Pulling back the curtain on App Store approvals

Developers spend weeks, even months creating applications for Apple's iPhone--and Apple's staff reviewers spend just minutes deciding whether that app merits inclusion in the App Store. That's just one of the takeaways from Apple's much-anticipated written response to the Federal Communications Commission's inquiry into its handling of the Google Voice VoIP application. Let's do the math: According to Apple, it employs about 40 full-time, trained application reviewers--the App Store receives about 8,500 new app submissions and updates each week, which translates to 212 apps per reviewer per week. Except Apple reports that all apps are subject to approval by two different reviewers, so that number doubles to 424 apps per staffer each week--assuming reviewers work the standard eight-hour day, that means each app is approved or rejected in the span of about six minutes. No wonder Apple admits to making "occasional mistakes" in the approval process, according to its statement to the FCC.

Other App Store revelations included in the response: Over the past year, Apple has reviewed more than 200,000 applications and updates. About 95 percent of all apps are approved within 14 days of submission, and about 20 percent of apps are not approved as originally submitted. In addition to the dedicated review team, an executive review board meets weekly to determine procedures and set review process policies. "Most rejections are based on the application containing quality issues or software bugs, while other rejections involve protecting consumer privacy, safeguarding children from inappropriate content, and avoiding applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone," the statement reads. "Given the volume and variety of technical issues, most of the review process is consumed with quality issues and software bugs, and providing feedback to developers so they can fix applications. Applications that are fixed and resubmitted are approved."

As for Google Voice, the application that triggered the FCC investigation, Apple maintains it has not officially rejected the app and "continues to study it." According to Apple, Google's telephony application--along with several Google Voice-based third-party apps--were rejected or not included in the App Store because they interfere with the iPhone's "distinctive user experience," contending the app "appears to [replace] the iPhone's core mobile telephone functionality and Apple user interface with its own user interface for telephone calls, text messaging and voicemail." Apple also said that any decisions concerning Google Voice were made solely by internal brass--iPhone operator partner AT&T was not consulted, adding "No contractual conditions or non-contractual understandings with AT&T have been a factor in Apple's decision-making process in this matter." AT&T issued its own statement as well, attributed to Jim Cicconi, senior EVP of external and legislative affairs--the statement reads in part "AT&T had no role in any decision by Apple to not accept the Google Voice application for inclusion in the Apple App Store. AT&T was not asked about the matter by Apple at any time, nor did we offer any view one way or the other. AT&T does not block consumers from accessing any lawful website on the Internet."

Kevin Duerr, the CEO of Riverturn--the developer behind VoiceCentral, one of the Google Voice apps unceremoniously removed from the App Store earlier this summer--isn't buying it. ""Is Apple lying? I've been debating this for a while," Duerr said in an interview with ComputerWorld. "My first reaction was that they're trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the FCC, especially when you see the transparency of their statements. They may not be lying when they say ‘We didn't reject Google Voice, we're still pondering it,' but then why was my app, and the others, removed from the App Store?" Duerr also takes issue with Apple's insistence that it provides guidance and feedback when apps are declined: "We've had at least one rejection each time we've submitted an application to the App Store," he said. "But not once did we ever get specific guidance on why. We were left to our own devices to interpret what they meant and take a flyer on changing it."

Duerr projects that the odds Apple will eventually approve Google Voice are 50/50. "I'm an optimist at heart," he said. "If the FCC sees how ridiculous Apple's answers are, maybe they'll force Apple to reconsider." -Jason