in iOS

At The Mercy of Apple’s Whim

We’ve known for a long time that Apple are king-makers when it comes to bringing up an app through the ranks of the App Store. A nice feature on the front page, and boom, guaranteed sales for at least a week. We’ve all complained at the randomness of it all, but we’ve all wished to be there. It’s random, but at least it’s something positive, so it’s a bit like winning the lottery.

There’s a darker side to Apple’s randomness. Something developers have been complaining for quite a while and it’s just getting worse: The approval process.

This is nothing new though. For a while developers have been reporting random rejections by Apple. Some of them extremely unfair and illogical.

A few months ago, if you got hit with one of those random rejects, it was annoying, but it was bearable. Usually a resubmit would get approved in under a week, so it was possible to fix whatever random thing Apple flagged down (or show them that it wasn’t an issue), and resubmit without wasting too much time.

Now things are different. Supposedly 95% of apps are approved (or rejected) under 14 days (although my informal and biased survey shows very different percentages). A mistake from Apple rejecting an app doesn’t cost you a week anymore, but perhaps as much as an extra 3-4 weeks! That’s a big deal for a company that’s trying to time the release of a product.

So far, I had been one of the lucky developers and I never got a rejection from Apple with Flower Garden. Actually, updates were usually approved withing 7 days to the hour (very suspicious, isn’t it?). But my luck ran out and I joined the group of developers hit hard by random and unfair updates.

Two days ago, Flower Garden 1.7, which had been in review for 24 days was rejected with the following explanation from Apple:

Dear Noel,

Thank you for submitting Flower Garden to the App Store. We’ve reviewed Flower Garden and determined that we cannot post this version of your iPhone application to the App Store because your application contains pricing information in the application, located in the “More Games” page. Providing specific pricing information in this location may lead to user confusion because of pricing differences in countries. It would be appropriate to remove pricing information from your application.

Once these modifications have been made please upload a new binary using iTunes Connect

Regards,

iPhone Developer Program

I was completely floored when I read that email. So apparently displaying a web page with prices for other apps is not allowed unless you localize that based on the language settings of the iPhone. How many apps are doing that? I doubt many (any?) are doing it. I can certainly bring up piles and piles of other games that are showing non-localized prices. But precedence is clearly not an argument with Apple. Even previous versions of Flower Garden had that exact same view with prices and it wasn’t a problem! Random reviewer strikes again.

But wait, there’s more. The prices are shown on a web page fed through my server. I made that change in 30 seconds and emailed them back, hoping they could simply re-test that functionality and approve it on the spot. No, that would be too easy! I had to resubmit a new binary and start the approval process again! I just gave them the change to cut back their work to a fraction of the time (supposedly they had tested other things that they’ll have to re-test because they have no way of knowing I didn’t change/update anything else). Sigh! I resubmitted it and I’m hoping for a quick approval, but somehow I’m ready for another 24-day wait.

So this morning I was excited to receive another email from Apple, I open it and…

Hello Noel,

Flower Garden Lite cannot be posted because it is a feature-limited version. Free or “Lite” versions are acceptable, however the application must be a fully functional app and cannot reference features that are not implemented or up-sell to the full version.

Users can view unlockable seeds on the “Seeds” tab but cannot access them in the Lite version of the application. Please refer to the attached screenshot for an example.

Please upload a new binary and correct metadata using iTunes Connect .

Regards,

iPhone Developer Program

and they attached the following screenshot:

IMG_0014

Users can be unlockable seeds but can’t unlock them? If you follow the included tutorial (2 messages) you unlock the first one. Another message tells them that growing the second seed unlocks the last one. Did they read that, or did they see a locked seed and had a knee-jerk reaction?

I replied to their email right away and explained how to unlock them. I’m afraid I’ll get an email back tomorrow asking me to resubmit and throwing Flower Garden Lite at the back of the queue. I hope not, but I’m prepared for the worst.

It might just be slightly annoying for hobbyist developers, but all of this is making the App Store very difficult to build a reliable, sustainable business around it. The lack of visibility, random approval process, unpredictability, and lack of direct contact make it impossible to have a reliable process or combine release dates with other events such as PR or marketing campaigns. At this point, I would even consider a “professional” iPhone developer account that costs $1K per year and gives you a direct contact in Apple and better visibility and predictability with the approval process. Otherwise, if things continue this way, I’m afraid that professional developers will only put up with this for so long and are soon going to consider the iPhone as a secondary platform and they’ll move on to other pastures like the PSP Mini or new opportunities that come up.

  • Noel,

    I feel your pain – although I haven’t had something as outrageous as this happen with our apps, we did get an app rejection based on including a price in our Product Summary on iTunes. This forced us to re-submit a binary and start over even though it took my less than a minute to remove the offending line from iTunes and it wouldn’t have anything to do with the actual app itself. Luckily, back then apps only took 7 days(!) to approve.

