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When Howard Met Apple

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, October 8 2009

Chelsea Green, the progressive press imprint, is asking whether politics are behind the fact that the iPhone app for its Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform took more than two months to get out of Apple's approval purgatory and into the iTunes Store, now that there have been reports that Apple turned down a single-payer health care app because of its politics. There aren't isolated incidents of troubles with the iTunes Store. TechCrunch has been chronicling developers' woes with getting apps rejected, getting updates rejected, and getting apps approved and then yanked. Apple has conceded that the iTunes app process has problems. But are politics at play in the Dean book case? Maybe. Maybe the Apple reviewer assigned to the Dean app is is a hardcore libertarian, personally affronted by the very idea of a government organized health care option. Or maybe the reviewer was beaten up in grade school by bullies named "Howard" and "Dean." The thing is, in some ways it really doesn't matter. The iTunes Store is Apple's world, and we just live -- increasingly -- in it.

Kyle Shank is an independent developer who worked with the WebStrong Group to build the Dean book app. I spoke with him about his experience with the approval process. Absent FCC intervention, Apple, he says, "can pretty much arbitrarily determine if you exist in the app store." The nature of the iTunes Store environment is, as Shank's troubles suggest, something that political programmers might be wise to keep in mind.

Shank submitted the Dean app to Apple on June 10th, he says, and for a process full of glitches the first hiccup might have been time. The new iPhone and operating system keep out shortly after, and iPhone reviewers were likely flooded by updates sent in by developers for mandatory approval. Shank waited. And waited. "We didn't hear anything for five and a half weeks," he says. The first real contact from the company came in the form of notice that the app he had submitted was corrupted, and couldn't even be open. He resubmitted a clean build, he says, within the day. The next problem popped up a week and a half later. Apple said the Dean app needed a pop-up at some points letting the user know that he or she wasn't connected to the Internet. Shank, in his professional judgment, didn't think the warning screen was necessary. Apple did. Guess who won?

By August 13th -- a full nine weeks after Shank first sent his app to Apple, and past the date that the Dean book was set to be released -- it was approved. "Sometimes they were helpful," he says of the process, "but for the most part they had no clue."

Shank concedes that the iTunes platform offers a lot to independent developers. They handle hosting and infrastructure, they take care of processing payment (though with a 30% cut taken out), and the iTunes leaderboards and promotions can put apps in front of ready audience. All of which means that as a developer you can get your app in the iTunes Store and then head to Aruba for three months. Even some sort of approval process is necessary, Shank says, though free applications should go through the barest vetting just to make sure the programs don't turn users phones into Russian zombie bots. As for paid programs, as the point of purchase Apple understandably wants to make sure that people paying for apps get what they pay for. But, argues Shank, the web has found a good solution -- offer trial versions of software, and then let the buyer beware.

The thing is, the rules are different on the iTunes Store than on the web, because though the iTunes Store might look a lot like the web, it's really, really not. For one thing, Apple controls when apps can be updated. The web functions completely differently, letting developers unleash upon the world eleven different versions of a website or web app between dinner and breakfast, if that's what he or she wants to do. That iteration is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the web. Many of us learned what we know about how to build things and shape the Internet simply by messing around, building things, throwing them away, and trying something new. In the iTunes Store, every tweak, every update, every change has to pass through Apple's vetting process anew.

The iTunes Store isn't built for iteration -- or generativity, as Jonathan Zittrain calls it in his book "The Future of the Internet." Having gatekeepers means that one buggy app -- say, for example, the New York Times iPhone app, which in its first iteration crashed all the time -- gets through, will some solo developers similarly quirky "Let's All Overthrow the Government" app doesn't see the light of day. More than that, the iTunes Store developers network charges $100 for the chance to submit an app, even for free applications. That's not a tremendous sum, but it does professionalize something that was once blissfully amateur. A bright idea that could be exercised on the web for little or no cost now has to justify a $100 price tag. When you're a young developer -- that point in life where ideas might be abundant but cash isn't always -- that hundred bucks might prove to be a barrier to entry to that critical "messing around" phase.

In the wild and crazy world wide web world, the term "developer" can refer to just about anybody who has every created a website, embedded a widget, used a content management system to build something new. In the iTunes Store world, a developer is something far more exclusive and controlled.

Shank suggests that while creating an iPhone app is often the best solution to a programming problem, it isn't always. Plenty of "apps," says Shank could work just as well as websites on the plain ol' Internet. In fact, bookmark a web app on an iPhone and give it an icon, and looks pretty much just like a native iPhone app. What's more, as a product of the free and open web, an app is open to just about everyone, including the many, many Americans without an iPhone. And for those of us in politics, that inclusion -- and the freedom to practice our politics as we please -- is something we might want to hang on to.