Unexpected iPhone apps rejections – Part 1

There has been a lot written about the Apple application store process and while it appears more transparency could be on the way, little is know about the rejection process. A little known fact is that internal developers at Apple have to pass the same type of rigorous review as anyone else before their application makes it into an iPhone.

Following is the first part of a list of the first 18 applications to have been initially banned on the iPhone, along with relevant information related to the rejections. Those bans were eventually reversed, allowing applications to make their ways into the phone. In this first part, we will look at the big 4: Phone, Mail, Safari, and the iPod (the next entry will examine the other ones).

Phone

It comes as a little known fact that the approval process almost killed phone functionality on the iPhone. The original developers had a hard time getting the application approved, as can be seen in this initial rejection letter:

Thank you for submitting Phone to the iPhone approval process. We’ve reviewed your application and determined that we cannot include this version of your iPhone application at this time because it contains objectionable content which is in violation of Section 3.3.12 from the iPhone SDK Agreement which states:

“Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgement may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.

We have heard that so called “phones” can be used in a number of ways including communicating secrets related to the internal working of large Cupertino-based companies located on Infinite Loop to people outside said companies. Please make the necessary changes to the application as soon as possible, and resubmit your binary to us. Thank you

After many emails going back and forth, it was agreed that any mention of words picked from a still secret list of product names and companies names would result in the phone immediately losing signal and the call being dropped. A secret message would also be sent to an undisclosed location identifying the people involved with that call.

Mail

The second rejected iPhone application was a little more understandable. After all, Apple is known for its simplicity and the fact that the company tends to remove redundant functionality from its devices in order to ensure the best user experience. While little visibility is given into the decision process around defining what what gets approved or banned, TNL.net got hold of internal transcripts of the discussion that led to eventual ban of the Mail application. Here is the abridged version, as we wanted to protect sensitive information:

Reviewer 1: Hey, we’ve got this mail application here, looks like it does (shuffle of paperwork to review what information has been submitted)… uh e-mail.

Reviewer 2: I’ve heard of that. I understand you can contact your friends with that and write them notes.

Reviewer 1: Why would you want to do something like that.

Reviewer 2: (pauses) uh.. well, let’s say you wanted to tell a friend a joke

Reviewer 1: You mean like call them on the phone and tell them a joke, looks like it’s reproducing existing functionality.

Reviewer 2: Hmmmm. Maybe but you could also use it to communicate information to a lot of people in one shot. For example, if you were a Nigerian prince looking for someone to help you move money out of your country…

Reviewer 1: Why wouldn’t you use a phone for that?

Reviewer 2: Well, long distance costs, for starter. And then, it would take a lot of time to call people individually.

Reviewer 1: (looks up list of countries in which the iPhone is slated to be sold) Well, Nigeria doesn’t appear on the list so let’s reject this.

Reviewer 2: Oh, I didn’t realize Nigeria was not on the list. Definitely reject then.

After several phone conversations, three international meetings and sign-off from half of the company, it was agreed that mail should be allowed because pictures of lolcat just don’t seem as good when recounted over the telephone.

Safari

At this point in the iPhone’s development cycle, getting applications approved was still getting tough but Safari, slated to be the third icon on the device also had its own uphill battle. The submission of this application came to established the short-lived record of being denied in under 10 minutes. The denial did not even come by email but was delivered in the form of a message on the developer’s voice mail system:

Reviewer’s Manager: Thank you for submitting Safari, your “web browser” for inclusion on the iPhone. After researching this web thing via our macs, we have come to the conclusion that it is too obscene, offensive, riddled with pornographic and other useless material to warrant use by iPod and iPhone users. Furthermore, we have discovered that some of the content seen there is replicated content that can be bought in the iTunes store and stored on iPods. Should you make changes to the application that would ensure this internet thing is sectioned off, we would be happy to re-review after you submit a binary to us.

In this particular case, Steve Jobs himself intervened, providing a note in an internal memo (and reiterating the point when the device was released):

We have been trying to come up with a solution to expand the capabilities of the iPhone so developers can write great apps for it, but keep the iPhone secure. And we’ve come up with a very. Sweet. Solution. Let me tell you about it. An innovative new way to create applications for mobile devices… it’s all based on the fact that we have the full Safari engine in the iPhone.  You can write amazing Web 2.0 and AJAX apps that look and behave exactly like apps on the iPhone, and these apps can integrate perfectly with iPhone services. They can make a call, check email, look up a location on Gmaps… don’t worry about distribution, just put ‘em on an internet server. They’re easy to update, just update it on your server. They’re secure, and they run securely sandboxed on the iPhone. And guess what, there’s no SDK you need! You’ve got everything you need if you can write modern web apps…”

With Steve’s seal of approval, the app was approved.

iPod

The last of the big 4 to be issued such rejection was unsurprisingly the iPod functionality. It has long been rumored that the reason for such rejection was largely due to the head of the iPod division sending out a company-wide voicemail to express his frustration at the inclusion of iPod functionality. However, due to the offensive nature of the language used in that message, few have been willing to provide any information about it. An iPod-compliant file was provided to TNL.net and, after spending several months trying to clean up the language, we are providing the cleanest excerpt we could, blanking out offensive words (reader’s discretion is advised):

iPod division head: Why you #### ##### ##### ##### ######## ######### ###### ####### ####### ######### cannibalize the iPod market #### ###### ############### ####### ###### hurt margins ######## ####### ###### kill the company ####### ####### Steve will hear about this.

While we do not traffic in rumors, some people sayhat, after his meeting with Steve Jobs, the manager was never heard of again.

In the next entry, we will review some of the other applications that felt the sharp edge of the reviewer’s pen, providing even further visibility into the otherwise opaque approach.

Update: Part 2 is now available.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched 6 companies, of which 2 (internet.com and Earthweb) went public and two were sold (Net Quotient and MoveableMedia). My latest, Keepskor provides tools allowing anyone to develop mobile and connected TV games without writing a line of code. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.