    Now we’ve been waiting 15 days and counting for our latest update. Hearing that Flowers 1.7 took 24 days is extremely disconcerting. 🙁

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  • I’ve also observed incredibly coincidental timing. I think when you submit, it doesn’t actually leave the gate to a human until after a “cooling” period to make sure the developer isn’t going to reject their own app while they’re reviewing it. It seems this period is at least a week.

    I think they should do cursory technical checks (or automate them) and let stuff hit the App Store. Then monitor reviews/ratings for red flags that may require further review.

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  • Billy Zelsnack

    My apps have now been consistently taking 3 weeks for releases and updates.

    The solution to this problem is not to create an exclusive ( expensive ) club for faster turn around. That still does not scale. The only scalable solution ( IMO ) is for Apple to switch to a community review process.

  • Whilst I agree its a pain about the localisation, the thing Apple have enabled within the community is trust, as someone who saw the devastating effects miss use of this trust can have with crazy frogs in Europe, whilst irritating I fully support keeping the general user happy by Apple forcing us the developer community to jump through what sometimes seems silly hoops

  • I fear the review process is like a build that stops on the first error. Unlike seeing all the errors at once, they will iterate over the reject/fix cycle causing an absurd waste of time.

    I always put extra comments and instructions in the “Demo Account – Full Access” section of iTunes Connect, but it sounds like in your case they didn’t even bother to read it.

    Hope the third time work for you!

  • Actually, I didn’t make it clear that the two rejections were for two different apps: The first one was for the latest update of the full version of Flower Garden, and the second update was for the first submission of Flower Garden Lite. So it’s not like they got back to me two days after the first submission with a new problem. For all I know it’s going to take another 3 weeks. I hope not though!

    Everything was re-submitted (to keep the approval process happy even though the binaries were completely unchanged) and I emailed Apple explaining the “fixes” and hoping for speedy approval. I’ll keep you all posted.

  • Scott Elder

    I take it no new email from Apple yet today? I hate to say it, but I think you are once again on the bottom of the stack. There are just WAY to many ways to improve on this review process to even talk about…

    -Scott

  • I did get an email from Apple: “Thank you for uploading a new binary. We will notify you if there are any further issues.”

    In other words, no idea what the status is. If nothing else, this process would benefit from some amount of transparency.

  • Noel,

    Wow, thats about all I can say. I have an app in line for the big black Apple box too! I am only on day 9 and gritting my teeth already after reading all the reports on their approval process. I had one approved back at the end of may after 8 days so I was hoping for something around that this time. Maybe its faster for non-game apps. Although lately it looks like there are a whole lot more non-game apps being sent in. I saw just yesterday a publisher with 191 pages of apps. That means they have 2,292 apps on the store! If they were legit apps I would not have a problem with it but they are like the book apps that came out when the store first opened, ie one piece of info per app instead of having a lot of different info in one app. How much does this clog up the black box I ask? How does apple go through 2,292 apps from one developer? I saw yesterday how convertbot was rejected for having a symbol close to the recents/history symbol for the tab bar. He was using it to mean time, but Apple said it was confusing to users!! I think it is surely ridiculous to have to wait 2-3 weeks to find out you have a minor issue and have to wait again 2-3 weeks for them to find something else minor. They should inform you of things they care about and allow you 1-2 updates to fix them. If you do not fix them then they pull your app. It seems this way we could get our apps up and running and they could request as many things as they please. Its win-win! I really do not mind them telling us to do little things to make the user experience solid, but to make us wait without knowing after spending beaucoup time on the app is just plain cruel.

    Cool website and Apps by the way!

    Thanks

  • Hey Noel,

    To add to this, our app, TweetCapz, v1.1 update just got REJECTED. The reason? “Inappropriate keywords”. You are apparently not allowed to reference other applications in your keywords. For us, it was “Flickr” and “Tumblr” for which our users can email their photos to. This was after 15 days and we had to email the App Review team before they responded with the rejection. Seems like a coincidence that the day we emailed them, they immediately rejected our App update? We’ll never know, I guess.

    Of course, I don’t recall ever reading this restriction for the keywords or any sort of guideline whatsoever – we just have to learn the hard way? They’ve asked us to resubmit the binary and wait even though the Keywords in the iTunes description has NOTHING to do with the App itself. We’ve emailed them back and said that we’ve removed the offending keywords and if they could please continue with the app review. Somehow, I am not optimistic that it will be that easy.

  • Brad Parks

    I’ve had similar experiences, and realized that whenever I submit an app to apple that references online content, I simply make those webpages and urls it hits show very simple content until the app is approved, then after that, I enable the full content. I’m sure this isn’t an “apple approved” approach, but it seems to avoid the potential wrath of an arbitrary reviewer.

    I’ve also been attaching a version number to my url’s so I can have the content enabled for older versions of the app, and disabled on for the version that’s currently in the update queue.

  • The new developer guide from itunes connect includes info on not using app names as keywords.

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