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(woman consoling her partner) Try to remember, sweetheart: your users are rating your app. They aren't rating you.

Like this cartoon? How about rating it on the App Store?

Like this cartoon? How about rating it on the App Store? published on

A while ago, I tweeted “Is there anything as emotionally needy as a ‘Please rate this in the App Store’ notification?”

The wise and talented Leslie Ehm responded with a dry — and accurate — “Spoken as someone who clearly doesn’t have an app ;)” I am indeed someone who doesn’t have an app. I am, however, someone who has had to manage a few Facebook applications over the years… and I can attest it’s kind of nightmarish.

When you’re building on someone else’s platform, you’re entirely subject to their whims. Your priorities don’t just take a back seat; they cling to the rear bumper for dear life. With Facebook, that meant having to completely rethink our strategy around an application when they changed the rules around promotion without notice — two days before we launched.

And with Apple’s iOS App Store, it means your app probably lives and dies by the ratings and reviews users give it. Which is why developers, whether they want to or not, have a very strong incentive to keep reminding you to please rate their app on the App Store. Please. Have you rated it yet? How about now? Hey, is this a good time?

So don’t judge your favourite app’s developers too harshly; the not-so-invisible hand of the Apple market is shaping their behaviour.

By the way, Leslie’s app is the fascinating ThinkLab Brainstorming Tool, which offers prompts and exercises to kickstart your creativity, from her company Combustion. Do check it out… and if you like it, well…

Locked in the sandbox

Locked in the sandbox published on No Comments on Locked in the sandbox

(I reeeealllly want to pitch this to Roland Emmerich.)

I get the appeal of the App Store worldview. I really do. For users, it’s knowing that every piece of software on your device has been vetted – and having a simple, trusted way to manage it.

And Apple’s App Store is a thing of grace and beauty, as you’d expect from Apple. It’s a pleasure to use.

But it’s a gilded cage. Apple isn’t just deciding what’s safe for your device. They’re deciding what will and won’t be to their business advantage. They’re deciding which areas of functionality they’re willing to open up to competition, and which they want to keep as a monopoly. They’re deciding what’s easy to support, and what could cost their call centers and Genius Bars more time (and therefore money).

They’re deciding what maximizes their business partners’ ability to profit by controlling your access to their content, and what gives you too much freedom to copy, remix, edit and share.

And they’re deciding what range of choice is safe to offer you: not just to protect your security, but also to protect your user experience. And if the user experience they think is best doesn’t work that well for you… well, tough; they can’t design for every edge case.

App stores like Apple’s aren’t just about you knowing you can trust your device. It’s about Apple knowing they can trust you to make the choices that support their business model. When adults tell kids “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset,” it isn’t just a way of forestalling a tantrum; it’s preparing them for the next era in digital living.

All of this happens without any real accountability. The appeal process (and this applies to most walled gardens, whether it’s Apple’s App Store or Facebook’s… anything) makes the Star Chamber look like an unconference.

Of course, nobody’s stopping me from installing whatever I want on my Mac laptop. There’s an App Store, but I can download and install software from anywhere… or code it myself. (The latter doesn’t offer much functionality beyond launching a “Hello, world!” alert box… but that limitation comes from my lack of programming knowledge, not the platform’s restrictions.)

For now.

But it’s not hard to think of pretty likely scenarios where that could change. A botnet attack that does serious economic or physical damage would have a lot of politicians calling for safeguards to protect the Internet by imposing restrictions on software and hardware capabilities.

That might sound farfetched, except governments have been willing to criminalize a lot in the name of protecting the commercial interests of the media industry from online sharing. Vendors like Sony have already tried to sneak in certain restrictions through trojan horse techniques.

Cory Doctorow makes a persuasive business case and an absolutely compelling human rights case for the critical importance of user overrides. And that strikes me as a best-of-both-worlds approach: an App Store for security and reliability, but the option to leave the sandox for the swings or the slide… or, hey! leave the playground altogether and head over to play with the penguins at the zoo!

Knowing why Apple rejected you? There’s no app for that

Knowing why Apple rejected you? There’s no app for that published on No Comments on Knowing why Apple rejected you? There’s no app for that

Apple takes its role as walled gardener pretty seriously. They want you to see your iDevices as safe places that would never do you harm (well, other than taking you to the In-App Purchase Cleaners with children’s games… but that’s a rant for another time).

But they’re a cop without a judicial or legislative system. There are some guidelines — but they’re often vague and inconsistently applied. There’s a sort of court of appeal — but not the kind that holds public hearings or issues helpful explanations of their rulings. And some rules seem to be aimed more at protecting themselves from controversy (or perhaps market reprisals from miffed government officials) than protecting users from malware.

I feel for the iOS developers out there who want to try something genuinely innovative in an area that hasn’t been mined to death already. There’s that very real risk that they’ll invest time and imagination into a ground-breaking app, only to have a reviewer at Apple come up with a reason to block it… or at least take long enough to approve it that the project falters.

Not that it happens all the time, or even most of the time. But enough that I worry it chills innovation, and tempts adventurous developers to play it a little safer, and stick to the stuff Apple’s known to approve.