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Yeah, there's an app for that. But for how long, and at what cost?

With the recent kerfuffle surrounding the removal and rejection of Google Voice apps from the App Store, many developers are beginning to question the trust they have placed in Apple to provide them with a reliable system for developing and distributing applications.

Generally, the major hurdle associated with iPhone development is getting approved by Apple. It's no secret that this process is often quite frustrating, and sometimes downright arduous. Developers often wait several weeks without any response before they are suddenly rejected, and then they must make the requested changes (if possible), resubmit their application, and again wait for a response.

But once they have put your app through the paces, and presumably have double and triple checked to ensure that you have complied with the terms, you're safe, right? Your hard work has paid off, Apple has accepted your app, and now you can move on.

Wrong.

As the developers of GV Mobile and VoiceCentral recently discovered, Apple can take an app that was previously given the all-clear, decide that it now duplicates native functionality of the iPhone, and yank it from the App Store in a matter of minutes. Needless to say, there are some serious flaws in this process. First, the functionality provided by both of these apps isn't actually provided by the iPhone, so there's really nothing to duplicate, unless Apple is going to start expecting developers to predict future features and avoid duplicating those too. Then you have the fact that the feature sets provided by the apps and the iPhone itself have not changed since Apple approved them in the first place, so if they truly are duplicating native functionality, they should have been rejected from the start, not months after they were approved.

Now one might also argue that some features offered by Google Voice do overlap with the iPhone, such as the SMS and voicemail functions, although contrary to popular belief, Google Voice is not a VoIP service and doesn't really compete against AT&T. But even if you concede that point to Apple, couldn't they just ask the developers to remove those features and resubmit? What about the other apps -- like Skype, TextFree, or iCall -- that offer similar feature sets, are they going to disappear too? And if AT&T is really responsible for this, as has been suggested previously, why was the app pulled from the App Stores of other countries? Why not just honestly tell the developer that the app is being pulled at the request of the carrier?
As if having to worry whether or not your apps could start disappearing isn't enough, there is another layer of complexity to deal with if a paid app is removed: the users. Sure, if a live app is removed, users will likely be upset no matter what happens... but if they've paid for it, and they can't get future upgrades or bug fixes, some of them are going to be wanting their money back. As some developers have already discovered, refunds can get expensive if there are enough of them, because Apple's developer contract allows the company to retain its 30% commission, while the developer may have to reimburse the full cost of the application to cover the refund -- meaning each refund on an app that is priced $9.99 would end up costing the developer the full $9.99, rather than the $7 in revenue that they actually made from the purchase. Apple's enforcement of this clause has been inconsistent, however, as developers report mixed results in whether or not they have been charged the full amount when dealing with refunds in the past.

By now, you're probably wondering how the refunds fit in with the Google Voice situation. Simple: Apple is now issuing refunds to users of the VoiceCentral application. That's right, Apple suddenly decided that the application should be removed -- after it had already been approved months ago -- and is now giving out refunds for it when users request them, leaving the developer to foot the bills for both refunds and staffing end-user support to answer questions about what happened to the app. Meanwhile, Apple gets to keep their cut of the profits. Sounds fair, right? Didn't think so.

The folks at Riverturn then did what anyone else in this situation would do, they went to Apple. As has been the case with other incidents, many of their e-mails and phone calls went unanswered. They finally got a response from the Apple employee that initially notified them of the removal, but the bulk of his responses can be summed up in just four words: "I can't help you."

So for the sake of posterity that may be aspiring to develop their own iPhone app, let's review:
  1. Lets say I write an application that lets me control my Google Voice account from my phone.
  2. I submit it to Apple for review, and several weeks later, it is approved.
  3. The app does well in the App Store, and other similar apps pop up as well.
  4. A few months later, without warning, Apple pulls the app from the App Store, claiming it now duplicates functionality of the iPhone. (Funny, it didn't do that before...)
  5. I now have to reimburse Apple for their decision to remove the app and refund upset users, as well as field support questions that are pouring in about the sudden disappearance
  6. After repeated requests to Apple go unanswered, I finally get a response of "Sorry, but I can't help you."
.... and I'm supposed to be okay with this?

At this point, I'd be running away from even the though of developing for the iPhone. This is not a good way to do business. Yes, the iPhone is doing incredibly well right now. And yes, there are over 10,000 developers, 65,000 apps, 40 million devices, and 1 billion downloads from the App Store. But none of that matters unless you realize that the developers themselves are directly responsible for much of the iPhone's success. By alienating those developers through inconsistent policy handling and refusal to communicate one-on-one with them to resolve problems, Apple is setting itself up for failure.

iPhone developers should be able to spend their time doing what Apple intended: developing great apps. Instead, they are forced to spend their time worrying how to keep their apps alive, and how much it's going to cost them in the end.

Update: Due to shortcomings in the App Store reporting, Riverturn is not certain at this point exactly how much Apple is taking back for the processed returns. Judging by conversations I've had with other developers, however, it does seem that, in most cases, Apple generally takes only the 70% revenue that was paid to the developer and not the full purchase price of the app -- although their policy still clearly states otherwise.

Regardless, it is still very unsettling to me that Riverturn is being held responsible for any of these refund charges, seeing that the decision to pull the app from the App Store rested soley with Apple, and was not a direct result of any wrongdoing by the developer. It is also quite disturbing that Kevin Duerr, the president of Riverturn, has yet to receive any response from Apple regarding the situation.

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