Facebook App Developer To Apple: Tear Down This App Store Wall

reagan-brandenburgApple has been working overtime recently to right some of the App Store wrongs, led by none other than Senior VP Phil Schiller. And having exposed some App Store approval process secrets in its letter to the FCC, everything should be all hunky dory in the App Store now, right? Wrong.

It’s hard to remember an app in recent memory that has been anticipated more than Facebook’s new 3.0 version of its iPhone app. How do I know? You should see my Facebook inbox from people who have hunted me down knowing that I have it since I reviewed it. Unfortunately, I can’t give it to anyone because it’s a version tied specifically to my iPhone (so stop emailing!). It’s been a week and a half since Facebook engineer Joe Hewitt submitted the app to the App Store, and the wait time frustration is not only getting to the users, but to Hewitt himself, as he made clear in a blog post tonight.

Simply put, Hewitt’s post is a must-read because he makes a range of excellent points in a fairly condensed space. We’ll simply highlight some of the larger ones.

Now, to be clear, Apple considers a typical wait time for approval to be 14 days, so Facebook 3.0 isn’t there yet. And Hewitt notes that he wouldn’t mind waiting for that, were it not for the reasoning behind the wait time, which he describes as “guilty until proven innocent.” And while there is definitely something to be said for Apple wanting to control the experience of using the iPhone, it rings true that the App Store and its 40 or so full-time reviewers (a number we learned from the FCC docs) simply cannot give most apps a meaningful review. Instead, it’s the developers who should, and in most cases, do, make these meaningful reviews before submission. What app reviewers are really looking for most of the time are violations of the SDK terms of service, as Hewitt notes.

But Hewitt goes much deeper. He calls for Apple to remove the app approval process entirely. While Apple’s argument against this would undoubtedly be that because apps can access core functions of the phone, they need to protect consumers. But Hewitt, who built the original excellent web version of the Facebook app for the iPhone back before there were native third party apps, and has done extensive work on both the Netscape and Firefox web browsers (and built the excellent Firebug debugging utility for Firefox, among other things), knows his stuff. And so when he says something like:

Oh, but you say that iPhone apps are different, because they run native code and can do scary things that web pages can’t? Again, you’re wrong, because iPhone apps are sandboxed and have scarcely any more privileges than a web app. About the only scary thing they can do outside the sandbox is access your address book, but Apple can easily fix that by requiring they ask permission first, just like they must do to track your location.

Apple may do well to listen.

The reality is that while native app development on the iPhone is a relatively new system, it’s not all that different in theory from some of the robust web app development going on out there. And things like HTML 5, which can do things like access certain system elements for running tasks, will only further blur this line. Apple has started making Google create web apps for many of its apps (since they have stopped approving the native ones), and we are sure to soon see just how far they can go.

Just imagine an App Store with no gates (just a registration process). Sure, there would be spammers, but why not let Apple catch the guilty ones and ban them? That seems like a much more reasonable way for app reviewers to spend their time. Users would send it reports of suspicious activity, and reviewers would look into it. Remember also that for anyone to use these apps, they still have to install them. And so if someone is tricking users into installing a bad one, ban that developer.

Think that won’t work? Look at the Android Market. There is no pre-approval process for apps, yet Google has only had to ban 1% of apps coming in. Sure, it’s not nearly as popular as the Apple App Store, but again, users have control over what they install. And they’re proving to be reliable app reviewers themselves by flagging bad apps.

The point of all of this is that an app approval process is simply not scalable. Apple may have bolstered it recently, but if it continues to grow at its crazy rate, we’re going to see the same issues pop up again and again. Apple would have to keep hiring more and more people to review these apps. It’s not a tenable system. Instead, wouldn’t it just be easier to let everything in and then go after the bad ones? I expect the calls for this to continue to get louder.

[photo: White House Photo, Public domain]