Apple's Phil Schiller Speaks On Censored iPhone Dictionaries, But Ignores The Bigger Issues

A lone messenger has emerged from the impenetrable fortress that is Apple’s App Store, and his name is Phil Schiller. Earlier this week, John Gruber of Daring Fireball wrote a lengthy column detailing the plight of Ninjawords (iTunes Link), a sleek iPhone dictionary that uses Wiktionary as its data source. Gruber wrote that the application had been rejected for including numerous common swear words, going on to write that “Apple censored an English dictionary.” Not so, says Schiller, who is Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing and is widely regarded as one of the more recognizable ‘faces’ of Apple, after Steve Jobs.

In a rare moment of semi-transparency, Schiller has written back to Gruber, on the record, in an attempt to point out errors in the original column. I’ve included an excerpt below, and you can find the full letter in Gruber’s post (it’s well worth reading if you’ve been tracking the App Store closely).

Contrary to what you reported, the Ninjawords application was not rejected in the App Store review process for including common “swear” words. In fact anyone can easily see that Apple has previously approved other dictionary applications in the App Store that include all of the “swear” words that you gave as examples in your story.

The issue that the App Store reviewers did find with the Ninjawords application is that it provided access to other more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries, words that many reasonable people might find upsetting or objectionable.

In short, when Ninjawords initially submitted their application in May, Apple’s representatives objected to the inclusion of some swear words and told the developers to wait until the iPhone supported parental controls. Unfortunately, at that point nobody knew exactly when those would be released, so Ninjawords decided to remove the words in question and resubmit. There seems to be some discrepancy regarding which words Apple objected to — Schiller writes that they were “urban slang” terms, but the App Store reviewers reportedly explicitly identified ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’, and ‘shit’. In any case, Ninjawords removed the words on their own accord in an attempt to get to market before competitors, so “censorship” probably isn’t the right word to use here. But Gruber’s points about the App Store’s inconsistencies certainly still stand.

All of that said, I find it totally bizarre that Phil Schiller took the time to write this lengthy explanation without saying anything about the myriad of other problems with the App Store (it is possible that Gruber omitted portions of the letter, though it doesn’t sound like it). No mention of the Google Voice fiasco, nothing on the awful support developers have seen from App Store representatives, nothing on the inconsistent and nebulous approval policies. Schiller’s only allusion to the ongoing problems was his closing paragraph:

Apple’s goals remain aligned with customers and developers — to create an innovative applications platform on the iPhone and iPod touch and to assist many developers in making as much great software as possible for the iPhone App Store. While we may not always be perfect in our execution of that goal, our efforts are always made with the best intentions, and if we err we intend to learn and quickly improve.

I realize that Schiller probably has his hands tied to some extent, though he is obviously quite high up on the Apple food chain. And his letter to Gruber is really a breath of fresh air after many months of near-silence from Apple. But at the same time, his statement that Apple’s efforts are always made with the best intentions with hopes of improving quickly are hard to take at face value. Apple has remained mum on these problems for so long now, it’s hard not to think that they’re only beginning to address them publicly after the flurries of bad press have turned into a persistent raging storm. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Apple really has been working hard behind the scenes, but they’ve done nothing to show that that’s the case.

And really, there’s a very easy way for Apple to ameliorate many of these problems long before they’re actually fixed. It’s called transparency. Apple should start a blog about the troubled App Store, just as it did when MobileMe was prematurely released to the masses. It may clash with Apple’s secretive culture, but it’s gotten to a point where Apple is putting livelihoods at stake, and the growing unrest in the developer community is reaching a head. Developers would be far more accommodating to these issues if they had more of an idea about what Apple was doing to fix things. Schiller’s letter is a good first step, but dictionary censorship is a far cry from being the App Store’s only problem.