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Apple sheds sliver of light onto its app approval process

August 24, 2009 |  4:42 pm
Blind Justice
Apple's impartiality in approving iPhone apps was called into question after it did not approve the Google Voice app. Credit: Veyis Polat via Flickr.

Apple's methods for approving (or not) applications for distribution in its iTunes App Store has more often than not been attributed to capriciousness.

Like floating a message in a bottle, developers submit their app to Apple and wait. A couple weeks later, either the app appears in the store or it doesn't. Some apps are approved but then get yanked, as was the case with Baby Shaker and I Am Rich.

Others are rejected with explanations that cause some head-scratching, such as the company's rejection of Eucalyptus, an electronic book reader with which users could access public domain books from Project Gutenberg. Apple's rationale: The app could be used to access "objectionable content," specifically the Kama Sutra. Never mind that the iPhone's Safari browser, developed by Apple, can access similar content.

Until recently, Apple has not had to answer to anyone for its decisions. Apple created the iTunes App Store and has the right to control what it sells in its own store, the argument goes. On July 31, however, the Federal Communications Commission asked Apple to explain its reasons for rejecting Google Voice, an app designed to help users manage their phone numbers, send text messages and make inexpensive international calls.

On Friday, Apple responded. Aside from the surprising revelation that it did not actually reject the Google Voice app, Apple tucked in a few choice bits about its process for approving apps, including the fact that Apple employs 40 full-time reviewers to cull 8,500 new applications submitted to Apple each week. Since Apple opened its App Store a little more than a year ago, it has reviewed more than 200,000 apps and updates, it says.

Roughly 20% of apps are not approved as originally submitted, according to Apple. Reasons for being rejected include ...

... concerns over the privacy of iPhone users; access to inappropriate content for kids; technical bugs; and apps that interfere with the functionality of the iPhone.

Once those concerns are adequately addressed, Apple said, 95% of applications are approved within 14 days. 

Apple also said it consults with AT&T over apps that could clog up the carrier's 3G cellular network. "From time to time, AT&T has expressed concerns regarding network efficiency and potential network congestion associated with certain applications, and Apple takes such concerns into consideration," Apple wrote in its statement to the FCC.

Apple's contract also has a provision that bars iPhone users from obtaining a TV signal through the cellular network, presumably to avoid overburdening AT&T's cellular network. Apple explains that it had rejected the SlingPlayer Mobile app by Sling Media on those grounds, but approved it later when the app routed those signals through the iPhone's Wi-Fi Internet connection instead.

The Cupertino, Calif., company said each app is reviewed by at least two people "so that the review process is applied uniformly." It also has an App Store executive review board that determines "procedures and sets policy."

No doubt those policies have themselves gotten the once-over in the wake of the FCC inquiry.

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.