Apple’s App Store Connect will be open on Christmas: Can developers take advantage?

'Be prepared to mobilize the entire team' if you're launching over the holidays

Apple is breaking with holiday tradition: The company announced early last month that its App Store will continue to review developer submissions over the holidays, welcome news for app developers facing their busiest season.

Previously, an app that needed to release a bug fix or a critical update on Black Friday or during the final hours of Christmas shopping couldn’t push a fix for days. This year, from December 23 to 27, App Store Connect service staff will work a reduced schedule, which means updates will take place, but reviews “may take longer to complete,” the company said.

On the surface, this looks like a complete win for app developers and their customers, but one expert we spoke to warned that some developers may run into unintended consequences if they don’t adapt to the recent changes.

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For clarity, we interviewed two people whose agencies help companies with their mobile apps: Wolfpack Digital CEO Georgina Lupu Florian and Appetiser‘s Jamie Shostak, whom we recently interviewed following our survey to identify the best software consultants for startups. For balance, we also spoke to Yasser Bashir, co-founder of software development company Arbisoft.

Florian and Shostak both said they mostly see the change as positive, they told TechCrunch. “This is amazing news for our clients,” said Shostak. But Lupu Florian added a note of caution: “We believe for some companies and developers this can also create difficulties if it’s not understood and managed properly.”

The end of a headache

According to Shostak, Apple’s policy “was definitely a challenge” for their clients to manage around in previous years. Knowing that App Store Connect wouldn’t accept updates or new launches always affected end-of-year planning, he said. “Generally, teams would need to sprint to finish sooner, or plan for smaller updates.”

“Instead of trying to force as many features as possible before the holidays,” said Lupu Florian, “we focused on the most important ones and aimed to finish them first, allocating more time for quality assurance and testing. By doing that, we had more time to solve potential problems before they even got to production.”

Wolfpack also used another complementary strategy, she explained: “To roll out these pre-holiday features earlier, to a smaller set of users (beta testers, for example), and see how they work when more people [accessed them.]”

But even with planning, this was a stressful time for mobile agencies and developers. “The biggest danger [was] the inability to come with bug fixes and improvements during the holidays, in case anything went wrong,” Lupu Florian said.

Often, companies didn’t want to risk that. A MacRumors forum user described what it meant in his case: “At my own company, we don’t release new features in December. It’s a peak traffic month, so the consequences of a bug slipping through QA are greater than normal. We will release bug fixes during the month, but only if the bug is deemed to be sufficiently critical where the harms of accidentally introducing another bug are lesser than the harm of just letting the current bug remain until January.”

To be fair, “many developers, companies and entrepreneurs are usually on vacation during the holiday season and they don’t plan to do any work throughout those days anyway,” Lupu Florian acknowledged.

While this might have been a worthy tradeoff for some, it didn’t always feel that way for the many developers who reside in countries where Christmas isn’t the main holiday, or for those would simply prefer to keep working at a sustainable pace. Shostak said the policy changes is “a great step for feature velocity.” In his words: “Don’t have to slow down if you don’t want to!”

“Give yourself the time to let Apple do their thing.”

It wasn’t just bug fixes that were put on hold: “We were also limited to launch features specifically for Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Lupu Florian noted. Launching something just in time for New Year’s Eve, for instance, wasn’t entirely impossible, but it required strategic thinking and workarounds: “If we wanted something like that, we had to prepare everything in advance and create an unlocking logic inside the app that would show those features only at the desired time.”

Because of this know-how, the change isn’t necessarily a major deal for Wolfpack. Neither is it for new app launches: “For startups building up their apps from scratch, it may not have the biggest impact,” Shostak said. But the pair still agreed that this represents a new opportunity if software developers can leverage it properly. Shostak again:

If you’re focusing on launching features that cultivate growth such as holiday-themed promotions or activations, companies can pad the stocking a bit more. Still, I would be cautious, as App Store review processes can still take a fair bit of time even when we’re not in the holiday season. So make sure you give yourself the time to let Apple do their thing, with a bit of a buffer for any reduced staffing.

Apple said it anticipates a “high volume” of requests, which adds “some uncertainty to the table,” Lupu Florian noted. “We’d recommend developers and app owners still prepare everything in advance and pay more attention to testing than usual, because by the time your bug fix is published, it might be a bit too late.”

Review times are already a factor of unpredictability throughout the year. According to Apple, “on average, 50% of apps are reviewed in 24 hours and over 90% are reviewed in 48 hours” — but that still leaves 10% of apps potentially facing more hurdles or delays.

Consider it an insurance policy

Lupu Florian recommends considering the extended holiday window a more of a backup, like a “safety parachute or as car insurance,” instead of an opportunity to accelerate a software dev cycle. “In case something goes wrong, like some errors appearing in production, we have one more option: to submit a new build/version of our apps.” The CEO is aware that others might be tempted to go further, but said it is risky. “It may be tempting to launch just one more feature or add one more idea to the app. However, this may result in a disruptive rush and put quality at risk, if not done right.”

If you decode to swarm on features to push new updates, Shostak recommended that only “the team most familiar with the code” be given such tasks over the holiday, which could an external development team. “We’re seeing many companies choose agencies to build mobile apps for them, even if they have their own tech teams.”

This can be a way to scale up on demand depending on seasonal needs and take advantage of geographical distribution. For instance, most of Appetiser’s developers are based in Asia and might therefore be more available than their Western colleagues during Christmas.

Bashir said this situation could benefit Arbisoft, whose employees are mostly based in Pakistan. “We do expect now that this facility is available, we will be relied upon to provide support during holidays which is something we welcome.”

However, outsourced work over the holidays might still be better indicated to handle bug fixes and holiday promotions, rather than to launch something new altogether. “I think the holiday season is still a risky time to releases non-critical features or bug fixes simply due to the reduced availability of staff around the world,” Bashir said.

“[L]aunching an app requires effort from the entire team,” Lupu Florian said. “It’s not just pushing a button while enjoying a hot chocolate, so for anyone who wants to launch an app in the middle of the holiday season, be prepared to mobilize the entire team (which would affect their own holidays and free time).”