Is Apple Evil?

May 22nd, 2009

Jens Alfke goes deep on the question of whether Apple’s recent and recurring stupidities with regard to iPhone App Store rejections amount to evil or not.

It’s in Apple’s genetic code to be about as transparent as a lead brick […] but in the context of the App Store, Apple’s inscrutability and arbitrariness has become actively malign.

The latest flub concerns an iPhone book reader called Eucalyptus, which was allegedly rejected from the App Store because users could potentially use it to access books with questionable content. You know, similarly to the way you can use a web browser to access web pages with questionable content. Smooth move, Apple. Everybody is pissed about the incident. While rejections of fart apps or soft porn in the past found their share of supporters, most people seem to agree that these actions, nostalgic of book burning and censorship, are indefensible.

As an Apple cheerleader, it’s tempting to take the stance that Apple’s botched handling of App Store approvals is mere incompetence. There are tens of thousands of apps, and it stands to reason that a few erroneous decisions will be made in the course of evaluating those submissions. In spite of a variety of truly frustrating policies, the App Store is steaming ahead at a breakneck speed. This is just a squeaky wheel attached to an otherwise well-oiled machine.

But with each ridiculous, pathetic incident, it becomes harder to exculpate the company for actions that cause injury not only to the specific developers whose works are wrongly rejected, but to the developer community as a whole, whose support of the platform will ultimately make or break the iPhone platform and Apple’s reputation along with it.

Apple is cocky and Apple is arrogant. They always have been, for better and for worse. Alongside the stubbornly perfected refinement of its products, marketing, and public image, the company has always worn blemishes such as these. Obliviously, and with an oafish lack of concern. Apple is the beautiful Hollywood actress at the party, who laughs giddily into the night as a long piece of toilet paper trails her elegant gown. She ignores the polite whispers, and then the pointed throat clearing. Finally, as the whole room shakes its head and laughs, she condescends: “everybody here has a terrible sense of humor.”

I don’t believe Apple is evil, but they are powerful. And the careless handling of such power produces results that are hard to distinguish from evil. I expect things will get worse, and then things will get better. It’s happened over the years in other areas where Apple has stumbled. They will become less oblivious and more receptive to criticism about the App Store approval process. At some point it might even feel fair, transparent, and equitable.

But eventually they will move on to something else, applying their cockiness to a new and exciting arena. As much as I don’t look forward to suffering the specific damages of that future bloom of faux pas, I’m excited as hell to find out what it is.

22 Responses to “Is Apple Evil?”

  1. Tom Harrington Says:

    I’d prefer to attribute the problems to incompetence rather than malice, but it’s been ten months since the store opened and the story hasn’t changed: Apps randomly rejected for questionable reasons, often ones never heard before and contradicting previous decisions. This long after the fact it starts to seem like either they just have no idea how the process affects the outside world or that the incompetence runs much, much deeper than I would have guessed. Which might be the same thing, I guess. Mistakes are OK, but a continuing long-term pattern of mistakes without any recourse for the victims of the mistakes makes it hard to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. They don’t know, or they don’t care enough to do anything, and either one is terrible.

  2. Ian Beck Says:

    I suspect Apple is only really motivated by a direct threat to revenue. Their handling of app store submissions certainly has potential long-term impact, but until there’s an alternative for developers that is obviously reducing the profit margin of the app store, I highly doubt Apple will bother changing things.

    Just yet another reason that I love Apple’s products yet hold the company itself in mild disgust.

  3. Chucky Says:

    Apple’s mission here is to avoid political/social controversy about iPhone app material.

    Rejecting Eucalyptus gets them more bad controversy than approving it would have, given that the decision is so Kafka-esque.

    So why?

    My guess is that Apple sees itself as having cured the censorship problem by introducing parental controls in OS 3.0, so they’ve lost interest in trying to correctly arbitrate controversial material in the meantime. As far as Apple’s thinking goes, the developer’s problem is about to disappear, so why should they waste time trying to split hairs.

    When you’ve got a new version of software coming out shortly with major bugfixes, you stop caring about patching up bugs in the existing version.

  4. Chris B. Says:

    Apple’s mission here is to avoid political/social controversy about iPhone app material.

    Agreed, but they’re still doing a pretty bad job of it. As the original Eucalyptus blog entry points out, what about all those jiggly-boob apps? How are those okay? How many real people out there think to themselves, “Virtual reality interactive jiggling breasts are okay, but the Kama Sutra is the work of the devil!”

    And I’m still surprised that a company as hip as Apple could become so squeamish about controversy. When Al Gore won his Nobel Prize, they had this big thing on their home page about it. I’d be willing to wager that there’s a pretty big overlap between people who’d boycott any company involved with Al Gore and people who’d get upset about Eucalyptus and its Kama Sutra.

  5. hawkman Says:

    I wonder if Chucky has a point here. Certainly, this doesn’t seem to be a system Apple has any interest in fixing despite the bad press. Clearly they have either no interest, or can’t find a fix that doesn’t involve sacrifices they’re unwilling to make.

