You might think that the only thing standing between your brilliant idea for an iPhone app and a sweet little beachfront shack on the South Fork is a little technological know-how.
Hang on, hoss. Take off the fingerless programming gloves. Set that Red Bull down. Oh you already opened it? Well you might as well drink it if it’s already open.
But you’re forgetting one major hurdle standing between you and the Apple App Store: Apple.
The company says it’s sold some 100 million iPhones since its launch in 2007, with iPad sales probably nearing 10 million so, the reasons for wanting to be on the app store may seem self-evident, but go beyond the impressive install base. This isn’t just any software store, it’s an extension of the iTunes store, and your placement on it is a tacit endorsement by a company that’s known to be a stickler for quality. Add to that the curation done by Apple employees and Genius recommendations, and there’s no better place for a potential customer to find your app. And all of it comes at cost of just $99 dollars a year for a developer’s license, in addition to a $5 charge for the Xcode 4 development software.
But that doesn’t mean that the process of getting your app approved is easy. Most of the difficulties arise from the unfortunate reality that the application process is a complex game, and Apple holds all the cards. Once a developer applies, he or she can do nothing but wait for Apple to approve or reject the program. According to Alasdair Allan, a developer and author of the O’Reilly book Learning iPhone Programming, this Apple “wall of secrecy” is the most difficult challenge facing developers.
Here, a few rules for would be AppStore tycoons.
1. Make Sure it Works, Then Pray
“Basically you submit your app and you cross your fingers, and it probably shouldn’t be that way,” he said. As soon as Apple finds something objectionable, technically or otherwise, they reject it, meaning that you might have multiple, simple problems each time you submit, but each rejection will only yield the discovery of one. The latest version of the Xcode includes a feature called Fix-It that essentially “spell checks” your code, but all manner of minor annoyances, like an inaccurate version number, can hold up the review process. The square images that will serve as the icon on the iPhone and in the store, for example, must meet certain dimensions. If you offer a free version of your paid app, the two images must be distinct.
2. Keep It Deceptively Simple…at First
A streamlined version of your app will be simpler to get approved. If you can hold off on some bells and whistles, they’re easier to add later.
“Usually the best strategy is to just do whatever you can to get it approved the first time,” said developer Gen Kiyooka, noting that the response time for updates tends to be faster than it is for initial submissions. “And then once it’s been approved, then you can start exploring, like, ‘Oh can I put this feature in?’ It’s definitely its own learning process because it’s so opaque. You hardly get any feedback about what’s going on.”
Of course, it can’t be too simple. The App Submission Guidelines are fairly explicit that any app in “beta,” “trial,” demo” or “test” phase will be rejected.
3. Follow the Rules, Even If They Seem Dumb, or Involve Circumstances Beyond Your Control
The Submission Guidelines are actually a treasure trove of quirky little reasons your app may be rejected. You can’t misspell the names of Apple products, to quote the guidelines, “(i.e., GPS for Iphone, iTunz).” “Apps that include games of Russian roulette will be rejected,” it warns, at the end of the “Violence” section, though “include” is an awfully loaded verb. User interfaces also may not “mimc any iPod interface.”
Tarun Nimmagadda, co-founder and COO of the app development company MutualMobile recalled that the company’s very first app, which he developed personally, was rejected, but only after it was accepted and people started using it in a way that Apple deemed unsuitable. The app was called “Hangtime,” and it encouraged users to toss their phones and catch them, timing how long the phone stayed in the air. It was okay, at first, but it wasn’t long before it started violating a ban on apps that encourage users to damage their phones.
“PC World named it the dumbest iPhone app of the year,” Mr. Nimmagadda said, laughing. “People started to go skydiving with their iPhones so they could get a high score.”
4. Expect the Worst
Apple’s new publishing model has only complicated matters, and led to a recent high profile rejection of the Instapaper-esque app, Readabilty. Rich Ziade, the app’s creator, says the program’s rejection took the team by surprise, if only because they didn’t know that the company’s publishing rules, released under new general guidelines for the store, applied to them. It’s a little tricky to understand why. Unlike a traditional “publisher” that produces content, Readbility simply allows users to access others’ content, and the subscription model is an effort to cover their own costs, as well as remunerate actual publishers like, the New York Review of Books. So they can be forgiven for thinking their app didn’t fit the submission guideline’s definitions of selling “content, functionality, or services.”
