The new appeals process can save an app after it has been rejected, but developers say the most frustrating and time-consuming aspects of Apple’s process appear unchanged. An app can be bogged down by weeks or months of written exchanges with reviewers via Apple’s App Store Connect website before it is formally rejected.
In 2020, Ben Fry saw his company Fathom’s Covid tracker app for institutions rejected for offering medical advice—a function entirely absent from the service. He turned to the appeals process after multiple exchanges with Apple and the app was later approved without changes. Another of Fry’s apps was shot down for not providing enough utility, only to be accepted after an appeal for being “well-designed.”
Fry says his company now actively avoids the App Store and produces web apps instead. “Every experience I’ve had with submitting an app has been a nightmare,” Fry says. “Apple’s involvement is personally frustrating and a huge professional liability.”
Nelson, the London developer, was told that his app breached a guideline aimed at preventing copycats. After he appealed the rejection, a reviewer on the phone refused to tell Nelson which app he was allegedly copying or what features he needed to drop or change. Nelson resorted to a brute force approach, systematically updating nearly every aspect of his game until Apple approved it.
Former members of the App Review team told WIRED that app rejections are vague because Apple’s app guidelines are vague and the company’s working conditions don’t allow or require them to be interpreted consistently.
“We will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line,” the guidelines say. “What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’ And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.” Fry and Panaitiu’s apps both fell foul of the guidelines’ hazy demand that apps provide “some sort of lasting entertainment value or adequate utility.”
In 2020, the former head of the App Store, Phillip Shoemaker, told US lawmakers that Apple’s developer rules were “arbitrary” and used against competitors. In a deposition in the Epic lawsuit, Shoemaker said that the qualifications needed to get hired as an app reviewer were that a person “could breathe [and] could think.”
A former senior App Store operations lead, who requested anonymity fearing repercussions from Apple, says the guidelines are designed to work on precedent, similar to some aspects of law. New reviewers generally get about two months to become familiar with a database of previous app rejections and approvals chosen to set precedents for each guideline. Few reviewers have technical backgrounds, the former employee says, and their decisions are often subjective and vary significantly between reviewers.
Apple says it employs nearly 500 reviewers who each look at up to 100 apps a day to handle the hundreds of thousands of submissions in a week and together make over 1,000 calls a week to developers. The former App Store lead says reviewers can only afford to spend a handful of minutes on each case, making it tough to review an app’s every feature, check for precedent, write developer feedback, or perform other steps in the review process.
Another former Apple employee, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, managed a team of app reviewers and says the division incentivized haste. Reviewers were regularly reminded to work faster so as to improve a measure of how quickly the team got through the queue of pending app reviews. “Tailored communication is not very well rewarded in the team,” the manager says.
Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst and former Apple marketing director, says that the company is unlikely to respond to complaints from app developers unless their experiences also inconvenience Apple customers. Until then, he says, “developers will have no choice but to deal with Apple’s policies or simply create apps exclusively for Android.”
Rick VanMeter, executive director of the App Fairness Coalition, whose members include Epic and Spotify, says regulation requiring Apple to allow an alternative to the App Store on its devices would create competition that incentivizes it to better serve both developers and consumers. “Apple gets away with having inconsistent rules and self-preferencing because there are no alternatives to hold it accountable,” VanMeter says.