Since last year I've been working on several iPhone projects off and on. I have half a dozen solutions incubating that I think are both new and fun (and for problems where there isn't "an app for that" on the App Store. Don't tell Apple.) I've tried curtailing my blog reading, focusing only on "critical news" specifically to avoid reading about App Store rejections. Daring Fireball is one of a few blogs I still read daily and yesterday I read about yet another App Store rejection.
The Motivation and the Risk
As a software developer trying to start up a software company, reading these sordid tales is extremely demotivating. To be up against the raw market is risky enough, but to have to mentally grapple with the real possibility of some random reviewer's power trip banishing my months of design work to the bit bucket is unnerving to say the least. Unlike the fabled entrepreneur, I don't like risk, I seek at all times to reduce it as much as possible, but this is a show stopper kind of risk I don't know how to manage.
I've learned that I do my best work when doing something I'm passionate about, and I'm passionate about iPhone applications. It's what I want to do and the confluence of so many things I love. It's what I think about in my free time. It's how I want to create. But with all the App Store rejections, (and I'm sure there are more that have not been published) it's causing me to seriously question my development efforts. It seems like the only way to be sure you get in the App Store is to write a game, and even then not always. Now, I like a good game, but that's not the kind of solution I want to build.
I hope to build apps that real people will be delighted to pay for and not dismiss because the price is more than $0.99. The consequence of this desire to build innovative and focused solutions that are worth more than $0.99 is that real investment must be made. Real money for design work, real money for development, real time spent understanding a problem space and building and testing the solution. From a realistic business perspective, can I really afford to invest that much time, effort and money in the hope that Apple will smile on me and I'll be able to make a living doing something I love?
The No Upgrades Business Model
One sure way to manage risk is to invest only a little at a time. Many developers release a small simple application to test the market and then make their livelihood on the upgrades over time of serving that portion of the market. On the iPhone App Store, there is no way to do this. Once you've purchased an App, you get upgrades to that application forever, for free. When modeling a business on the App Store this reality means you must amortize the life time cost of your development efforts over your predicted customer base. Not only is this tricky, but it makes releasing an application worth that price very difficult. Many of us have paid for years of Mac OS upgrades, and while it adds up to a lot of money, who would have paid over $500 for Mac OS X 10.0? I'm not saying that the iPhone business model is bad, but that it's different than the typical upgrade driven model. This difference affects the risk that a developer must assume and in most cases increases the risk, rather than decreases it. When you compound this risk onto the risk of an App Store rejection, it's no wonder that there seems to be a low price average on the App Store.
What frustrates me most about the approval process is actually not that it is so opaque, but that it does nothing truly positive for customers. It doesn't help quality. It doesn't help customers find the right solutions. It doesn't protect customers. As far as I can see, every part of the process is about Apple, their legal issues, their protection, their agreement with AT&T and others, and their success. I know there are more App's in the queue for the App Store now than ever before, but are they really compelling solutions? Some are, to be sure, but what about the rest? Isn't there a compelling business reason for Apple to support investment in valuable (not free) solutions built for the iPhone? They get 30% of the dollar applications as well as 30% of the 10 dollar applications. A percentage of a larger number is a larger number, last time I checked. At the scale of the App Store, Apple must see this in high contrast, black and white. Why fight against it?
The Trust Thing
It's about trust. Trust in developers and users. I think that's what grates the worst. It's as if Apple doesn't trust the developers to produce high quality applications or users to choose and rate apps appropriately. If Apple believed that the "unwashed masses" with iPhones could actually vote with their comments, their money and their downloads in some reasonable way, we'd be so much further along in this slow process of exposing simple and clear review guidelines.
The Mac App Store
When the App Store first came out I was actually excited that perhaps someday there would be a similar store for the Mac. It would take so much of the upgrade, install and purchasing hassle out of the process. Now, I'm glad I have a "free" platform on which to fall back should the App Store process remain unchanged. If the Mac App Store resembles even slightly the unpredictable process of the iPhone App Store, I hope it never materializes.
I recognize that there are real legal issues that Apple must deal with world wide. But like with the iTunes Store, deal with those legal issues so as to hide them from the customer without reducing the quality of the experience. Don't be so weak in bowing to the legal realities as to avoid seeking a real solution that makes the App Store a place where real software developers can invest. If all Apple wants is large numbers of applications for PR then they should drop the entry fee for joining the iPhone Dev program, but if they want something more, then they should act like it before and after they take the money.
The review process can be a success without being transparent. The unpredictability is really the hardest part about the approval process. I don't believe the entire process needs to be fully transparent, as much as I'd like that. What really needs to be clear is how I can ensure that my application will be approved. If I have this assurance, then I can invest appropriately, until then, I'm gambling and that's no way to run a business.
I still have hope that Apple will change. They have in the past. I hope they do now, and soon. The iPhone is the best mobile phone platform out there, it's a shame to limit the creativity on the platform to what a $0.99 application investment can support. Dear Apple: Give us the rules, we want to play.