Developers and observers suspect there is a power struggle within Apple after a number of high-profile third-party iPhone apps using iOS 8’s extra functionality were approved - and then rejected for unexplained reasons.
In one case, the rejected app used a technique that was shown off by Apple’s software chief, Craig Federighi, at the Worldwide Developer Conference in June as showcasing the new capabilities of the software for the iPhone and iPad.
Developers contacted by the Guardian are increasingly discontented, and nervous that they could fall foul of the “unwritten rules” if they include such functions. That is holding back development, “which doesn’t help anybody,” one said.
Among the apps affected are the calculator app PCalc, writing app Drafts, FTP program Transmit, and one called Launcher which specifically aimed to use the new functionalities to launch apps or call contacts.
The unease among the developers at apparently capricious rejections from the App Store is in stark contrast to optimism expressed after Apple’s software executives showed off those features at WWDC. Those included a “Today view” notification centre pane in which users could add “widgets” linked to a parent app, and “sharing sheets” to an editable set of services from any app.
Retaining goodwill among third-party developers matters to Apple as it aims to bolster its hugely profitable iPhone in the smartphone market, even as the installed base of Android phones, and payments to developers for it, expands.
At present, the App Store pays out significantly more to developers than Google’s Play Store, even though the installed base of iOS users is only about half that of Android users when tablets are included.
Caught in a pincer of disagreements
Apple declined to comment to the Guardian on the reasons for the removals and reinstatements of apps, or on the suggestion of conflict within the company over the use of iOS capabilities.
But developers appear to be caught in a pincer of disagreements between three Apple executives, suggests Ben Thompson of the Stratechery consultancy: Craig Federighi, is in charge of iOS 8 engineering, Eddy Cue, in charge of App Store promotion and editorial, and Phil Schiller, who is believed to be in charge of the App Store review team.
The latest to suffer is Panic Software, which complained on Monday that it had been told by Apple to remove an option to save files into iCloud Drive, the cloud storage option introduced with iOS 8 in September - even though doing so would also block it from saving files to other services too.
“If the issue is just iCloud Drive, why did we remove the other destinations? We had no choice,” wrote Panic’s team. “iCloud Drive exists in this [sharing] sheet… [which] is 100% controlled by iOS - we can’t touch it.”
The Guardian understands that Panic will be allowed to reinstate sharing - but that only raises the question of why it was stopped in the first place. Apple declined to comment to the Guardian on the banning or reinstatement of the functionality.
The problem echoes the experience of James Thomson, a Scottish developer who runs TLA Systems, in November. As author of the calculator app PCalc, he was told that the calculator “widget” he had added to the “Today” pane -broke the App Store rules.
Then within days the decision over PCalc was reversed - but not before Thomson had fretted about the impact of having to rewrite the app for no reward.
The Guardian understands that the reversal over PCalc was the result of internal discussions at Apple where the initial rejection by the App Store team was overruled by executives.
Thomson told the Guardian that he thinks the sheer scale of the App Store may be part of the problem: “I saw estimates a few years ago of over a thousand new apps a day, and that has to be significantly higher now. So when you are trying to get an OS release out the door, and everybody is submitting their updates at once for review, I imagine that’s going to be a difficult problem to solve.”
But he said that the recent examples of post-approval rejections seemed to be “breaking newly created and unwritten rules.”
Since Thomson’s experience, other examples have surfaced: earlier this month Greg Pierce, developer of Agile Tortoise’s writing tool Drafts, wastold to remove buttons from a “Today” widget that had enabled people to quickly formulate new drafts inside the pane.
Pierce was told the “Today” pane is “for information presentation only” - a statement flatly contradicted not only by dozens of widgets available with apps on the Store, but by the presentation which Apple’s software chief Craig Federighi himself gave at WWDC, where he showed off the “Today” widget functionality by showing an eBay widget that let him view the progress of an auction - and then bid higher.
“I’m bidding on a guitar,” Federighi told the crowd. “Apparently I’m being outbid. But I can submit a leading bid right in notification center.” (However, the official eBay app for iOS 8 does not have a “Today” widget.)
