Software

iPhone Apps: What Makes Apple Say No?


James Montgomerie was shocked when he received a rejection from Apple (AAPL) in May. His iPhone e-reader app, Eucalyptus, had been blocked from iTunes because it contained "inappropriate sexual content." The former Apple developer couldn't believe anyone found his application pornographic. Described as "classics-to-go," Eucalyptus carried out-of-copyright books from the 1920s and earlier by authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Apple sent Montgomerie a screen shot of the offending title—a Victorian-era translation of the Kama Sutra, an ancient Indian text on sexuality.

Apple began allowing independent developers to offer iPhone applications online in June 2008. But before any app can be offered for sale, it has to go through a vetting process that many say is unclear and cumbersome. Although some apps are barred because they are offensive to almost anyone—Baby Shaker invited users to rattle a virtual crying baby to death—others are nixed because they might upset political sensibilities. Freedom Time, which featured a countdown clock to the end of the Bush Administration, was nixed because "it would offend roughly half of our users," Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a rare e-mail to the developer.

Other programs are rejected because they duplicate (or potentially compete with) Apple's iPhone software. On July 31 the Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to Apple questioning its rejection of Google Voice, a telephony application. Many analysts believe the service was blocked because it could have snatched revenue from Apple's exclusive wireless service provider, AT&T (T), by providing cheap call rates over Google's (GOOG) lines. AT&T denies any involvement in the move. Among the FCC's questions: Why was Google Voice rejected? What are the standards for acceptance and rejection?

Apple's Is the Only Monopoly App Store Apple isn't the only smartphone maker that decides what can and can't be sold on its app store; BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIMM), Nokia (NOK), and Palm (PALM) do, too. The difference is that users of those smartphones can bypass those makers' app stores and download programs directly from the developers. Apple apps can be downloaded only from the iTunes App Store.

"The process is just very opaque," says Montgomerie. He had already invested almost a year of nearly full-time work on Eucalyptus, and the prospect of having wasted all that time persuaded Montgomerie to yield to Apple's demand to remove the Hindu classic. "I had to sell my soul a little bit, I guess."

Apple did not respond to requests for comment. But some analysts say the outcry over several dozen rejected apps is dwarfed by the opportunities Apple has created. "We hear about those developers because they are vocal. But there are 65,000 apps on iTunes right now, with more than 1 billion downloads," says Michael Gartenberg, vice-president at technology research firm Interpret. "Apple has jump-started a whole industry that makes the process dirt simple for developers who don't even need to worry about how to distribute their products."

And Gartenberg is quick to point out what he considers the major success of the review system. "The net result is quality control—you don't hear of many cases of an app blowing up people's phones."

While Gartenberg concedes that the process isn't perfect, he says it's still in its infancy and has already improved. "What we have seen in many cases is Apple rejecting apps and then listening to what people have to say on the subject, and realizing the rule doesn't make sense going forward. This is new ground for them, new territory."

Apple does provide limited guidance through a 10-page user agreement with broad rules such as "applications may not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind."

A Pre-Development Approval Process Would Help But Montgomerie says he would like to see Apple make their restrictions clearer. "The rules could be much more specific in terms of what is objectionable." Rejection letters could also say specifically how an app might be fixed and approved rather than just quoting a rule. Montgomerie believes there should be an approval process before development begins. That way a developer wouldn't waste months on an idea that Apple won't let in. "The developer could even pay a nominal fee [for the approval process]."

Podcaster developer Alex Sokirynsky, whose app was rejected because it duplicates iTunes functionality, would also like to see a pre-development approval process. The Podcaster would have allowed users to download and search for podcasts. "You put so much time into an application. And you never know if it's going to fall into a gray area until Apple tells you," says Sokirynsky, whose app was rejected in September 2008. "It would be better to spend my time doing something else if I knew the app wasn't going to be approved."

Eight months later, Sokirynsky released a scaled-back version of Podcaster, called RSS Reader, which was approved by Apple.

Both developers say that since Apple's rules are vague, they would recommend that other app makers steer clear of potentially controversial content as well as areas of overlap with Apple's core businesses.

Despite his setbacks, Montgomerie ended up scoring big on the iPhone. A week after his rejection in May, he wrote a blog entry describing Apple's objection to the Kama Sutra. Soon after his widely discussed post, he received a phone call from Apple telling him that his app would now be allowed, with no removal of the sacred text necessary. His app was for sale on iTunes as of early June, along with a requirement that users be 17 or older because of the sexual content.

On a good day, Montgomerie now sells several hundred copies of his $9.99 software, which nets him $7 after Apple takes its 30% fee. "It's enough that I can make a living off of it. It looks like I will make about what I was making at Apple," says Montgomerie. "In the end, I guess I will continue to develop for the iPhone. It's the biggest platform."
Schectman is a reporter at BusinessWeek.

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