Compared to the iPhone 3G and MobileMe, which had somewhat rocky starts when they were introduced, Apple’s App Store had a relatively smooth launch for consumers. For many iPhone developers, however, working with Apple and the App Store has been anything but smooth.
Developers we spoke to have several problems with the App Store — the only place where you can buy applications for the iPhone and iPod touch. First, it’s been taking a long time for updates submitted to Apple to get pushed to the public. Second, Apple isn’t communicating with developers about when applications will be pushed live. Finally, Apple is not providing any sales information, so developers have no idea how their apps are doing.
Because of the sensitive nature of working with Apple, many developers only talked to Macworld about App Store problems on the condition of anonymity (Apple representatives could not immediately be contacted for comment).
Problems with the App Store
As a consumer, one of the great things about the App Store is that it notifies you when updates become available for an application that you purchased. The notification works for free apps, as well (when it works at all, this is). The problem is that it’s taking a week or more in some cases for updates submitted by developers to post on the App Store.
The delay could easily be explained away as Apple being so busy with applications that the company is overwhelmed, but developers aren’t so sure that explains what’s going on. According to some developers, their updates are being ignored in favor of updates from larger companies.
“We submitted an update a week ago, and it still isn’t updated,” said one iPhone developer. “Some apps seem to get updated quickly, so some type of favoritism is evident. I’ve seen one day, and then I’ve seen two weeks — no one knows why the disparity, either.”
Updates from developers, especially in the early stages of a new platform, can be very important. A lot of times, the updates fix major problems like crashes or other issues that cause the app to not work as intended. That frustration is multiplied for developers when the update is done, but can’t be distributed because Apple has not approved its release.
“I’m not happy with delays involved, and the seemingly arbitrary favoritism that’s evident,” said the iPhone developer. “It’s either favoritism or just general chaos.”
Not all iPhone developers are that upset with the update times. While they still notice a delay in posting updates, they hope once the backlog has been worked through, things will pick up a bit.
“It seems like Apple has its hand full here, as we’ve submitted a couple of updates for Where To? and Tipulator, but the initial 1.0 versions are still on the App Store,” said John Casasanta, co-founder of tap tap tap. “The Tipulator update has been in the queue for about a week now, so hopefully it makes its way to the Store soon.”
Developers have also noted that from a user perspective, the updates don’t seem to hit iPhones at the same time. Updated applications that aren’t showing up for some have been available to other users for several days
The lack of communication from Apple is also making things difficult for the developers. Nobody really has any idea how long updates will take to get posted and Apple isn’t saying.
Fraser Speirs, owner of Connected Flow (makers of the Exposure Flickr application for the iPhone), expressed concern about how delays could affect customer support as well as sales.
“I don’t have a problem with updates being reviewed [by Apple prior to posting], but it has to go a lot faster,” said Speirs. “Given the no-demos rule, an app lives or dies by App Store reviews. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch review after review complain about a bug that you fixed and ‘shipped’ two weeks ago.”
While developers are okay with Apple having a review process, some of the things in that process don’t make a lot of sense, and the reasons for rejection can be even more mystifying.
“They reject apps for superficial things (icon being the wrong size, confusingly worded messages) while sometimes major bugs slip in under the radar,” said another iPhone developer. “It seems pretty haphazard and human-powered rather than automated.”
Apple also isn’t sharing up-to-date sales information with developers. Apple provides them with a monthly report, but that’s not enough for most developers.
“We have no idea [how our app is doing],” said another iPhone developer. “No one has any idea. No realtime stats are provided, all you can do is wait for the end-of-month report. There is no way to make pricing adjustments based on sales, because you don’t know what sales are. In this digital age, it’s stunning to me that this omission is there.”
Fixing the problems
When it comes right down to it, developers are most upset about the time delays and communication (or lack thereof) with Apple.
“My only issue with app review is the time factor,” said Connected Flow’s Speirs. “If I needed to fix a data-destroying bug, or a privacy/security issue, would it take this long? My 1.0.1 update contained fixes for three serious crashing bugs, yet it took a week to get it on the store. People tell me this time lag is nothing different from other console/phone type arrangements, but Mac developers have been used to pushing out updates as soon as they’re ready.”
Other developers echoed Speirs sentiments and asked that the process be sped up, especially for critical bug fixes.
Overall, the App Store has been a great success for Apple, but it seems obvious that there is still a lot of work to do on the backend. And while the developers need Apple to distribute their apps, Apple also needs a spirited development community to help the iPhone achieve its success.
Updated at 1:36 PT to clarify developer remarks.