Monday, June 2, 2014

The Agony of the Mobile App Approval Process - Computers - Software

In 1984 we happily referred to George Orwell's book by the same name as an unrealistic science fiction horror story. Mocking the ridiculousness of the oppression became a part of popular culture, and the center of drunken debates among philosophy students. Even the comparison between Big Brother and authority figures in government became a half serious joke. Consider our lives now, where 96% of the American population has some sort of mobile communication (according to Neilson Analysts) and 49% of those people have a smartphone. With everyone connected to a communication device and loving it, can we really laugh so heartily at George Orwell's predictions?

Don't worry, this isn't a literary discussion; but there are some heavy similarities between the aforementioned book and the wide (and wild) world of mobile apps. First of all, when a developer builds a mobile app he or she does it with the intention of getting it in the Apple or Android stores so it can be accessed by consumers. Now if everyone and their hound dog were able to get apps into the app stores without any sort of check-in process, well the sky would probably fall on mobile apps altogether. There has to be some sort of approval process. Google proved it.

Android apps are almost instantly approved and available for use. In fact your app has to actually violate their terms or do something evil to (maybe) get it removed from the grid. The leniency is great for marketing launch schedules, and according to Google only about "1% of all applications that have been uploaded to Android Market and subsequently made available to consumers have been taken down by Google". The 'anything goes' attitude that Google has taken with its Android sector also means their apps can work on pretty much any smartphone outside of the iPhone. So, we have developers all over the globe launching Android apps 24/7 that can be used on over 71 million smartphones worldwide (number sold to date as of Feb 2011) with little supervision. This is clearly one area where Google has not chosen to exercise their muscle.

The outcome of such laxity in the approval process, or more accurately a complete lack of approval process, is massive breaches in security. Remember back in 201 when Google finally admitted there were malware apps posing as games or banking apps? One particularly evil app was the Droid09 which acted like a banking app but really monitored the user's activity and information. Apparently they had published 40 variants of the app, each one targeting a different world bank - all unchecked. Even a grade eight dropout would be able to spot that security breach. After Google cleaned up their act and ousted the cockroaches from Android shelves, they tightened up their approval process. Now it takes a full 15 minutes for an app to be deemed 'safe', instead of 15 seconds.

Now Apple is a whole different story. Their mobile app approval process can take up to three months, although they did claim 95% were approved within 14 days. Aside from all the uber-security testing, there are certain other elements of wannabe iPhone apps that automatically get a rejection. Like the word Google can't be anywhere in the user interface. So don't try and tell your users they can load internet fax documents into GoogleDocs. Oh and don't have the words 'drag' or 'dusk' in there either. Apparently Apple doesn't like them.

Clearly the microscopic investigation of every app that comes their way means the evil malware developers have to be pretty darn clever to get past Apple. Of course it also means legitimate businesses trying to schedule an iPhone app launch are held hostage. Pushing back launch dates becomes embarrassing, even costly, when Apple holds onto a potential new app. For example most launches are scheduled very carefully around a press release, an Android launch, online articles, perhaps even an annual industry-related conference. As much as Steve Jobs wants it to, the world does not revolve around Apple.

With 108 million iPhones sold (as of March 2011) there is clearly an important market to be tapped, no matter what the process is like. And historically most companies have gone to iPhone for their first app launch, but now the trend is swinging the other way. For example the infamous White Pages people search engine has launched their long awaited Localicious mobile app with Android first. They had planned to go iPhone first, but since the process took so long they moved over to Android. Now, before iPhone lovers get all dramatic, there is no indication that Apple apps are going to decline in numbers. This is not the beginning of the end. Although it may mean Mr. Jobs needs to loosen up and turn down is turtleneck a little more.

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