It would have been nice for the App Store's public relations team if the biggest news in the past few days was the introduction of a more transparent progress report for applications under review, giving developers some of the feedback they need to see where their apps are in the pathway towards approval and release. Unfortunately, that minor but tangible step toward a more open approval process is overshadowed by a story of frustration and disaffection from one of the platform's rising stars: Joe Hewitt, the man behind Facebook's popular iPhone app, is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore.
Hewitt's frustration with the app review process isn't new, but in the same August blog post where he called for the elimination of review, he promised "I will not stop developing for Apple's platforms or using Apple's products as long as they continue to produce the best stuff on the market." A few months later, he's announced that he's handing off the Facebook app to another developer, and he's reached the point where his frustration has overcome his willingness to continue working on the iPhone. [Commenter 'Gak' points out that Hewitt's open-sourced Three20 library for iPhone devs has been flagged for use of private frameworks, which may have been one of the final straws.]
Hewitt spoke to TechCrunch earlier today, and his attitude is clear:
"My decision to stop iPhone development has had everything to do with Apple's policies. I respect their right to manage their platform however they want, however I am philosophically opposed to the existence of their review process. I am very concerned that they are setting a horrible precedent for other software platforms, and soon gatekeepers will start infesting the lives of every software developer."
Losing the talent behind the top social networking app in the store is bad for users and bad for the platform, but I don't imagine that Apple is going to give up the lockdown of review anytime soon. Is there a way around this logjam that will let developers innovate at Internet speed while still giving Apple some semblance of control? Here's one idea...
Let's accept the premise that the majority of iPhone developers are benign and competent, and unlikely to ship malicious or horribly crashy apps (if only to preserve their reputation). Let's also acknowledge that even with a formal review approach, Apple has missed the mark repeatedly on content, functional and security issues for apps that have made it into the store. Devs want to work faster; Apple wants to make the store safe for all.
How about trying this: review after release for vetted developers. Once your first app has successfully made it through traditional review, you're marked as legit; subsequent upgrades and new releases go out without prior restraint, except in a few categories where Apple has to work within contract agreements (carrier restrictions on video or tethering, for example, or explicit sexual content). No more bug fixes waiting for weeks, no more wondering whether an innovative idea will ever see the light of day after spending months of effort and lots of money.
Here's the carrot, though, to keep some value in Apple's stamp of approval: unreviewed apps are unlisted, accessible via search or direct link but left out of category lists, promotion pages and top sales lists. Direct iTunes URLs for your app land on a warning page, telling users that the app they are about to buy has not been reviewed and may not work as expected. User flags of crashing or improper behavior will still bring the review squad down on your app, and it can still get pulled retroactively for blatant violations of the developer agreement -- although the rules will have to be both clearer and less restrictive if this is going to work.
If you can promote and publicize your unreviewed app without the advantage of Apple's review clearance and iTunes attention, more power to you -- the review is optional, more like a relationship with a traditional retailer than the gatekeeper effect currently in force.
Is this feasible, or am I smoking something? Let me know below. We've seen enough defections from the platform over these issues to make me think that a radical step towards openness is the best way forward.
I should note that my airy musings on the future of the App Store have been heavily influenced by the deep thinking of Craig Hockenberry on the topic.