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Apple’s fairly dull FCC response

Apple pulled a Palin this evening by trying to bury this inconvenient news piece on a Friday night: their response to the FCC inquiry about the Google Voice rejection and the approval process at the App Store. Fortunately, even on Friday nights, tech bloggers are always on the internet.

Good analysis:

Nothing about Apple’s response is particularly surprising except for the flat denial that AT&T had anything to do with the Google Voice rejection. (And, despite Apple’s golden bullshit that it wasn’t technically “rejected”, I’m still calling it that.)

The meatiest part, for me, was the description of the app review process. Under even the most generous math, each reviewer only spends about 6-9 minutes reviewing each app. And given the high volume of games, I bet non-game apps are lucky to get 5 minutes: you can see pretty much every part of an app or simple game in much less time than a long, slow-paced game.

Unfortunately, this just confirms what I had deduced from experience. All of my submissions have either been for the Instapaper or Tumblr apps, and both connect to their respective web services (that I run) and require test user accounts for Apple’s reviewers (that I check periodically for activity).

I still believe that the approximately 6-day minimum wait time is artificially imposed to throttle updates to a weekly maximum, since updating constantly is a reliable way to game the App Store’s rankings, and to avoid wasting time reviewing apps for which the developers are likely to find a bug a few days after submission and need to resubmit.

This was the most interesting part:

There are more than 40 full-time trained reviewers, and at least two different reviewers study each application so that the review process is applied uniformly. Apple also established an App Store executive review board that determines procedures and sets policy for the review process, as well as reviews applications that are escalated to the board because they raise new or complex issues. The review board meets weekly and is comprised of senior management with responsibilities for the App Store. 95% of applications are approved within 14 days of being submitted.

I expected the review staff to be bigger. But it probably is. There could be 41 full-timers and 40 more part-timers. There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that most (if not all) of the front-line reviews are by non-native-English speakers and on schedules that strongly imply that they’re offshore. This may be the cause of a lot of the frustrating rejections in which the reviewer didn’t understand something about the application or description that seems clear to most Americans.

I did not think that each app was reviewed by two reviewers. This is probably a recent change to improve consistency, which was desperately needed. The effective doubling of the front-line workload might have contributed to the Great Approval Drought of June 2009.

The weekly escalation meetings are interesting, but if 8,500 submissions come through each week, the chances that any non-critical edge case will actually be escalated are very slim, and the employees are probably highly discouraged from escalating. Apple is primarily concerned with minimizing Baby Shaker-type negative press, and that probably got its reviewer fired, so the reviewers have a strong incentive to err toward rejection — and with such a limited escalation capacity, most of those rejections never get a second chance.

I’m discouraged that Apple has seemingly settled on a 14-day target for the review delay. As I’ve said before, nearly all of my frustrations with the app review system would be solved or significantly alleviated if the delay was shorter — and the longer it gets, the worse the problems are. I’d love to have a turnaround time of 2-4 days.

But beyond this app-review procedural insight, the Apple response is pretty light on content.

There was no apology, no admission of guilt, and no indication that Apple believes anything is significantly wrong with their system or policies. But in this context, I wouldn’t expect anything of the sort. The purpose of this is to keep the FCC from prying further and causing potential legal or regulatory problems, so any concessions in Apple’s response could have had very expensive ramifications. It’s important to consider that when making any judgments about their attitude or language in this.

That said, I do wish that developers would get more information and communication from Apple. But this wasn’t the right setting.

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