to do so. I ended up having to setup a secondary account just for receiving AppStore payments (which I’ve yet to see a dime from).

I can’t imagine many other major store fronts that only interact with vendors via an email queue.

Blackbox review system

I honestly don’t mind the idea of an approval process for iPhone applications as a means for keeping malware out, but the current setup is so chock full of issues that it is yet another hindrance that sours my desires to develop on the AppStore.

The lack of a pre-approval process for applications certainly stifles development and gives the whole process a roll the dice feel. Do you think Podcaster or GV Mobile would have been developed had both developers been able to contact Apple to see if their application would be accepted prior to even starting out? Without pre-approval, we are all building software and hoping that Apple will allow us to grace their storefront.

What Apple deems acceptable is a moving target. No one outside of Cupertino really knows what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior or functionality for an application on any given day. The only way we learn is by reading about the misfortune of other developers as their products are rejected for the new reason of the week.

Assuming your application is not in that iffy category that still doesn’t offer you any insight into when Apple will actually approve an initial release or even an update. I stopped bothering with point releases to my iPhone applications because it was taking anywhere from 10-14 days to get them accepted. I’d have followup releases ready to submit before the previous one was even in the store. Some developers have had their applications sit in the review process for months at a time with little correspondence from Apple as to what the holdup is.

And let’s not forget the new in 3.0 rating system that forces applications Web-enabled apps like Instapaper to adopt a 17+ rating because they allow access to the Web.

Punching Out?

I have been seriously considering trying to sell off my two iPhone assets and getting out completely. I make my living building software and selling it online and the AppStore platform as it presently stands is not capable of providing a reliable and consistent means of income. Developing software for the platform is like playing the lottery. Most people end up losing out while a select few strike it rich.

More important than the money is my enjoyment as a developer. I no longer enjoy building software for the iPhone because of the bureaucracy and infrastructure that surrounds it. I can build great software for the Mac without the headaches and bullshit of dealing directly with Cupertino and their AppStore. As it stands, it’s too much effort with too little reward when compared to distributing software on my own terms on the Mac platform. I’m tired of dealing with these issues and I know other developers are as well. AppStore is just an upgraded, native shit sandwich.

In the end, however, if I do leave the AppStore and the iPhone platform it doesn’t matter. At best, I’m a B or C-level Mac developer with a blog and a Twitter account. I doubt that many people would be sad to see me go. They will, however, start to pay attention when the Craig Hockenberry’s and Fraser Speirs’ of the world decide they have had enough and stop developing for the platform. I wouldn’t be surprised if that day doesn’t come soon.

The AppStore is partially a success because of the infrastructure Apple built, but it wouldn’t be anything without the software developers. I wonder when Apple will realize that?

About Justin

Justin Williams is the Crew Chief of Second Gear. He writes about consumer technology, running a bootstrapped software business, and more from Denver, Colorado.

Follow @justin on Twitter or get new articles via @carpeaqua.