Apple Eases Controls on iPhone App Development: One Local Developer’s Experiences

Downloading free or paid third-party applications has become such a key part of the Apple iPhone experience—with more than 100,000 apps now available through the iTunes App Store—that it’s easy to forget that outside apps weren’t even allowed on the device until summer 2008. But while Apple’s strategy has revolutionized consumers’ expectations about smartphones, and while mobile software developers have jumped onto the iTunes/iPhone bandwagon in full force, the transformation hasn’t been painless.

To be specific, Apple has maintained strict control over which apps can be distributed through the App Store, and it developed a reputation very early on for taking weeks (sometimes even months) to make up its mind on specific apps. Worse, it has often rejected apps for seemingly arbitrary or trivial reasons—and then forced their developers to the back of the line when they submitted fixes.

It’s an issue that has had many developers tearing their hair out, given that software development these days is all about rapid iteration (build, test, repeat). More than one company I’ve spoken with has said Apple’s unpredictability has undercut the iPhone as a platform for innovation, forcing mobile developers to turn to other operating systems such as Google’s Android, where it’s much faster and easier to iterate.

But all that may be changing now. Developer blogs and the Twittersphere started to buzz last week with some remarkable news: some new iPhone apps were getting approved much faster, sometimes within a single day. And not only that, but it seems that Apple is now giving a pass to certain features that had been automatic cause for rejection in the past. (One is the use of so-called “private APIs” or application programming interfaces, those not officially approved by Apple.)

Apple hasn’t said anything publicly about the changes, but it appears that the company is making a conscious effort to simplify and speed up the app approval process. For more about the recent changes, I contacted Greg Raiz, the founder of Raizlabs, a Brookline, MA-based software development house that specializes in iPhone applications. (The company has built such apps as GPS Twit, VideoUp for Facebook, Clock Radio, and Whiteboard Pro. It also created the initial versions of FitnessKeeper‘s award-winning RunKeeper app.) He calls the reduction in app approval time drastic—and very welcome.

Xconomy: What changes are you actually seeing in regard to the time it takes to get iPhone apps approved, or the number of hoops Apple is asking developers to jump through? How do the new approval wait times compare to the old ones?

Greg Raiz: When the App store first opened we saw approval times of several weeks. Typical times over the past year and a half would vary, but we would typically see things reviewed in two to three weeks. For some of our products we saw much longer review times—sometimes as more than a month. In one case an application was rejected because Apple didn’t like an icon we used. It took us 30 minutes to resubmit the application with a new icon but we still had to wait another two weeks for the application to be reviewed.

Over the last few days we’ve started seeming much faster approval times: between 1-2 days for an approval. This marks a critical change in how apps are reviewed. We’re happy that Apple is listening and improving what has been a particular pain point in developing iPhone apps.

X: Speaking of pain points, Apple had also developed a reputation for being arbitrary, even capricious about which apps it rejected and why. Is that changing too?

GR: It’s still too early to see what other changes are present in this review process. We have seen a possible relaxation on automatic rejections for the use of private API’s. I don’t think the rejections are totally arbitrary, it’s just the result of … Next Page »

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