“It’s one of those things where there’s a little bit of mind-reading with Apple and it’s hard to really know if this is the deal,” Mr. Ziade said. “It’s kind of similar to when laws come down and then the courts interpret them over time, they deal with those edge cases and stuff.”
5. If All Else Fails, There’s Always Android, or HTML5
By contrast, Google’s Android Market is simple for developers to enter: Google really only checks to make sure a program works before making it available on Android devices. The company’s so dedicated to ease and openness, in fact, that information-stealing malware recently managed to make it past the barriers, infecting some 50 programs and 260,000 users. Whatever that says about quality control, you have to admit it demonstrates a dedication to the open market.
6. Be Patient
Mr. Allan says Apple, on the other hand, sat on one of his apps for four months before delivering its verdict. The app managed information related to Google’s App Engine, which he says was the source of the delay.
“As far as I can tell it bounced from the review team to Apple’s lawyers to Google lawyers to the App Engine team inside Google, back to Google’s lawyers, back to Apple’s lawyers and then back to the review team,” he said. “Typically you can get an app approved in a couple days. I think my shortest time was under two hours from submission to approval.”
7. Make It As Inoffensive As Possible
Compare that to Apple’s high profile rejections based on content it deems inappropriate. Steve Jobs famously told Gawker tech writer Ryan Tate that the iPad offers “freedom from porn” through its censorship, but last year’s crackdown on bikini-related material shows how serious Apple is about keeping everything PG.
8. Win a Pulitzer
Moreover, politics have been a thorny issue for the App Store since its debut in the summer of 2008, which wasn’t exactly a time of great national unity, you’ll recall. The store rejected a clock counting down the minutes until George W. Bush left office, complete with a tiled pretzel-themed background, on the grounds that it was defamatory. In an email to the developer, Steve Jobs reportedly wrote, “I think this app will be offensive to roughly half our customers,” which indicated that he wasn’t probably paying attention to the polling at the time. There’s indication that Apple’s becoming a little more lenient in this department, though. The San Francisco Chronicle online political cartoonist Mark Fiore was invited to resubmit his app after it was rejected, and Mr. Jobs, upon its final approval, called the initial rejection a mistake. Granted, between the initial thumbs down and the invitation to resubmit, Mr. Fiore won a Pulitzer, and since this is a how-to column, we strongly urge developers to earn the prerequisite Pulitzer before attempting to make statements with their apps.
9. Be Original
Development has become harder as more Apps have joined the store. Apple now also expects a degree of creativity in App creation. “We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps,” the company wrote in its latest review guidelines. “If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.”
10. Not That Original!
Not that developers should be too revolutionary in their ideas! Apple reserves the right to reject an app if it’s too similar to something the company does or plans to do, as some podcasting programs learned the hard way. This has given way to a series of blogs dedicated to analyzing developer-submitted app rejections, for hints as to what’s next from the turtlenecked one.
11. Seriously, Follow the Rules
All these difficulties have led developers to ply their wares via the Android store instead, or even bypass native apps altogether through HTML5. These apps are accessible through the browser of most smartphones, meaning they escape regulation of any kind. Mr. Ziade’s small team has pursued this route while the Readability decision is in appeal.
“Coding one set of codes and not having to deal with multiple platforms was hugely beneficial to us,” he said.
All this is to say that patience is key for a potential iPhone developer. And as the platform’s proliferate, there’s reason to believe that Apple may become even more strict about what is and isn’t allowed in the store. After all, there’s no constitutional amendment guaranteeing App Store placement.
“When it comes down to it if you want to sell in the app store you play by people’s rules,” Mr. Allan said. “And to a certain extent I could see why people might want different rules, but it’s Apple’s ball and if they want to pick it up and go home they can.
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