A request and proposal for App Review Reform
App Review Reform (App Review Review?)
I spent the last post expounding on a negative App Review experience. So in this follow-up, I answer the question; what App Review changes would I like to see?
I'll start by touching on an often mentioned approach that I am not sure is a silver bullet; Epic's case against Apple. As a developer and consumer, I don't understand Epic's argument for why they should be allowed to operate a competing store. To me, it seems like they argue that Apple's 30% fee is too high; however, Epic's 5% fee is just right. Epic seems to be trying to make the case that they should be given the right to compete in Apple's ecosystem; however, they should not be similarly required to allow alternative sellers on the Epic Store. As a developer, I don't have an issue with Apple's percentage cut per se. I have a problem with how difficult and opaque App Review can be. At the core of my doubt that this case is the solution is that every time I read about Epic vs Apple in court, it seems like Epic want to make more money from iOS first and foremost (which they are allowed to want!). This appears to be the actual cause, which is then packaged up as motivated by a purely altruistic drive to save consumers from big bad Apple. Epic is allowed to want to profit, of course, as is Apple, myself and anyone, but it doesn't seem that Epic are putting users or developers first. Epic's arguments in court come across as just a more PR friendly justification than pure profit. I understand companies simply doing what is best for profit, but my view is that the sweet spot is when what is best for revenue and best for users truly align.
A big part of the reason I currently develop solely for Apple platforms is the user-friendly focus of the App Store. I know that Apple profits from this enormously, but it is tough to argue they do provide a very consumer-friendly experience. Of course, the experience is not perfect, as there are tons of scam apps and the like that make their way through, but I still feel that Apple does right by the consumer overall. Epic's arguments to me tend to sound purely in their own interest, with consumer benefit tacked on nebulously at the end.
At the end of the day, I agree there are good consumer-based arguments for alternative App Stores and allowing sideloading. Although even if sideloading eventuates, I still want the App Review process to improve regardless. I find the most compelling argument is that Apple should not be able to control access to such a significant market share of a general-purpose computing device, not necessarily the fees. However, even if sideloading is implemented, it seems likely that the App Store will continue to hold a dominant percentage of the iOS market. In this presumably close future scenario of multiple ways to reach iOS users, then App Store Reform will still be vital for indie developers to have a chance at competing.
So to answer the question, what I absolutely do want to see is App Store Reform. I've got one idea in particular that I kept coming back to that I have idly considered while pondering if I will ever escape App Review Purgatory this last month. The aim of this idea, and what I want to see most, is to end up with an App Review process that accomplishes the goals of keeping the App Store high quality, safe and user friendly while giving developers a clearer path to success.
Idea - Apple Jury Duty
What immediately comes to mind when you read that? You've probably got the crux of it; I don't think it is a particularly complicated idea.
Rather than an App Review Board, what if there was instead an App Review Tribunal? Instead of being completely opaque and uncommunicative, what if there were set processes and procedures? What if, at the end of the day, the fate of your app on the App Store was decided by people who similarly have some skin in the game, not just nameless and faceless Apple employees? I am not intending to blame Apple employees; I just don't think that the system allows them to be effective in this role of ecosystem gatekeeper.
Alison Yates and Andrea Cull of Knitrino elucidate the impact that Apple's sole role as gatekeeper has on small businesses in their post Unraveling Apple. Bringing fellow developers into an App Review Tribunal process would mean that Apple is no longer the sole gatekeeper.
As part of this tribunal and jury approach, there would need to be a selection process for App Review Jury. This in and of itself would be difficult, but for the sake of discussion, let's say that to be developer jury duty eligible, you would need to have published an app on the App Store and be an active developer program member. The case would also need to not involve a direct competitor or involve any other kind of conflict of interest. Picking a jury at random would likely keep the chances of this happening pretty low.
There would also need to be some kind of jury lead through the process, which would have to be an Apple employee. The App Review Tribunal's lead role would be to explain Apple's case for rejection and the process, and that would be it.
The App Review Tribunal's Judge would preside, the App Review team would provide the Prosecution's arguments, and the developer would necessarily lead their Defence. Following this, the jury would decide and present a recommendation to the Judge. At the end of the day, it is still Apple's hypothetical internal court, so I guess it would still need to be up to the Judge to accept the jury's finding. I am not a lawyer, but I am sure there are parallels to existing systems and ways to solve these problems.
As I write this, I realise more and more that I am just recreating and describing a transparent Apple App Review internal judiciary process with active developer participation.