Thomson comments: “The unwritten rules seem to actively conflict - you can’t have buttons [in Draft], but you can if you’re a calculator [like PCalc]?”
Separately, seeing Federighi show off that functionality prompted Greg Gardner to create an app called Launcher - which let users call a contact or launch a specific app directly from the Today pane. The app was even featured on the App Store. It gives iOS the same functionality that has long been available on Google’s Android to create a “shortcut” to an immediate action.
But then Gardner was told it would have to be withdrawn, and could not be reinstated: “the best way I can explain the reason why they don’t want Launcher’s functionality to exist on iOS is because it doesn’t meet their vision for how iOS devices should work,” Gardner wrote on Monday. “They felt that they needed to make an example of [Launcher] in order to get the word out to developers that its functionality is not acceptable”.
Marco Arment, a vocal critic of Apple’s inconsistencies, pointed out that the company had even broken its own guidelines in the App Store rules by using push notifications for a promotion of its (RED) anti-Aids scheme on 1 December. “Regardless of the cause, this [notification] is clearly a promotion,” Arment wrote.
However Dave Verwer, of Shiny Development, argues that iOS 8 expanded the platform “to an extent we haven’t really seen before”, and that the aftermath tends to be “a higher than normal number of questionable decisions like this.” He points to the introduction of in-app purchases in September 2012: “the news was full of apps that were caught out by the new rules, both written ones and unwritten ones.”
Lou Miranda, an enterprise iOS strategist, suggested on Twitter that the developers needed to look past the simple capabilities of the OS. “Devs can’t just look at stated rules,” he said. “Ask yourself: why would or wouldn’t Apple like this app? What is the purpose of a Today extension [widget]?” Apple “has always been very clear” about not supporting app launchers, he said.
Even so some see deeper internal conflict in the latest run of rejections. Joe Cieplinksi, creative director at Bombing Brain Interactive, which writes apps for iOS and Apple’s Mac platform, commented on his blog that the latest spate indicate to him that “there’s clearly a conflict within Apple going on. I simply can’t believe that Craig Federighi’s team built all those wonderful new APIs into iOS 8 and didn’t intend for us to do anything interesting with them.”
He suggests that “I expect one of two things to happen in the coming months. Either the crazy rejections settle down or stop, or a high profile executive goes on gardening leave.”
At Stratechery, Thompson suggests that some of the resistance to the new ideas being used in iOS 8 - which introduces many Android-style features, including the ability to add third-party keyboards - may come from Schiller or his marketing team, though he adds that he has no proof of it.
Risks of a backlash
Neil Cybart, a former Wall Street analyst who has now set up his own Apple analysis company, commented in an email that “The biggest risk from developer backlash is that we don’t know what apps aren’t getting built as a result of frustration with Apple’s policies, not necessarily that iOS users are switching to other platforms (which there is no evidence that is the case).”
Cybart added that “I don’t think Apple’s motives are that sinister, and instead a cat and mouse game is being played with developers where Apple looks at how it’s doing in the marketplace, and only then thinks about these issues and whether it is being too strict with developers.”
PCalc’s Thomson says Apple needs to sort its rules out. “The current fear surrounding things like widgets means that developers are taking a wait-and-see approach, and deferring [use of] those features until it’s clearer. If developers don’t know what the rules are from one day to the next, they are going to avoid doing anything remotely interesting, and that isn’t good for anybody.”
However he thinks it is unlikely that iOS developers will immediately jump ship to Android. “While it’s hard to sell paid apps on iOS, it’s much harder doing so on Android. I know developers who do both, and anecdotally they were reporting numbers like 90% of sales coming from iOS. Obviously, if things continue to get worse, people may reconsider. But I don’t think the Android grass is looking that green yet.”
He warns though that the uncertainty could hold back apps for Apple’s Watch, due for release next year, for which developers already have the software kit.
“The implication of these post-approval rejections is that Apple is going to be very strict on the Watch from the beginning. I always try and have something ready for day one of any new Apple product or release, but I am currently wondering if it’s better to wait and see what happens.”
This article was written by Charles Arthur, for theguardian.com on Thursday 11th December 2014 11.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010