We’ve been following the highs and lows of the iPhone 3G release with some interest, particularly now that Mental Case for iPhone is entering the last stages of development. The App Store represents an enormous opportunity for developers, but also presents a few conundrums: As gatekeeper, Apple is responsible for the quality of apps that make it into the store, but also seems to be making moral judgements about certain submissions.

An enormous stink arose around the app ‘I am Rich’, which did little more than advertise to others that you were so well off — or so stupid — that you would lay down $999 for little more than a jpeg. More recently, the app Pull My Finger was rejected for being of ‘…limited utility to the broad iPhone and iPod touch user community…’. The app itself is undoubtedly in poor taste, but is not pornographic, and probably no less useful to the average user than most of the apps that have made it into the store. It seems more likely that the real reason for the rejection was simply that Apple thought it was in ‘bad taste’.

“So what?”, I hear you say, “It’s Apple’s store, and they can choose who they are going to let in to play.” This is certainly true, and I am not suggesting that Apple must accept apps in bad taste. I personally think that they should, but if they have a policy that ‘bad taste’ is not acceptable, then I can accept that.

The problem from a developer’s point of view is simply not knowing what constitutes ‘bad taste’ in Apple’s eyes. This is not just a rhetorical question, it can also be a very expensive one: A decent app for iPhone can take months to develop, and — as things stand — the developer will only find out if their app is acceptable to Apple when they are finished developing it and submit to the App Store.

App Store submission troubles

If you develop something ‘questionable’, and your app gets rejected, you could be months of salary out of pocket, not to mention the loss of potential future earnings arising from app sales. An App Store submission could be one of the most important and nerve wracking experiences of a developer’s life, depending on the content of their app.

I have had a number of borderline bad-taste ideas for the App Store, and it’s unlikely I will begin developing any of them. The risk is simply too great that after months of grind, the app will be shown the door during the submission process. Unfortunately, for users this means that many great apps, including apps that may well have made it through the submission process, simply will not get developed.

What is the solution? The problem is not that Apple wants to vet the apps that it allows into the store, it is that the vetting takes place after the enormous investment in development has already been made. What is needed is some means to submit ideas to Apple before development begins. Apple can then state that an idea is completely unacceptable, be made acceptable with some small changes, or is no problem. Apple would reserve the right to reject an app when it is finally submitted, should it vary too much from the original proposal, but at least developers would know where they stand before they begin.

We don’t expect any problems when we submit Mental Case to the App Store — let’s hope this post hasn’t reduced our chances — but we will be thinking twice about our other projects for iPhone. I don’t think we are the only developers in this situation. A bit of guidance from Apple could go a long way to reassuring them that their apps will be accepted, and this will ultimately lead to more innovative applications in the App Store.