App Store Follies

Pretty much every time that news breaks regarding yet another fuckup with the iPhone App Store approval process I get a slew of emails and tweets prompting me to opine on the subject. In general I haven’t done so, not because I don’t have an opinion on the subject, but because I fear that my opinion would not be well understood. Nonetheless, I’m going to take the time now to lay out my thoughts on the whole sad, sorry affair.

John Gruber over at Daring Fireball published a piece today titled Excerpts From the Diary of an App Store Reviewer. It’s funny, with John’s characteristic dry wit. It’s also wrong.

As an aside, I want to make it perfectly clear that I’m not claiming any special knowledge regarding this situation, and I don’t think that John is either. I’m merely speculating based on what I’ve seen in the last year, and my own experience with similar processes at other companies.

John seems to argue, in his humorous way, that the core issue with the App Store approval debacles is the individual reviewers acting capricious for their own personal reasons. He writes:

I could read that over and over. It’s like the voice of a robot. The voice of authority. The voice of authoritative robots.

I feel a surge sending it. I can imagine that for the developer on the other end the experience must be like that of speaking to a wall. A monolith. But it’s a wall that might actually be listening. That on the other side of the wall might be — must be, no? — a human being, an at least reasonably smart late-20s/early-30s guy with a B.S. in comp sci who grew up in the same culture, shares the same interests. Someone who in broad demographic terms is more or less exactly like him. Someone whom he could not just relate to but reason with. Someone who, if presented with the simple facts, would surely see the absurdity of the stated reasons behind this app’s rejection. … Rejecting all of them, consistently, would in fact be no good at all. The feeling of being part of the monolith — of being the monolith — really only surges when I use my position to act capriciously.

To act fairly would be to follow the rules. To act capriciously is to be the rules.

This is where John and I must part ways. Where John, and his imagined developer imagine the App Store reviewer to be a guy “more or less exactly like him” I make a very different assumption.

My view of our imaginary reviewer is much the same as that expressed by Mark Damon Hughes in his Twitter response to John’s article:

@gruber I love the app store reviewer diary, but the plodding, methodical, unthinking, rigid rules behavior? Classic Indian outsource work.

While I don’t agree that the behavior we’ve seen from the App Store review process is necessarily indicative of Indian, or even outsourced work, it is very indicative of the call center mentality.

The vast majority of people who have commented on the App Store approval process, discounting the talking heads of the New Media Douchebag echosphere, have been current or former software developers or IT professionals. It is natural for them, like John’s fictional developer to imagine that the reviewers should be people like them. I, on the other hand, have my roots firmly in the land of call center operations, and I can tell you that the people that man the cube-farms are as vastly different from software developers and IT pros as they are from Manhattan socialites.

It wasn’t always this way, but for the most part now your average cube farmer is a mindless drone who is actively discouraged from ever applying his or her own critical thinking to a situation. He or she is given a set of guidelines to follow, and if you can’t resolve the issue using them in the alloted time then you ditch the issue using any means available.

The problem is that, while the vast majority of App Store submission decisions are no brainers (and let’s be honest, the percentage of questionable rejections that are generating this conversation is vanishingly small), the difficult cases are, to be blunt, difficult. So, when a developer submits an app that triggers review based on the guidelines that Apple has provided, it may land in the queue of someone with some critical thinking skills and be approved, or it may land in the queue of someone who slavishly follows the rules to the letter. Even worse, an app that made the cut when first submitted will almost certainly be reviewed by a different person when being updated, with potentially disastrous results.

So, what’s to be done? First I have to repeat that everything that I wrote above is pure speculation, I could very well be wrong about this. Second I want to emphasize that I’ve written this not to absolve Apple of the problem, but to help the developers out there understand just why it seems that Apple is acting like a spastic crack monkey. Given that, here are my recommendations to Apple:

  1. If this review process is, in fact, being handled by outsourced labor bring that shit back in house! Outsource may be cheaper, but this process is too important to leave to third parties.
  2. Attach some identifying information to the App Store rejection letters. Part of the frustration of the rejection process is the anonymity of the reviewers. Developers have no idea if their app is being reviewed by one person or a multitude.
  3. Publish clear approval/rejection guidelines with specific examples of what may or may not trigger rejection.
  4. Create and adequately staff an appeals queue, and make it clear to developers when they are communicating with the front line monkeys as opposed to the  higher-ups.
  5. Create a process for devs to obtain a provisional “pre-approval” for apps. I agree with the devs who are complaining that it’s unfair for them to commit resources to an application that may be rejected.
  6. Fire whoever at Apple owns this process. A year is too long for something like this to be publicly broken.

So, there you have it. My perspective on the situation from someone who’s done time in the trenches. I may be wrong, but I’m betting I’m right.