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I'm sure there's more than one “Steve” at Apple, but...

When Caller ID says someone from Apple is ringing you up, and the person on the other end only says their name is Steve, do you ask the obvious question or do you try to play it cool? But I'm getting ahead of myself.


When we last left our Antihero (uh, that's just me), the app I wrote for my company was getting badly stonewalled by the App Store review process. And it continued. Let's pick up the timeline from the middle of last month:

17 Sep 2010 (t+44d)

The App Review Board begins looking into it. On a Friday. To be fair, though, getting feedback in mere days instead of weeks is a welcome improvement.

20 Sep 2010 (t+47d)

The app is tested again (i.e., they play a game). Everything appears to go off without a hitch, and it is followed up by a call from an actual person. We'll just call them "Danno" here, but they know who they are. In the rare instances I've needed to talk with someone at Apple, they've always come across as competent, and this is no exception. Some pointed questions are asked about the app, and everything seems in order. Danno was even available after normal business hours to work through issues with the web portal for in-app purchases. I felt good at this point; easily my best experience with the whole process so far. Just up to the App Review Board to make a decision one way or the other.

As an aside, though, let me say that this is not what I was expecting from the process. This seemed like little more than a second review of the app. How I had expected the App Review Board to function was as an Internal Affairs style investigation. The main problem to be dealt with here is not my app, but rather the abject failure of the standard review process. It really felt like they were doing nothing more than trying to find new reasons to reject my app, when it seems like they should have been looking into why it was incorrectly rejected in the first place, and then why it took weeks to re-review it again. Maybe those discussions were taking place; I was in the dark as to how the whole process was unfolding behind the scenes.

28 Sep 2010 (t+55d)

After waiting over a week with zero feedback, I write Danno asking what the status is. No response.

29 Sep 2010 (t+56d)

No response.

30 Sep 2010 (t+57d)

No response. How long should it take for a simple status update? As much as I hate to be the micro-managing/nagging type, I send another email again asking for some hint as to what progress has been made.

I get a fairly speedy response, but it's nothing to be happy about. It's nothing to be sad about, either. There was still simply nothing to report! Cue the sinking feeling.

04 Oct 2010 (t+61d)

Still no word at all. This marks two months of stalling, and two weeks of it being in the hands of the App Review Board. I've been trying to get this simple app out since 04 Aug 2010, but somehow it has managed to gum up the works of an international company. It missed the back-to-school target, and I had to cancel plans for a follow-up app that was going to focus on the November elections. And still there was no end in sight! What I had thought was a joke last time about bugging Steve himself was starting to seem a lot less funny. I'm not normally one to break the chain of command, but sometimes the chain itself is broken.

So, yeah, I took the impossibly stupid step and sent the email. Don't try this at home, kids! I'm not going to quote it here, but I will say that the gist of the message was a blunt-yet-hopefully-still-respectful rant about the problem. I have over 15 years of experience with this technology, but never once felt compelled to complain to Steve before, so I have no roadmap for how things go at this point. If you believe what others report as a result of such action, it usually ranges from I-was-ignored-and-got-nothin' to oh-don't-you-wish-you-got-nothin'!

05 Oct 2010 (t+62d)

Shit Happens

That phrase usually has a negative connotation associated with it. The word ego often gets the same unfair treatment. In my experience, people who know themselves and care about what they do are the positive side of having an ego and making shit happen. I like that kind of person, whether they're a CEO or a ditch digger.

And that brings us back to the phone call. I'm not about to go into the details, because I really don't know who it was for sure. I'd like to think my voice recognition wasn't completely on the fritz, but it's not like my brain was fully functional at the time (there was at least one high-priority thread telling me, if it was the Steve I expected it was, that I should not be wasting this person's time on trivial things).

All I know is that things happened fast after that. Crazy fast. A remove-all-doubt, Speed of Steve kind of fast. I can mentally accelerate pretty quickly, but I'm still coming to terms with going from a two month standstill to what happened in a couple hours. To anyone who might still not grant him Hero status, for the purposes of this story you have to at least give Steve an anti-villain role.

Up until this point, I wasn't comfortable even naming the app or putting up anything other than a vague "Coming Soon" page (Oh, the number of times I changed the expected release date on that page . . .). Much like Apple, I fully agree that pre-announcing products is a bad idea (My way of saying it: ship it or shut it). So while it isn't quite showing up in the App Store for me as I write this, I think I can confidently reveal:

Race for the Money

Of course, I'm now left to think about what treatment future submissions are going to get. Am I going to get dinged for being the guy who made a big fuss over a little app, or am I going to slide through because nobody wants to re-play that scene? Maybe it's best forgotten as an individual incident and simply used as a foundation to make changes that benefit everyone.

There are many such changes I could suggest, but if I had to single out one problem as being the source of most frustration, it would be the breakdown in communication. A lot of companies need to learn that lesson, too. It's not just about putting people into the equation instead of automation, either, but about giving the beast a heartbeat and keeping it going.

Even the DMV helpfully updates you on what the average wait time is!

So if the vast majority of people get their apps reviewed in a week, you should be telling people who are waiting longer what the hold up is, and fix a deadline for another follow-up. Reasons for rejection should not exist solely in email. If your CEO is known to take the amazing step of actually listening directly to the general public, act like you know how big of a deal that is as you do your own job.

And as an addendum on that subject, let me take issue with the publicly noted “run to the press” (aka, no snitching) guidelines. I come from the school of Computer Science with a big S. In Science, problems are solved by discussing them, not by keeping quiet. If Apple truly wants to make the App Store better for everyone, they need to expose the problems and not stifle the developers.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." -- Richard P. Feynman