Byte of the Apple
Apple's Schiller Defends iPhone App Approval Process
Apple (AAPL) is under fire from some developers for the way it vets applications that can be sold on its online App Store. Facebook developer Joe Hewitt goes so far as to say he's "philosophically opposed" to the very notion of a company deciding which applications can and can't be used on its hardware. The presence of "gatekeepers" in software development "sets a horrible precedent," he says. But in his first extensive interview on the subject, Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice-president for worldwide product marketing, outlines the many reasons Apple keeps close tabs on which applications can be downloaded onto the iPhone and iPod Touch. He also outlined ways the company is trying to become more flexible in its approval process. "We've built a store for the most part that people can trust," he says. "You and your family and friends can download applications from the store, and for the most part they do what you'd expect, and they get onto your phone, and you get billed appropriately, and it all just works." The number of applications available at the App Store is now north of 100,000, and about 10,000 are submitted each week. As the volume rises, so does the number of potential problems. Schiller compares Apple's role to that of a retailer determining which products line store shelves. "Whatever your favorite retailer is, of course they care about the quality of products they offer," he says. "We review the applications to make sure they work as the customers expect them to work when they download them." About 10% of rejects: "inappropriate"Most are approved and some are sent back to the developer. In about 90% of those cases, Apple requests technical fixes—usually for bugs in the software or because something doesn't work as expected, Schiller says. Developers are generally glad to have this safety net because usually Apple's review process finds problems they actually want to fix, he says. In some 10% of cases where an app is sent back, that's because it's inappropriate. "There have been applications submitted for approval that will steal personal data, or which are intended to help the user break the law, or which contain inappropriate content," Schiller says. About 1% or fewer of returned apps fall into some gray area that Apple hasn't anticipated—for instance, applications intended to help the user cheat at gambling in casinos. "We had to go study state and international laws about what's legal and what isn't, and what legal exposure that creates for Apple or the customer," Schiller says. The verdict: Apps that help a user learn how to play are O.K.; those designed to help a person cheat don't make the cut. Apple is also vigilant about potentially illegal use of trademarks, particularly its own. "If you don't defend your trademarks, in the end you end up not owning them," Schiller says. "And sometimes other companies come to us saying they've seen their trademarks used in apps without permission. We see that a lot." Still, the trademark rules can be applied inflexibly, he concedes. Rogue Amoeba's Run-InIn a widely reported case, developers at Rogue Amoeba, a maker of popular Mac apps, built an app called Airfoil Speakers that transmits audio playing on a Mac or Apple TV to an iPhone or iPod Touch that's connected to external speakers. In an effort to make clear the audio source, Rogue Amoeba used images of Macs, Apple TVs, and other Apple products. The app was initially approved. An update was rejected for running afoul of Apple's rules forbidding the use of Apple images in apps. The current version contains a non-Apple icon that links to a Rogue Amoeba Web page explaining the flap. Schiller didn't directly address Airfoil Speakers, but he says Apple is trying to make trademark guidelines more sophisticated. "We need to delineate something that might confuse the customer and be an inappropriate use of a trademark from something that's just referring to a product for the sake of compatibility," he says. "We're trying to learn and expand the rules to make it fair for everyone." Rogue Amoeba will soon submit a version of the app with the Apple images intact, Rogue Amoeba CEO Paul Kafasis says. One of the biggest accommodations Apple has made with applications is adding parental controls. Parents now can block apps with adult content or games that depict violence from being downloaded to an iPhone or iPod Touch. Turning on parental controls lets Apple boost the number of apps and the type of content allowed. "We've had a lot of eyes on us," Schiller says. "We've had inquiries from governments and political leaders asking us what we were doing to protect children from inappropriate content," he says. Is a smartphone Gatekeeper needed?Schiller makes a strong case for Apple's role as the arbiter of what goes on the iPhone. Still, it's tempting to consider the implications of a less hands-on approach, as is the case with Macs, Microsoft (MSFT) Windows PCs, or other smartphones, including those running the Google (GOOG)-backed Android operating system. The software market for personal computing has existed in this way for nearly three decades, and while there have certainly been some problems along the way, I'd argue that overall we're better off without Microsoft or Apple or some other organization approving software applications before they're released to the market. PC users have learned to be careful about what they put on their computers through unhappy trial and error. My hunch is that greater vigilance is needed with smartphones, in part because they're a relatively recent phenomenon. The iPhone has been on the market only 28 months. Users take them everywhere and are quickly inserting them into daily life in ways the personal computer never could have fit. Malware on smartphones could do significantly more damage than malware on a PC. Imagine a nasty application that records every word you speak—both on and off the phone—without your knowledge, and then e-mails the audio to a stranger. Or picture one that surreptitiously tracks your movements and sends them to a stalker. There may come a time when Apple finds it no longer needs to play such a comprehensive a role as app approver. Apple has shown a willingness to let its app approval process evolve. But today, with smartphones permeating our lives and going everywhere we go, it makes a good deal of sense to have someone keeping a close eye on what those apps do. At least for now.