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iOS 8 App Development Becomes a “Bring Me a Rock” Game

The drumbeat to support an independent app developer in the face of heavy-handed Apple rejections has become a familiar refrain. It can be effective in specific situations, but is Apple exploiting the media to avoid setting down explicit rules? And what effect does this behavior have on the developer community? (Can you say “chilling effect?” I thought you could.)

Early last week, Apple told Transmit iOS developer Panic that the app could no longer send documents created by other apps to iCloud Drive, which forced Panic to remove the Send To feature entirely, since there was no way to remove just the iCloud Drive option (see “Apple Hobbles Transmit iOS,” 8 December 2014).

After numerous other articles criticizing this move, Apple reversed course and allowed Panic to release Transmit iOS 1.1.2 with its Send To functionality restored. Panic’s Cabel Sasser wrote:

After a considerate conversation with Apple, Transmit iOS 1.1.2 has been released with restored “Send To” functionality.

While the process feels less-than-perfect, this resolution is a nice reminder that, just as we thought, there are good people at Apple who will push hard to do the right thing. We hope you enjoy Transmit iOS 1.1.2.

Almost exactly the same thing happened in late October with James Thomson’s PCalc, which put a calculator widget in Notification Center’s Today view. Apple demanded the widget’s removal, then changed its mind after a firestorm of media criticism (see “Apple Demands Removal of PCalc’s Today View Widget,” 29 October 2014).

Other apps haven’t been so lucky. Neato, which puts a note-taking widget in Notification Center, has been threatened with removal unless the developer takes out the keyboard, which would render it useless (see “Neato Adds Note Taking to iOS 8’s Notification Center,” 12 November 2014). The developer of another note-taking app, Drafts, was also told to remove the app’s widget. And Launcher, which employed a widget for quick launching of apps, was removed from the App Store because the developer wasn’t willing to take the widget away from his existing users. We won’t be surprised if Overglide, the flying game widget, meets the same fate (see “FunBITS: Overglide Pushes the Limits of iOS 8 Widgets,” 21 November 2014). Then there’s CalcKeys, a custom keyboard extension that provides a numeric keypad to perform simple calculations and insert the results (or the entire calculation). Developer Adrian Baerlocher of Tidal Pool Software told us it was rejected first for being a non-alphabetic keyboard and subsequently for performing calculations — the same reason PCalc’s Notification Center widget was initially rejected. Neither of these reasons are in the published guidelines.

The common thread that ties these disparate apps together is that all are trying to take advantage of iOS 8’s new Extensibility features. Those include custom keyboards, Notification Center widgets, custom Share actions and extensions, photo and video editing extensions, and document provider extensions — iMore has a comprehensive explanation of Extensibility.

The problem is that Apple has not published clear guidelines about what is acceptable. None of these rejections are, as far as I can tell, related to security concerns. Each Extensibility feature is provided by a specific API, so at least in theory, providing a capability that is supported by the API should not pose a threat to user data, and in fact, developer reports about Apple’s rejections have never mentioned security issues.

Instead, Apple is in essence telling developers, “Bring me a rock.” When the developer returns with an app that seems to meet the published guidelines and Apple rejects it, the company is saying, “No, not that rock. Bring me a different rock.” Repeat the game until the developer gives up in frustration. This isn’t speculation — Launcher developer Greg Gardner wrote:

If developers don’t have explicit guidelines to go on and we can’t even use apps available on the App Store as an indicator of what is acceptable, our only choice is to potentially waste huge amounts of time working on apps that ultimately get rejected in an attempt to find something that will get accepted. I pleaded with this person to make public whatever guidelines they make available for app reviewers to decide what is acceptable and what is not regarding widgets. The Apple representative responded by saying that they prefer that the rules remain vague because that allows developers to come up with innovative ideas and also allows Apple to be flexible in case they change their minds later. When pressed on the issue of their policies leading to wasted developer time, I was told, “If you are afraid something you are working on will be rejected, then don’t work on it.”

I believe Apple is seesawing between two conflicting desires. On the one hand, the entire point of iOS 8’s Extensibility features is to allow developers to extend iOS in interesting, useful, and perhaps even innovative directions. Apple’s technical teams are likely in this camp, creating technologies and encouraging developers to use them. But giving developers leeway to do whatever they want (even with the significant constraints of what iOS 8 and the known App Store rules allow) runs smack into Apple’s legendary need for control over the look, feel, and overall user experience, which probably comes from a high-level marketing team.

Worse, not only is Apple’s lack of explicit guidelines surrounding iOS 8’s Extensibility features forcing developers to play “Bring me a rock,” the company is using negative media coverage for the same reason a Mafia don might order a hit: to send a message. Some part of the company decides it doesn’t want note-taking widgets in Notification Center, but rather than set that down in published guidelines, Apple rejects the app, knowing that it will engender negative coverage, which will warn off other developers who might be considering bringing Apple a note-taking widget rock. This also isn’t speculation. Here’s Launcher developer Greg Gardner again, relating his conversation with Apple about why Launcher was removed:

I also asked specifically why Launcher was removed from the App Store after 9 days when other similar apps are still available weeks later. The answer to this question was the most interesting and informative response I had ever heard from them. They basically said that Launcher was a trailblazer in uncharted territories and that they felt that they needed to make an example of it in order to get the word out to developers that its functionality is not acceptable without them having to publish new specific guidelines. And they said that the fact that they aren’t seeing hundreds of similar apps submitted every day is proof to them that taking down Launcher was successful in this regard.

