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Apple Responds to FCC’s App Store Questions

Apple has responded to the FCC’s questions about how Apple didn’t-exactly-reject the Google Voice iPhone app and removed other Google Voice-related apps from the App Store (see “FCC Queries Apple, AT&T, and Google about Google Voice App,” 2009-08-03). For the most part, the answers are what a reasonable person would expect Apple to say, but in a few cases, they offer a glimpse inside the inner workings of the App Store.

Although AT&T and Google were also queried, they didn’t publicize their responses. However, Engadget has now posted both responses for everyone to read.

Google Voice — First off, Apple claims it has not rejected the Google Voice app, and continues to study it. According to Apple, the problem is that the Google Voice app essentially replaces several core features of the iPhone, including Visual Voicemail and the SMS Messages app.

That’s because Google Voice, after a call hasn’t been picked up, records and transcribes voicemail on Google’s servers, rather than allowing the iPhone to receive the voicemail message. Similarly, Google Voice manages SMS messages internally, keeping them away from the iPhone’s Messages app.

I think it’s overreaching to say that the iPhone’s unique user experience is predicated on Visual Voicemail and the Messages app. The iPhone offers a unique user experience because of the complete package – Apple’s innovative industrial design and iPhone OS 3.0 coupled with both Apple’s bundled apps and whatever independent apps users may have downloaded. All independent apps individualize the user experience, and Google Voice doesn’t seem sufficiently different in that respect.

Apple’s final concern with Google Voice is that it transfers the user’s Contacts database up to Google’s servers, and Apple claims that Google hasn’t provided assurances that the data will be used only in appropriate ways. This claim seems like a red herring, given that Apple’s own Address Book application in Mac OS X can synchronize contacts with Google (and Yahoo). If the user wants contacts synchronized with Google, that should be up to the user.

Apple and AT&T — In the response, Apple says, in the context of whether Apple acted in consultation with AT&T in rejecting the Google Voice app:

Apple is acting alone and has not consulted with AT&T about whether or not to approve the Google Voice application. No contractual conditions or non-contractual understandings with AT&T have been a factor in Apple's decision-making process in this matter.

While some have already commented that this could be interpreted to mean that understandings with AT&T could be a factor in other App Store decisions, the next statement from Apple at least puts to rest any worry that AT&T has a significant say beyond VoIP apps and anything that would enable a customer to violate AT&T’s Terms of Service:

Apple alone makes the final decisions to approve or not approve iPhone applications.

There is a provision in Apple's agreement with AT&T that obligates Apple not to include functionality in any Apple phone that enables a customer to use AT&T's cellular network service to originate or terminate a VoIP session without obtaining AT&T's permission. Apple honors this obligation, in addition to respecting AT&T's customer Terms of Service, which, for example, prohibit an AT&T customer from using AT&T's cellular service to redirect a TV signal to an iPhone. From time to time, AT&T has expressed concerns regarding network efficiency and potential network congestion associated with certain applications, and Apple takes such concerns into consideration.

I can’t believe that AT&T wouldn’t complain to Apple about a troubling app, but at least we know Apple retains final control.

Behind the iPhone Curtain — The rest of Apple’s response mostly explains Apple’s criteria for rejecting apps, and there’s nothing particularly new there. Needless to say, Apple couches the approval process as necessary “in order to protect consumer privacy, safeguard children from inappropriate content, and avoid applications that degrade the core experience of the iPhone.” Also, the review process “tests for vulnerabilities such as software bugs, instability on the iPhone platform, and the use of unauthorized protocols.”

No mention is made of the many controversial rejections (other than noting other apps that tied into Google Voice, which had previously been approved and sold), or of the unnecessarily extreme requirement that all Internet-capable apps carry a 17+ rating (see “Apple: Web-enabled iPhone Apps Aren’t for Kids,” 2009-07-28).

Where Apple does provide new information, however, is in the statistics surrounding the approval process. According to Apple, 95 percent of apps are approved within 14 days of being submitted, and Apple has reviewed more than 200,000 new and updated apps in a little more than a year.

Those reviews are performed by a staff of more than 40 full-time reviewers, and at least two reviewers evaluate each app to ensure uniformity. An executive review board sets policy, determines procedures, and reviews apps that raise new or complex issues.

The question is if the reviewers can possibly be devoting sufficient time to each app. Apple says that about 8,500 new apps and updates are received each week, and roughly 20 percent are “not approved as originally submitted” (which would seem to mean that the apps can be resubmitted after modifications).

With a few assumptions thrown in, such as 40-hour work weeks, and only two reviewers looking at each app, the average amount of attention an app receives is just over 5 minutes. With a minor update to an existing app, that might be enough time, but it’s hard to imagine that an entirely new app could be evaluated reasonably in even double or triple the time.

And, certainly, the responses that iPhone developers receive with rejected apps are often terse to the point of providing no useful guidance, which is why so many developers feel as though the approval process is an inexplicable black box containing a capricious and sometimes implacable reviewer. Not surprisingly, Apple tells the FCC another story:

If we find that an application has a problem, for example, a software bug that crashes the application, we send the developer a note describing the reason why the application will not be approved as submitted. In many cases we are able to provide specific guidance about how the developer can fix the application. We also let them know they can contact the app review team or technical support, or they can write to us for further guidance.

I’m sure we’ll see comments on Apple’s claims from outspoken iPhone developers in the next few days, and it would be interesting to know if the FCC will take sources other than Apple into account in evaluating this situation further.

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