App rejections fall far from tree

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; G01

The story could have been programmed to draw media coverage, were it not for its implausibility: Apple (a reader magnet) banned a future Pulitzer Prize winner's iPhone application (invoking journalists' professional pride) because it "ridicules public figures" (spurring righteous indignation among reporters who live to afflict the comfortable).

But as crazy as that sounds, it's what Apple did in December when it rejected cartoonist Mark Fiore's NewsToons. A hail of bad publicity resulted when the news emerged after his April 12 Pulitzer award.

Apple relented within days, and NewsToons now sells for 99 cents in its App Store.

Story over? Absolutely not. Fiore's saga may have been ridiculous, but it fit into a pattern.

Since the App Store's 2008 debut as the first and only easy way to add third-party software to an iPhone, numerous titles have run afoul of its faceless, amorphous reviewers.

Among their reasons to block new programs:

-- Letting users look up definitions of swear words.

-- Not including enough functions.

-- Duplicating Apple software's functions.

-- Letting users read a text-only copy of the Kama Sutra.

-- Advocating the "politically charged" issue of single-payer health insurance.

-- Publishing other sorts of political commentary.

-- Displaying photos of minimally attired ladies.

-- Using Apple software to show a picture of a user's Mac.

-- Using "iPhone" as the first word in an electronic book's title.

In many cases, Apple backed down after developers protested. Name-brand companies, meanwhile, have seen Apple approve titles with otherwise-blackballed features. And Apple's screening doesn't stop disappointing apps from showing up in the store.

If this conduct seems arbitrary, that's because Apple gives itself that liberty. The Cupertino, Calif., company's iPhone developer agreement, as published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Apple can reject an application "at any time" if it thinks rejection would be "prudent or necessary."

(So, can Apple remove news organizations' apps for their content? Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti wrote that "this is our understanding"; National Public Radio's Danielle Deabler agreed but said NPR saw no evidence that Apple wanted to do such a thing. Publicists for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and USA Today declined to comment or did not reply to e-mails.)

Apple has said little about criticisms of its App Store stewardship since a Federal Communications Commission inquiry last year. Apple told the FCC it approved 95 percent of applications within 14 days of their submission.

Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller didn't update that average Tuesday but said that the company now reviews 94 percent of new applications within seven days and that 98 percent of program updates get an answer in that time.

In the company's defense, many developers can work with this regime -- the App Store stocks more than 185,000 titles. Barg Upender, chief executive of Mobomo, said that although Apple declined about 20 percent of his Washington-based firm's applications at first, every one passed after revisions.

Meanwhile, the iPhone's Safari browser, which can run complex Web-based applications, remains beyond the App Store's control.

But the App Store's rules aren't the only way to keep things simple and safe for most users.

Google's increasingly popular Android smartphone software places far fewer restrictions on its Android Market, with more than 40,000 titles. Once developers pay to register with Google, they can publish almost at will.

If enough Android users flag a program as objectionable then will Google remove it, as it did in January to about 50 scam applications. Google told the FCC last year that it had ejected about 1 percent of Android apps.

But users of most Android phones can also download software from any Web site by changing one system setting.

Palm's Pre and Pixi smartphones feature an approval-required App Catalog. A person familiar with the process said that more than 80 percent of applications sail through on a first try and that most of those initially rejected pass muster after help from Palm. But Palm also lets developers publish releases on their own sites.

The closest parallel to Apple's App Store management might lie not in smartphones but in video games. There, Nintendo requires programmers to apply just to get a development license, after which it can decline individual projects. A Nintendo spokesman didn't provide details, but Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter estimated that it green-lighted 90 percent of games pitched for its DS handheld and approved even more on the Wii.

Nintendo, however, has an easier job than Apple. Its site lists only 5,223 titles, less than 3 percent of the App Store's total.

Apple is free to keep manufacturing work for its employees and anxiety for its developers with a poorly documented system that invites mistakes. Or it can remember that its "Think Different" ads praised people who aren't "fond of rules" -- especially, one would guess, illogical and unfair ones.

Living with technology, or trying to?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company