In January, Jake Nelson, a London-based developer, submitted a routine update to his popular new iPhone word game to Apple’s App Store for review, adding support for a slate of new languages. This wasn’t his first app, but he was unprepared for what followed: It took a month of frustrating discussion with Apple’s App Store reviewers and 15 revisions to his code—made more or less at random—before his update was mysteriously approved.
Nelson never learned exactly why his app was first rejected or later accepted. An appeal mechanism Apple introduced in 2020 after bad press about its control of the App Store didn’t help. Revenue from his game had been about $1,000 a month but dwindled during the weeks he couldn’t keep users engaged with new updates, and he contemplated no longer selling iOS apps for a living. “I felt as if it was an unending, completely opaque process,” he says.
Nelson is not alone among app developers. The App Store, an engine of the iPhone’s success, has long triggered complaints from app makers who say Apple skews its marketplace too much in its own favor—making it hard for independent developers to survive, penalizing competitors, and blocking novel ideas from reaching iPhone owners.
More than a dozen app developers who spoke with WIRED say the app review process has not improved despite Apple’s 2020 introduction of the appeal mechanism, which can lead to a phone call with an app store reviewer. The company added the process in what seemed a moment of contrition, after a dispute with software company Basecamp over the rejection of an email app and a lawsuit from Fortnite developer Epic Games alleging Apple’s 30 percent cut of in-app payments is unfair.
But developers commonly describe the process of convincing Apple’s reviewers to green-light their submissions as “nightmarish.” They see the new appeal process as more of an attempt to deflect criticism than to substantially improve app reviewing, which remains slow and arbitrary. Former Apple employees told WIRED that app reviewers often have only minutes to review each app and work under a system that permits wide variation in standards.
Adam Dema, an Apple spokesperson, denied the inconsistency developers report seeing in app reviews. “They are based purely in accordance with the App Store Review Guidelines, not subjectivity,” he said.
Apple’s app review process underscores the asymmetry between the world’s most valuable company and small app developers, especially those working solo. When Alin Panaitiu received a rejection notice this year for his app that compiled a list of music festivals in Romania, he was told only that it must create a “lasting experience” to qualify for the App Store. After a frustrating month of speculative modifications and repeated rejections with boilerplate responses, he appealed for help on social media.
A few days after Panaitiu’s post gained traction, his app was approved without explanation. The app was intended to fund his brother’s first year of college, but by the time it appeared on the App Store, the summer festival season had ended. Panaitiu listed it for free.