Update 11:11PM Eastern: On Twitter, Brichter reports the problem has been smoothed out and version 1.3 has been approved and should be showing up in the App Store shortly. All is right with the world, but it would still be nice if the rules were a little clearer.
Apple has struck a new level of bizarreness when it comes to approving submissions to the App Store. On Tuesday, Loren Brichter of atebits, developer of popular iPhone Twitter client Tweetie said via Twitter that Apple had rejected the latest update to the app because it contained an obscenity; he later confirmed that in an e-mail to Macworld.
Here’s the catch: the obscenity was in Tweetie’s Trends feature, shown at left, which scans the social networking to find the most popular keywords that people are talking about (and no, the obscenity in question was not "Kindle," smartypants). If there’s a naughty word in that section, it’s not because Tweetie’s developers put it there, but because people on Twitter were talking about it. It’s akin to rejecting the app because somebody was posting swears to their Twitter feed.
What? There's swearing on the Internet? Say it ain't so! This is ridiculous. In fact, it's so ridiculous, I can't even express how ridiculous it is. Because Apple would ban me.
If that’s the level we’re looking at here, then Safari ought to be banned for indecency because you can use it to look at porn and Apple ought to take out Notes because you can clearly write swears in that too. While we’re at it, we should probably just get rid of the whole virtual keyboard, because that’s nothing but trouble waiting to happen.
Of course, that’s not the real problem here—the issue is that App Store approval process is fast becoming untenable. It’s always been a black box, but moves like this one are starting to make it seem like a black hole. With over 25,000 applications on the store and more coming in every day, it seems like perhaps the approval process is simply overwhelming Apple. Whatever the case, it’s desperately in need of an overhaul.
Brichter himself is of two minds about the situation. "As part of the bigger picture, this is going to be a growing issue," he says. "At the same time, I understand the App Store is still a toddler. I have plenty of faith that the kinks will be worked out eventually." He points out that what makes the rejection even stranger is that the previous version of Tweetie was a "Featured" app in the store just last week.
So how do you solve a problem like the iPhone app review process? It’s hard to say, exactly, since it's so inscrutable to us in the outside world. If it’s a matter of sheer volume, then Apple simply needs to hire more bodies—that’s relatively easy to fix.
But I suspect it’s more than that. The rejections that make the news often seem to lack rhyme or reason, which suggests a set of criteria that are not uniform between the various personnel doing the approval. There are a couple of changes that could help this situation: the first is to post a straightforward rubric for what merits rejection from the App Store—for both developers and those on the inside. And I’m talking Crystal Pepsi clear, here. For obscenity that may even involve the literal spelling out of certain objectionable words—George Carlin would be proud.
The other potential change is accepting more types of content and figuring out some way to rate or categorize that content rather than flat-out rejecting it. There’s already explicit content in both the audio and video sections of the iTunes Store, but it’s usually marked as such (although not across the board—you’ll find a lot of movies that actually lack ratings).
Such a move could help avoid potential embarassment in the future, too. From what I can tell, it would be a pretty trivial matter to get something onto the store that would only reveal its true nature after a certain amount of time. Widening the type of content accepted to the store could forestall that eventuality by providing a legitimate route for developers to submit edgier applications. "It seems to me that App Store rejections are the rule when they should be the exception," says Brichter.
It’s a solution that’s not without its own problems, especially when it comes to overhead—unlike music and movies, there’s no external rating body for software, so Apple would have to make the determination themselves. But that's something the company already does for both iPod and iPhone/iPod touch games. Perhaps an extention to that system is worth considering.
Regardless, the review process for iPhone apps needs to be standardized, and it needs to be done now, not later. Apple’s created an impressive business out of the App Store—it’s time to stop acting like it’s being run out of a garage.