Apple loosens the reins--will its reign continue?

Jason AnkenyThere are some mysteries that seem destined to remain unsolved: Who built the pyramids? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Why do they call it Grape Nuts when it contains neither grapes nor nuts? But another of life's great riddles--How Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) determines which iOS application submissions earn its official stamp of approval--reached an unexpected resolution last week when the computing giant finally published its App Store Review Guidelines, providing developers with rules and examples across a series of iOS software subjects like user interface design, functionality, content and technology restrictions. The guidelines are so direct and blunt you can't help but wonder whether Apple CEO Steve Jobs typed them up himself: Highlights include "We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don't need any more Fart apps," "If your app doesn't do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted" and (my personal favorite) "If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you're trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection. We have lots of serious developers who don't want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour."

Other shoot-to-kill offenses, according to the App Store Review Guidelines: Apps that create alternate desktop/home screen environments or simulate multi-app widget experiences; apps that alter the functions of standard switches (e.g., Volume Up/Down and Ring/Silent switches); submissions that duplicate apps already for sale in the App Store, particularly if there are many of them; and apps deemed "defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm's way." (Apple notes that professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the latter restriction--earlier this year, the App Store rejected NewsToons, a political caricature app submitted by editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore, but reversed its decision after Fiore won a Pulitzer Prize. Exactly how Apple will determine what constitutes a "professional" satirist isn't clear, however.) 

The App Store Review Guidelines also address the inherent subjectivity of the approval process--long story short, if you think your app is likely to run into trouble, it probably will. "We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line," Apple states. "What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, 'I'll know it when I see it.' And we think that you will also know it when you cross it." Jobs' stance on adult content is well known: During an April email exchange with a customer, he wrote "We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone. Folks who want porn can buy [an] Android phone." Jobs also has no patience for tattletales: "If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to," the App Store Review Guidelines state. "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps."

Which makes it all the more interesting that Adobe Systems is earning a reprieve. After all, in the wake of Apple's April update of its iPhone developer agreement to mandate that all applications must be written to run directly on the iOS platform, effectively banning cross-compiler translation tools like Adobe's Flash Professional Creative Suite 5, Adobe platform evangelist Lee Brimelow publicly called out Apple in a much-publicized blog entry, ranting "This is a frightening move that has no rational defense other than wanting tyrannical control over developers and more importantly, wanting to use developers as pawns in their crusade against Adobe... Speaking purely for myself, I would look to make it clear what is going through my mind at the moment. Go screw yourself, Apple." But last week, Apple unexpectedly lifted the ban: "We are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code," Apple said in a statement. "This should give developers the flexibility they want, while preserving the security we need." The changes to sections 3.3.1, 3.3.2 and 3.3.9 of the iOS Developer Program license will enable developers to design and build apps in Flash, then convert their efforts to Apple-approved code--the revisions do not mean consumers will be able to access Flash-based web content via their iPhone and iPod touch devices, however.

Here's a new mystery: Why the change of heart? Or at least, why now? Jobs' aversion to Flash is known to all, and it's difficult to imagine him rethinking his stance. Apple credited its decision to remove the Flash ban on developer feedback--more likely, you can chalk it up to the rumored Federal Trade Commission antitrust inquiry to determine whether the company's actions threatened competition by forcing developers to focus on one platform to the exclusion of others. No matter what happened, Adobe was quick to applaud Apple's decision: An Adobe blog post titled 'Great News for Developers' explains the move has "direct implications for Adobe's Packager for iPhone, a feature in the Flash Professional CS5 authoring tool. This feature was created to enable Flash developers to quickly and easily deliver applications for iOS devices. The feature is available for developers to use today in Flash Professional CS5, and we will now resume development work on this feature for future releases... We're hearing from our developer community that Packager apps are already being approved for the App Store." And what's great news for developers is also positive for Apple, especially with Google's rival Android OS surging: A more hospitable, more transparent App Store is a proposition that's going to be tough for developers to resist. Apple's moves are above all about maintaining iOS's status as the development platform of choice--that's no mystery. -Jason