A critical review of Apple’s policies regarding iOS development.

On March 6th 2008 at the Apple Town Hall Facility, the following announcement was made by Scott Forstall, VP of iPhone Development: “..starting today… we’re opening the same native APIs and tools to build our iPhone apps. Third party developers can build native iPhone apps using the same SDK that WE do…”

Rewind the clock to about a year prior to the announcement. Apple, a company known for its revolutionary products and smart marketing strategies announced their entry into the mobile phone market with the launch of the iPhone. The iPhone generated considerable buzz and rightly so as it seamlessly combined cutting-edge hardware with great aesthetics and a certain ‘cool’ factor. Apple then revealed that they would allow third-party developers to create apps which would then be hosted on their app store called the iStore.

Cut back to the conference at the Apple Town Hall facility as CEO Steve Jobs outlined the technical and business policies regarding the sale of the third-party apps on the iStore. These policies were hotly debated in the following months as experts weighed the pros and cons of these policies.

For starters, Xcode – the Software Development Kit (SDK) provided, would run only on Apple’s Mac Operating System. Developers have to register to download Xcode for free. In addition, a developer must pay $99 every year to enroll in the iPhone Developer Program. What this essentially means is that a programmer can create and test apps using the built- in iPhone simulator in Xcode for free but would have to shell out $99 to test the app on an actual iPhone and then submit it to the iStore. A developer could chose any pricing for his/ her app from which 70% of the total profit would go to the developer and the rest would fill up Apple’s coffers . Thus Apple very cleverly opened up a market whereby they could make massive profits off applications created by third-party developers. The policy of having to pay and enroll in the iPhone Developer Programme received some flak from sections in the media as it seemed to discourage independent developers and hindered the creation of a group akin to the open-source community. The pinch of paying $99 every year was probably felt more in third-world countries where dollar conversion rates are reasonably high. In addition, Apple had also strangely enough, enforced a strict Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) which prevented programmers from discussing almost anything related to iPhone programming. Luckily Apple heeded programmer concerns and dropped the NDA.

Given the quality that is associated with Apple, it is not surprising that Apple reviews every “app on the App Store based on a set of technical, content, and design criteria” before it reaches the iStore. Now this is a great method of preventing the spread of malicious programs and trojans/worms in apps as the app review team releases the app only when they deem it fit. Thus even the smallest memory leak is noticed and the app is rejected. The drawback is that the entire review process takes about 2-4 weeks. Also, Apple have known to reject any applications that conflict with or duplicate a functionality of their default apps, with incredibly hazy reasons. On few occasions, apps have been rejected on grounds that aren’t even present in the App Guidelines document. A famous example is the Podcaster app that was rejected because ‘Podcaster assists in the distribution of podcasts, it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes.’

In a way, Apple are clamping down on any software that could potentially be a threat to the ones that come bundled with the iPhone itself. Also, the app is rejected only after it is completed thus wasting the developer’s resources in something that ultimately is not going to be fruitful.

In comparison, Google’s own smartphone OS- Android has adopted an open-source approach to their app market. Developers just pay a one-time registration fee of $25 to get their apps on the Android app market. There is no screening process for the apps and anyone is free to host an app on their personal website. What this has done is encourage many developers to shift their focus to the booming Android market. While a section of the people may have concerns about malicious code in Android apps and so on, it is hard to ignore the fact that Android sales are currently ahead of the Blackberry and the iOS. Apple would be well-served to realize that their popularity and sustenance in this competitive market depends not only on constant innovations with hardware and aggressive marketing but also cutting-edge, user friendly applications. Apple should take a cue out of Android and revamp their app submission process into something that is more transparent and developer-friendly. Programmers have enough trouble writing their code, to begin with!

“This article available on the App Store”