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Traffic jams in China move faster than Apple’s App Store

Updated: 15 Sep 2010

Remember the iPhone app I mentioned weeks ago that was finished and waiting to make it into the App Store? Add me to the long list of developers who have experienced nothing but delays. This is why I both prefer to do enterprise development and prefer to write apps for other people; the first avoids the whole approval process and the second is covered by someone else's dime. For those interested in horror stories, here's the timeline of events:

04 Aug 2010 (T plus 0 days)

The educational financial/economic simulation/game is ready to go in its 1.0.0 version. There is a problem, though: Apple's uploader is seriously broken. I tried many things, but ultimately gave up. I submitted a support request to Apple, including the screenshot with their not-very-helpful error message.

08 Aug 2010 (t+4d)

While waiting for Apple to respond, I implemented something that was being saved for the 1.1.0 version: in-app purchases. The store wasn't deemed quite critical enough initially to make it into the first version, but it was a feature that was going to be handy to have sooner rather than later. For students of literature, re-read that last sentence, because you will soon have a quiz on “foreshadowing” and “irony”.

So I spent a few days trying to make lemonade out of our lemons. In the process of testing the new store, I was also able to determine why Apple's submission process was broken. It turned out to be a common shell quoting error (I'll spare the details for the non-geeks; suffice it to say that having a last name with an apostrophe can lead to input sanitation issues).

Other than returning an automated email when I first reported having problems, Apple never got back to me regarding the upload errors. Who knows how many other developers are stuck with “unknown” errors when trying to submit their application.

But, for the purposes of this timeline, the app is finally Waiting For Review!

13 Aug 2010 (t+9d)

We are now In Review. On a Friday. Apple nicely posts an App Store Review Status that indicates what they've processed in the last 7 days. In retrospect, though, I have to wonder if being counted as “reviewed” in that statistic doesn't just mean started review rather than finished review.

16 Aug 2010 (t+12d)

Testers are finally hitting our server in a meaningful way. They don't really play through a game as if they cared to win it, but that's OK. They clearly checked out the features, and everything worked as expected.

This is great. We did initially plan on it to be selling by the middle of the month, and it's close. We were a few days late ourselves, we had a few days with uploader problems, so we're pretty happy that it'll only be an extra day . . .

17 Aug 2010 (t+13d)

. . . or two? . . .

18 Aug 2010 (t+14d)

. . . or three? Still no feedback from Apple at all. Still stuck In Review. Our idle server disagrees.

19 Aug 2010 (t+15d)

Finally get an email to find out we've been mistakenly rejected. Remember the stuff we threw in back on the 8th? Here is where it bites us in the ass. We got rejected because their store returned an error!

You see, for some reason Apple app reviewers (or at least the someone who was looking at our app) consider the in-app purchases to be “core functionality”, yet their submission process does not in any way treat them as such. Again, I won't go into the geeky details other than to say two distinct review paths are followed for the app itself and for the app purchases.

Even their developer documentation suggests that the in-app purchases be made non-critical and server-driven. And that's exactly how we implemented them. We certainly want people to make additional purchases, but the game can be played just fine without them. We do give a very nice error dialog if the store doesn't work for some reason (which is apparently what they got). We can even flip a switch on our server and the app doesn't show the store at all!

So that's what I do, disable the store completely, and I send Apple an email telling them that there is nothing inherently wrong with our app. I point out their disconnected review process for the app and purchases was the source of the problem. I ask them to re-run the app as-is to verify that the store is gone, and we'll wait until their purchase review process catches up before we enable it.

23 Aug 2010 (t+19d)

You'd think simple matters like this could be taken care of quickly, but every little issue takes days when dealing with the App Store. What should have taken 5 minutes for a reviewer to say “Yep, their store isn't even appearing; ship it!” only now finally gets the response of putting the app back In Review.

31 Aug 2010 (t+27d)

And In Review it has stayed for over a week with zero feedback. The purchases have not completed review. What should have been a trivial check with the app itself has not been done. It certainly feels like I've been incredibly patient. I'm bothering to moan about it now mainly for two reasons.

First, it's intended to be an educational app. Think of the children! We wanted everything ready to go with the kinks worked out in time for the start of the school year. We even immediately signed up for the Volume Purchase Program that Apple makes available to educational institutions. As it stands, there is very little time left and very little indication that there won't be further delays.

Second, the end of the month marks the end of a cut-off point on the decision to write a follow-up app. The intent was to have an additional offering based on the same principles that explored the subject of politics. Obviously, it would be timely to have it ready before the November elections. Clearly we can't count on that happening, through no fault of our own, and that's not a window of opportunity that comes around often. Thanks, Apple.

01 Sep 2010 (t+28d)

Sent an email to the main App Store support contact. Seems like something I shouldn't have to trouble them with, but things are stalled and I'm getting zero feedback otherwise.

08 Sep 2010 (t+35d)

Still absolutely no word from anybody at Apple. Everything remains stuck In Review, burning yet another week. This has hands-down been the least professional experience I have ever had with them.

10 Sep 2010 (t+37d)

We are now Rejected. On a Friday. The worst part about this is that there was still absolutely no word from anybody at Apple! We only found out about the status change because we went to the developer portal to check on the status of the in-app purchases. As noted previously, purchases go through a different process than the app itself and we've never gotten an email on their status changes, but we normally get an email when the app status changes.

I could chalk it up to an email glitch, but Apple's handling of this review has been so poor that I don't know what to think anymore. Points to consider:

It'll be really interesting to find out what the cause for rejection was this time; anybody want to bet it was another error on Apple's part? I don't know which is more worrying: the possibility that this is an exceptional review process to be going so poorly, or the possibility that things are running so poorly because Apple is constantly making mistakes. I wonder how much trouble the recently added Pimple Popper had getting in the App Store because, you know, that really exemplifies the utility of the iOS platform more than my educational economic simulation . . .

15 Sep 2010 (t+42d)

After sending Apple the aforementioned email, they still have not responded after 3 days. With any properly run business, it should in no way take that long to simply re-send an email. Today also marks 6 full weeks that this has been delayed, for a process that they tout 80-90% of the time is done in 7 days. So I felt I had no choice but to bump it up to their App Review Board. I don't know that there is any higher authority there than bugging Steve himself, so this day 42 should appropriately result in the ultimate answer. The only question is how long this review-review is going to take . . .