Apple’s approval system: keeping them safe or ruining their platform?

There’s no question that Apple has enjoyed immense success with the launch of the iPhone. It’s one of the best selling phones ever, and considering it was originally priced at $500 and is now $200 on a two year – or longer – contract, that’s certainly a feat. It’s pireced our society’s collective mind as a must-have gadget and this is in no way because of hardware. Instead, Apple created and marketed brilliant software.

All is not well in the world of Apple, however. They are facing stiff competition from both Google and Palm from Android and WebOS respectively. Both are going to be robust platforms and will have multiple devices shipping this year. We don’t know much about Palm’s OS yet, but Google’s Android is a fully open system – the user is free to put whatever they like on it and modify it whatever way they see fit.

This is one of the core reasons people loved the iPhone when it launched. It freed them from their candy bar phones. It let them explore a world foreign to flip phone owners. For the first time ever, people could browse an application store over the air and install whatever they please. This was the true joy of the iPhone. This is also why it took the launch of the 3G and iPhone OS 2.0 before the device hit critical mass.

Now that it has hit critical mas, Apple has a big problem on their hands and it all stems from their application approval process. They have published guildelines for what will and will not be accepted to the app store, but often the lines are blurred or even misinterpreted by the person reviewing the application. This has led to countless examples of peoples’ apps being rejected (most notably the recent rejection of Nine Inch Nails’ application) for seemingly trivial or invalid reasons.

There are two main problems at play. The first is that Apple wants to control content and keep everything PG. In a world where Watchmen can make $100 million at the box office, an R-rated comic book movie, this seems highly illogical. That is not to say that content needs to be violent or innapopriate to be good, rather that there is excellent content out there that is not family friendly. Considering the average iPhone owner is likely well over the age of 18 (you do need to be a legal adult to sign a contract), it follows then that there should be channels by which Apple can allow mature content onto the app store.

The second problem is random rejection. The app store is Apple’s playground and if they don’t like what you’ve built, either because it potentially threatens one of their businesses or they simply don’t like what it stands for, they can and will reject your application. Frustratingly, they recently rejected an app that lets you remote control Transmission – a BitTorrent application. To be clear: the iPhone app was simply a remote control and did not download any content of any kind. Apple either accidentally or purposefully misinterpreted the function of the application, and rejected it based on the grounds that “this category of applications is often used for the purpose of infringing third party rights.” It’s hard not to feel bad for the developers of this app because not only does it in no way infringe copyrights, the application that it controls – Transmission – can be used for many legitimate purposes.

There have been many more examples of Apple rejecting applications for seemingly illogical, convoluted or unfair reasons. Sling Player was released recently and it was crippled to work over WiFi only – something AT&T has since explained it was the cause of. AT&T is not the only carrier that sells the iPhone and it really shouldn’t have any say in which applications do or don’t get approved, or be able to impose restrictions on functionality.

Is the iPhone a great device? It was and still is, there is no question of that. Its touch interface is still unmatched and the user experience from iTunes to iPhone has no rival in the mobile device market. This doesn’t mean Apple can continue to rest on its laurels. The public is becoming increasingly aware – and miffed – of rejections of truly functional applications. There have been whispers that OS 3.0 will include better parental controls that will enable users to receive mature content, and therefore allow Apple to publish such content in the app store without liability.

Parental controls alone won’t save the app store. Apple needs to get much more specific with its approval guidelines and should strive to never break their own rejection rules. If they do, there needs to be a democratic appeal process. Currently there is no process apart from resubmitting, which leads to angry rants from Trent Reznor. What sets the iPhone apart from the pack is its software. If Apple is going to continue to cripple what software is available, it may just be surprised how fast Android can overtake its prized jewel.