    I really do think it’s a small minority of reviewers causing these “outrages”. Or a series of reviewers having a bad day.

  6. foljs Says:

    A bit off topic and rant-y but: enough with *evil*.

    Apple is a company. Companies act out of specific interests, in response to specific circumstances. They do so under their capacity. They can be dangerous, threatening, bad for you or the community etc. They cannot be evil.

    In all this cases the most probable explanation is that some not-so-bright, underpaid guy in the “Application Approval” department, made a bad judgement call mindlessly following some guidelines given to him by Apple (i.e. “Reject all apps providing access to pornographic material”).

    I understand that “evil” is an american obsession, having to do with biblical references and all that. We in ole E.U don’t even believe that a person can be evil. He can commit crimes or even “evil” acts, but he is not evil. He can be malicious, selfish, brain damaged, abused, sociopathic, psychotic, etc, “Evil” is the stuff of religion, not of science, criminology, psychology or sociology.

  7. Leslie Says:

    What struck me yesterday is that I have yet to see anyone attempt to crunch the numbers on these app store rejections.

    I’m beginnging to suspect that the majority of these inane rejections are due to inadaquate training versus bizarre policies. I suspect the volume to be so huge and the number of staff required to have escaluated faster than Apple can appropriately train whoever is doing these.

    This is not to minimize the seriousness of the situation or the real hurtful impact its making on some developers. Neither it is a defense of Apple or its practices. I’m merely trying to understand the issue from a different viewpoint. How bad is it really?

    There are 20000 apps and counting in the App store according to Tucows. Each app must be approved and each subsequent version of the app must be approved.

    Of the 20k apps + revisions, what’s the ration of success to horrific rejection? 10%? 5%? 1%?

    I’m not in a good position to even formulate how to arrive at that conculsion (it would be a wag) but I’m surprised someone who is, hasn’t. Or, I haven’t heard about it, also a stunningly high possbility :)

  8. foljs Says:

    @Chucky

    Apple’s mission here is to avoid political/social controversy about iPhone app material.

    Rejecting Eucalyptus gets them more bad controversy than approving it would have, given that the decision is so Kafka-esque.

    So why?

    My guess is that Apple sees itself as having cured the censorship problem by introducing parental controls in OS 3.0, so they’ve lost interest in trying to correctly arbitrate controversial material in the meantime. As far as Apple’s thinking goes, the developer’s problem is about to disappear, so why should they waste time trying to split hairs.

    Apple (as a company, and not an actual person) does not censor apps.

    A team of guys working for Apple do.

    Do you really believe those are high-paid, well-educated and versed in the art of judging, engineers? Or, more likely, just some guys following some script (like those working in phone support)?

    Probably a better way to go about it, would be to require more than one person to independently reject an app –and further investigate any controversial cases where one reviewer rejects and the other approves. But with 40,000 apps in a year (plus all their revisions), they probably don’t have the needed man-power.

    @Chris B.

    As the original Eucalyptus blog entry points out, what about all those jiggly-boob apps? How are those okay? How many real people out there think to themselves, “Virtual reality interactive jiggling breasts are okay, but the Kama Sutra is the work of the devil!”

    And who said that the ***same*** person at Apple approved the former and rejected the latter?

  9. Tom Harrington Says:

    Discussion of how the approval process works– the overwhelming number of apps, the idea that the reviewers are probably assigned a script to follow, the idea that bizarre rejections might be just a small percentage– really seems to miss the point.

    None of that would matter if there was some kind of recourse when bad decisions occurred. Or at least it wouldn’t matter nearly as much. Right now, if a bad decision is made, the software developer has no alternative but to accept it as final, and to try and comply with what might be inconsistent, illogical, even stupid reasoning. They can’t take their app elsewhere, and arguing the decision is like talking to a brick wall.

    So long as Apple sets itself up as the sole path from developers to users, they have an obligation to get it right. And if they can’t get it right, they need to offer some alternative for people in the case where they don’t get it right.

  10. Chad Says:

    Apple can afford to be cocky as long as they’ve got such a market lead. This is why I hope Blackberry gets their act together, Android keeps improving, and Pre lives up to at least some of its hype. If and when developers start to look at other options, Apple will get their act together. If their competitors don’t step it up soon, we’ll all just have to hope that a little bad press is enough to motivate them to makes some real changes.

  11. Kontra Says:

    Statistically speaking, if you put 40,000 people in a room, a few will exhibit some weird behavior. Guaranteed. Check the ratio, and let’s get a proper perspective on this.

  12. François Granger Says:

    Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

    http://catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/H/Hanlons-Razor.html

  13. Mr. Reeee Says:

    Since Apple NEVER advertises features (Parental Controls in this case), why not do the next best thing?

    Apple is the MASTER at manipulating the press, so reject a few hot button apps to generate headlines, pique outrage and interest.

    All of a sudden, your entire user base of iPhone/iPod touch platform users suddenly WANTS and NEEDS your OS upgrade. MOST, iPod touch users, will PAY $10 each for the privilege.