Would this incentivise frivolous App Review rejection challenges? Maybe. So there would need to be a process to disincentivise numerous failed challenges. I doubt that Apple will take no action now if you continue to submit one appeal after another unsuccessfully, but a more transparent policy would be huge in this area. To be honest, transparency goes a long way to improving this experience for app developers. However, there are always downsides in that transparency can make things easier for people trying to game the system.
Does this stop scams from getting into the App Store? No. However, it may actually result in more getting kicked out. If Apple doesn't have to carry the full brunt of adverse reactions and can point to a more impartial process, scam apps may find themselves more likely to get kicked off the store, a massively positive outcome for everyone. A little scrolling through iOS developer Twitter will reveal that many indie developers are as outraged as anyone by the scams proliferating. Kosta Eleftheriou highlights some of these scams with such frequency you could almost set your watch to it.
What's in it for Apple? Well, better developer relations! Better outcomes and tangible anti-trust and anti-competition defences where Apple can claim they are no longer the sole gatekeeper of the App Store. I said it before, and I'll repeat it again; I have no issue with the percentage commission of revenue that Apple takes; I have a problem with the terrible processes and arbitrary business risk that indie developers currently face. A lot of the calls to break up Apple's control over iOS, to my layperson understanding anyway, hinge on this element of control and competition. Pricing is one aspect for sure, but access at all is the issue that concerns me far more. Implementing this suggestion would have a monetary cost, but I have no idea how it would compare to the cost of the current system. Ideally, the economic benefit to Apple is significantly greater than the cost, so in theory, consumers, developers and Apple all win.
What's in it for developers? Potentially everything. Well, 70% of it anyway. I find the impact of positive changes hard to overstate, both as I see the influence on myself and the effect alluded to by other indie developers. Look at Marcus' experience, and it is easy to deduce that if App Review improved, through this idea or any other, the experience of developing for Apple would be far less painful.
App Store Review can be so cumbersome and inconsistent. I could fill books about it. Usually it‘s wild interpretations of arbitrary rules which in the end cost a lot of effort, nerves, time and ultimately money.
Do I know if this idea would work? No. Are there smarter people who can immediately point out the existential holes in the idea? Probably. However, I haven't seen it suggested, and I find it an interesting thought experiment to play with. How different would an indie developers App Review experience be in this scenario? Heck, how different would a major developer's experience be in this scenario?
To use a recent example very close to me, if Word Game Hero was indeed a copycat, then other indie developers are going to see that and vote to kick it out. Alternatively, if seen as a fairly created original remix of a concept (as so many apps are at the end of the day!), this hypothetical indie jury would decide that I should carry on as you were. Of course, this hypothetical App Review Tribunal could not and should not impact the separate legal processes such as trademark claims, which obviously supersede any App Review mechanisms. There are also numerous challenges, like how would you ensure that apps are adequately considered? Much like real-world jury duty, there would need to be guidelines, processes and rules.
I have not taken as close inspiration from other properties for my other projects. I now have a lingering concern that arbitrary similarity will pause anything I do next. I am of the school of thought that Everything is a Remix. This means that everything could be argued to be a copycat if you took a hard-line approach with blurred and indistinct boundaries. So what about my new app, Barcodes, which has just been submitted for review? There are already barcode and QR code storage apps, so are my unique differentiators enough? Or take Mixtapes, my unique multi-queue smart music player. At the time of writing, I know no other music app that allows you to have multiple queues. However, you could say that Mixtapes is simply the same concept as the Apple Music app with more features if I was to be deliberately reductive. Sure, there are a few new features, but the basic functionality is the same as the Music app. A month ago, I would have scoffed at these examples and thought this was a deliberately hyperbolic take until Apple's App Review team made a very similar statement about Word Game Hero. Would an independent App Review Tribunal have come to the same conclusion?
I don't think the current status quo is healthy or sustainable for the Apple developer ecosystem. Becky Hansmeyer expressed this sentiment in a way that really resonated with me on Twitter:
If you agree that Apple needs to implement major App Review Reform, I would love to hear it on Twitter or wherever you are online. Do you agree with the idea of Apple Jury Duty? Do you have loads of reasons why it wouldn't work? Do you have your own suggestions? If you use the hashtag #AppReviewReform I will keep an eye on them and try to reply.
Let's ask Apple for App Review Reform to make a better Apple ecosystem that works with and for developers.