The Real-World App Store

In the gold rush to get your app listed on the iTunes App Store, is seems like there’s one common obstacle—Apple’s App Store review team. You could consider them a necessary evil that evaluates incoming apps to ensure quality and keep the marketplace clean. However, not everyone agrees with that assessment. This article attempts to outline the lessons learned by someone with a lot of experience dealing with the App Store, in hopes that sharing them might help other developers as they face the occasionally frustrating experience of getting their app approved.

App Store Roulette—it’s just a game

After having participated in the submissions of over 50 applications, I can say that when it comes to the App Store, nothing is written in stone. What is approved today may be rejected tomorrow, and what was rejected yesterday might be approved today. When an app is submitted for approval, judgment can be swift and come in days, or it can take months to receive approval, or a response regarding it.

Follow the documented rules

Some beleive that the rules used to evaluate an app are purely subjective. However, there are documented rules for submitting an article (see “App Store Resource Center” on page 76). While the vast majority of rejections are caused by not following these rules, the experience of many developers, including myself, is that Apple does not enforce the rules uniformly. The review team may let one app slide by, only to bring the hammer down on another. (It is actually common for an app update to be rejected for something that a previously approved version had.) Here are some things you have to watch out for:

  • If your app doesn’t work, they’ll reject it.
  • If it doesn’t elegantly handle airplane mode, they’ll reject it.
  • If it uses Apple’s own images/icons, they’ll probably reject it.
  • If you use private APIs, they may reject it.
  • If you do a crazy navigation scheme that goes against the user experience guidelines, they may reject it.
  • If you utilize a feature that requires an iPhone, but also submit it for use on an iPod Touch without handling the situation in code, they may reject it.

The individual reviewer has discretion

Because the review process is done by human beings, and because the acceptance/rejection criteria have many subjective aspects, there is a significant amount of discretion given to individual reviewers. For example, I worked on two apps that were virtually identical. Both were submitted on the same day—one app was approved and the other was rejected. What made this even stranger was that Apple stated an “issue” that caused one to be rejected, and the approved app had the same issue!

Occasionally, an app reviewer will call and tell you why the app was rejected. You can sometimes discuss the issue with them and provide the reviewer with an additional perspective. You might even be able to change his or her mind and turn a rejection into an approval. If not, you might convince them to ask management for an exception to some documented rule that may not really apply in your situation. Again, there is a lot of wiggle room in the process.

A rejection is not always final

Apple has absolute discretion over the App Store and reserves the right to reject any app for any reason. That being said, if the cause of the rejection was purely subjective, I’ve occasionally seen a well-written response to a rejection e-mail turn into an approval email the next day.

Rejections are not absolute

If you can ascertain that the rejection was for a fairly bogus reason, try resubmitting it. I’ve seen apps rejected seven times or more, only to be approved on a subsequent submission—without any change to the binaries. I don’t know why this happens. Maybe the subsequent submission was assigned to a different reviewer, or maybe the reviewer just got tired of seeing the same rejected app, and let it slide by.

Change the name of the game

If you are facing an unrelenting stream of rejections, you might try changing the name of the app (and maybe the icon or splash screen) and then try submitting it through a different developer account. I’ve seen apps facing non-stop rejections get approved on the first try under a different name and through a different company.

I’ve also seen Apple reject an app that contained the name of a particular third-party because, for whatever reason, that particular third-party got on Apple’s bad side. By changing the name of the project and all of the code references inside the app, it passed!

They’ve got the whole world in their hands

If you want to take advantage of the App Store, you have to play Apple’s game. You need to look at the whole submission process as a game—you may get blasted a few times, but if you’re persistent, you’ll reach the next level. If you expect to be rejected once or twice before being approved, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration. Remember, Apple rules their kingdom with an iron fist, but everything is at their discretion, and nothing is hard and fast. In terms of what’s allowed in the App Store, Apple has the whole world in its hands!

Practical suggestions for getting your apps approved
Winter 2010
Creating Apps
TOC Weight: