FairPlay DRM May Be To Blame For Widespread iOS & Mac App Crashes

Developers are frustrated over what appears to be an issue with corrupt app store binaries being served by Apple, which is leading otherwise functional iOS and Mac applications to immediately crash upon launch. The issue was tipped to us by app developers and has also been making the rounds thanks to details shared by high-profile app developer Marco Arment of Instapaper.

On Arment’s blog, he characterizes the issue as one where iOS apps crash as soon as they are opened, without even showing the splash screen beforehand. Instead, they quickly fade to black then return the user to their iPhone or iPad’s homescreen. For Mac apps, he says a dialog message may appear, reading: “[App] is damaged and can’t be opened. Delete [App] and download it again from the App Store.” (Arment is also keeping a well-maintained list of affected apps on his site, which includes Angry Birds Space HD, we should note).

Developer Concerns: Not Knowing Who’s Affected Or Where, Angry Customers Lashing Out

What’s worrisome is that the issue doesn’t appear to be affecting all developers in all regions, which makes the issue hard to track down. According to Metronome+ maker Joe LeBlanc, reports from the U.S., Japan, Korea and France, for example, indicate the problem is worldwide. These reports, from LeBlanc and other developers, have been trickling in for a couple of days now, and the situation doesn’t appear to be fully resolved as of yet.

The developers we spoke with are concerned about leaving their damaged apps online because the issues will lead to angry, 1-star user reviews from consumers who believe the developer is to blame for the application’s faulty behavior. Laments Mark Rickert of Mohawk Apps, maker of Checkout Helper, the issue is definitely on Apple’s side, and he’s helpless to resolve it. “I’m extremely frustrated that this incident will tarnish my brand image and goodwill that I’ve built up over the last one-and-a-half years,” he says. “My app is a ‘premium’  type app for business users and if people can’t use it…they’re going to go elsewhere.”

Adds Reuven Moskowitz, founder at Penguin Digital and maker of the clever iPhone photo printing app MophoApp, “we could be losing thousands of users an hour. If this was Google Play, we’d be able to pull the update and wait until this was fixed and resubmit. But with Apple and their approval process, if we pull we’d have to wait two weeks until approval again.”

Developers Say Apple Remains Silent

But what’s really bothering developers is that Apple has not responded either, whether via email, in developer forums, or in bug reports.

“Apple doesn’t provide a comment, there is no explanation about this problem,” Phoster’s maker Bucket Labs responds. “We are receiving lots of email by the hour, but we couldn’t do anything.” Meanwhile, the folks behind zombie survival game Please Stay Calm also say that they’re “constantly trying to contact Apple and get an update,” but are still getting reports of crashes. Andrew Johnson, co-founder of GaiaGPS says all they’ve gotten is an email auto-response from Apple, but, as of this morning, some users are reporting the problem is fixed while others are still affected.

However, according to Readdle CEO Igor Zhadanov, the issue may already be resolved, it’s just that the change hasn’t it made its way to all Apple servers yet. “We only receive occasional emails from affected users. It wasn’t the case yesterday, though. It definitely hurt many applications that people are relying on,” he says. “For almost 500,000 users of our Scanner Pro application, more than 105,000 downloaded the update yesterday,” he adds, giving a scope of the problem. “Angry emails, Facebook, Twitter and App Store 1-star ratings – all that kept our team pretty busy.”

Apple’s FairPlay DRM To Blame?

But Zhadanov also provides one of the few technical explanations for the problem, which has puzzled many. He thinks the issue has to do with Apple’s DRM (digits rights management) called FairPlay. “It seems Apple’s FairPlay DRM mechanism wasn’t applied properly to application packages that are delivered to the user when he or she downloads the update. After the installation, the application doesn’t pass DRM validation and terminates immediately,” he explains. The reason why the issue seemingly affected some users and not others had to do with delays in having the bug and related fix propagated through Apple’s network of servers. Presumably, when the fix reaches all the servers, it will be resolved permanently.

Laurent Mascherpa, CEO of Massive Finger, maker of Pinball Maniacs, suggests that Apple could implement tools that allow developers to perform progressive rollouts of apps in the future. For example, after deploying to a few thousand to ten thousand users, they could flip the switch to push the rollout to all. But, if problems were reported, they could pull the update and revert their app to the previous version. This would help in situations like this, he says.

The general recommendation at this point from all developers is to wait to update your apps. For those who have already been affected, however, there are more troubles ahead. Even after the fix is implemented, game players may lose data. Explains Dan Russell Pinson of top educational app Stack the States, some of his users have found success by deleting and reinstalling the app, but they lose their game progress. (The workaround for this is to delete the app then reinstall an older version from the iTunes backup, we’re hearing.)

We’ve also reached out to Apple, but have not heard back.

Image credit, angry bird at top: FuckYeahAlbuquerque