So let’s take score. Apple gets bad press and loses developer loyalty, though the company presumably prefers that to setting and following explicit guidelines. Developers waste vast amounts of time and money trying to please Apple. Users lose because useful apps are rejected, removed from the App Store, or never developed in the first place. In fact, the only player who wins is the media, which gets to publish story after story about how big bad Apple is grinding small developers underfoot.

But you know what? I don’t like publishing such stories. Call me old-fashioned, call me naive, or call me a Pollyanna, but I want iOS to be a platform upon which developers can write software that will astonish me and give me capabilities I could never have imagined. Instead, Apple has constructed a tightly controlled system where survival requires pleasing a capricious boss and gaming a system of artificial rules and regulations. As much as I appreciate Apple’s hardware and software achievements, I strongly disagree with the company’s policy management.

Perhaps I have this all wrong. Maybe we should be thanking Apple for the broader lesson. We’ve seen how the planned economies of some countries have suffered under state control, and many of us live in countries experiencing the tension between unfettered capitalism and excessive government regulation. With Apple, for the first time outside speculative fiction, we’re seeing an example of something completely different — what could happen were a corporation to gain complete control over an entire economic ecosystem.


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Comments about iOS 8 App Development Becomes a “Bring Me a Rock” Game
(Comments are closed.)

Ed Wood  2014-12-16 00:33
Along with Adam,I am disgusted Apple's " Father Knows Best" policy. It seems to me that when someone Pays good money for an Apple product, He should be able to set it up and run it as he wants rather try to use that product within the confines of a "Walled Garden". Although I have a cell phone and tablet neither is an Apple product specifically because of Apple's rigid control
of the user's experience.
My wife and I have, at the moment, 2Macbook Pros, 2 MacMinis and an iMac. All run Mavericks and that may be the last OS they will see. Without any IOS units, there is little incentive to go to Yosemite since neither of us uses Mail, we detest the "new" transparency, and neither of us likes the new version of Safari and the furor about the widgets seems to be an extension of Apples closed IOS policies. What all this means for the future I don't know, but if Apple continues to expand its IOS policies to the Mac, then I fear it will be Sayonara to Apple for this family for Apple software.
João Gomes  2014-12-16 13:02
Since you mention OS X, which is in no way comparable to iOS as far as customization and security lockdown go, I will have to play the devil's advocate on this one;

Are you aware that you can use the Accessibility prefpane settings to pretty much disable transparency altogether? And have you not heard that OS X now features, besides the usual text highlight and menu/widget color customization, a light *and* a dark theme for the main menu and the dock?

If you had referred to, say, the many bugs (and small graphic glitches) that are indeed plaguing Yosemite, or the new “flat-ish” aesthetic on the grounds of, you know, its flattness, I could concede that you had a point.

As for Safari 8, are you for real? Sure, there was some button reshuffling, but it is *by far* the fastest browser I have ever laid my hands on. Besides, it's not like you can't use a different browser anyway (do you seriously enjoy Safari 7 *that* much to, alone, justify sticking with Mavericks?).
João Gomes  2014-12-16 13:12
I might as well add that we've had the Mac App Store for five consecutive versions of OS X and Gatekeeper since 10.7.5, and buying your software from the MAS (and being restricted to run software bought from it) has been, so far and for the foreseeable future, strictly optional.

Seeing that you can still 1) install VM software, 2) install Java, 3) install X11, 4) write your own scripts and applets with both Automator and Script Editor and 5) get XCode free from the MAS, without even having to register as a developer, I have ZERO reason to believe that Apple intends to lock-down the Mac, iOS-style, ever. And if they ever do, activating an unfettered mode akin to the OS X of yore will probably be easier, officially supported and, therefore, more secure than jailbreaking an iOS device or (*gasp*) rooting an Android counterpart.

Seriously, I urge you to either rethink your position or, at the very least, refrain from spewing out FUD about issues about which you seem to have no knowlegde.
João Gomes  2014-12-16 13:48
Apart from that, I do agree with your first premise; Apple does have a “Father Knows Best” stance that rubs many people the wrong way, and sometimes would like to see them open up more on the iOS front.

However, I am not at all against the “walled garden” approach; not then we're talking about devices with GPS and all our personal data, which we carry everywhere in our pockets. It's the general attitude from Apple PR which I sometimes loathe, and after reading this I am convinced, more than ever, that Apple should indeed take some pages from Microsoft's book on that regard. It's not that I believe that Apple should have a develop-centric culture, but as much as they like to trumpet their amazing tally of available and downloaded apps, Apple doesn't even have a developer-friendly culture, which makes it even more galling.

But while I get that may tick you off, we have to commend Apple for keeping the Mac open. In fact, the Yosemite Public Beta was a proof of goodwill towards end-users.
David Buckley  2014-12-17 07:35
Bravo, Adam.

This is a superbly well written and cogent analysis of the almost Greek tragedy-esque transformation of Apple from a corporate beacon of light and fun into a controlling beast far worse than the big bad Microsoft we made fun of so many years ago.

Do they really not get that even (no, especially!) when you become indispensable you really do need to be nice? If you want to empower others as you say, Apple, why do your poke your fingers in the eyes of those who are most important to you??
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2014-12-17 08:55
I can just imagine the Greek chorus of me, Jason Snell, Gruber, Jim Dalrymple, Marco Arment, and John Moltz. :-)

Oddly, I think Apple is way more scared internally than would seem reasonable, given some of the way they talk in the email that comes out during court cases. Perhaps being at the top is actually really stressful, since you know that everyone is gunning for you at all times, and any mistake or hint of weakness will be exploited.