    BRILLIANT!

    Also, out of 35,000+ apps, there are bound to be a few screwy rejections.

  14. Michael Dupuis Says:

    Not evil, definitely incompetent. While I haven’t suffered rejection on the same level as the developer of Eucalyptus, I have had my app rejected for things that didn’t even apply, and for things that other apps did or didn’t do, clearly not holding all apps to the same standards.

    My personal take is that the whole approval process is done by people who are simply following a script, and who aren’t always on top of things, and who have so many approvals to do, they often will not even think about the rejections they are making. Sad, and hopefully things will approve, but I really wish it would be more like developing Mac apps (beyond checking for things like cell network abuse, etc.) where the approval comes from the users, not one faceless entity, that sometimes is censor, and somethings does things that make little sense, putting months (at least) of work on hold, sometimes indefinitely.

  15. DDA Says:

    Tom Harrington Says:

    “So long as Apple sets itself up as the sole path from developers to users, they have an obligation to get it right.”

    Actually, no. Apple has an obligation to its shareholders and *that’s it*. And of course they aren’t being *evil*; that implies a lot more intent than rejection a few apps. As for recourse, reading those blog posts showed the recourse: *resubmit your app after 3.0 when parental controls are in.*

    While I’d sure wish Apple would be fanatically consistent with their approvals, I can’t believe anyone who is developing for the iPhone *now* is unaware of this; if it bugs people so much, don’t develop for the platform.

    I also believe that with tens of thousands of apps and their updates, mistakes get made and apps get in or out that shouldn’t be. The whole thing does strike me as a tempest in a teapot.

  16. Neil Anderson Says:

    Certainly gives lots of exposure to the scorned apps.

  17. Andy Brice Says:

    As someone who develops for Mac OS X and Windows I am continually gob-smacked by what Apple seems to get away with. If Microsoft attempted such high handed tactics the reaction would be dire indeed. I think Apple are riding for a fall.

  18. Jim Harvie Says:

    I read a bit about this app before and kind of tracked back to the various posting several people have had and I finally have found a comment.
    Is everybody dense and does not know that apple and the app store are mere software?
    The app store is the first and only automatic computer code validator.
    There is a small team that looks at the apps that are submitted but there is a BIG PIECE OF SOFTWARE THAT TESTS.
    This big piece of software can look for malicious use.
    Sadly apple is now a dad.
    It has given birth to the iphone the ipod and the ilife that twitter and blogging and video facebook utube want.
    The real dad, the sadly sick dad now, does not want the responsibility of your 13 yr old downloading the wrong religion. He knows you have the might to sue him and most of you yanks are nuts enough to do it.

    They are adjusting the algorithm with each f%$kup.

    Am I the only one who notices they dont repeat a mistake, but they do find a better way of making one.
    Sigh.
    I love my fruit.

  19. Jarrod Says:

    Are Apple’s actions with regards to the App Store entirely different from the iTunes music store when it launched years ago? I feel like this might be a little deja vu…

  20. Ian Betteridge Says:

    “Actually, no. Apple has an obligation to its shareholders and *that’s it*. ”

    You misunderstand the nature of the obligation, my friend. To expand Tom’s comment a little:

    If Apple wishes to maximise its potential revenue by encouraging a diverse and talented pool of developers, while maintaining the incredible level of control it has over app development via the single store model, it has an obligation to get the process of app publishing right. Without a fair, transparent, and rational set of rules for what will and will not be accepted, it will ultimately drive away talented developers to the detriment of its business.”

    If it wishes to make the single App Store model work over time, it must accept that it has obligations towards the developer community. Without that, it’s *not* looking after the interests of its shareholders.

    Apple is in an interesting position right now. It has a massive amount of mindshare, but it doesn’t have either massive installed base or market share of new sales. Unless it plays its hand carefully, it could find itself in the same position as it did with the original Mac. Back then, lots of developers flooded to the plaform, wrote brilliant apps which taught them all about how to write for GUIs, and then drifted off to Windows once its market share and installed base grew.

  21. Another mISV Says:

    Meanwhile I wish they’d be just slightly more (evil?).. Some bozo has started distributing an app under my company name, and I’m trying to get them to do something about it. So far they’ve “contacted the developer,” but nothing’s come of it, and the economy being what it is makes it difficult to afford appropriate legal force at this time.

  22. Wade Says:

    Come on guys, don’t be stupid.

    Let’s give each of you 250 apps to review a day every day and let’s see how consistent you are in your decisions. Let’s see if you don’t make some mistakes.

    While there’s a perfect utopia for which we all hope, it will never be achieved. Humans are involved and there will always be mistakes.

    You sorely underestimate the monumentalness of the task. And no, throwing a hundred more contractors at the problem doesn’t fix it. It’s a huge undertaking and there’s simply no way to avoid occassional problems. If you say differently, you’re far too full of yourself.

    Improvements can and should come. But the assertation that “if Apple were just as smart as me all this would be fixed” is just ignorant.

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