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Wednesday, August 19, 2009, 10:45 am PT (01:45 pm ET)

Apple's campaign to win the App Store publicity battle

For a company known to masterfully drum up free press and unparalleled buzz, Apple's recent struggles in the App Store public relations game have been uncharacteristic. But company executive Phil Schiller appears to have set out to change the tide.

A flurry of e-mails sent out by Schiller in recent weeks gathered a great deal of publicity in their own right, and helped to suggest to the public that Apple is listening to criticisms of its App Store. In an exclusive interview with AppleInsider, another developer tells of his own App Store struggles, as well as personal correspondence with the company executive.

Schiller's statement

One might think it would be normal for Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, to reach out to the community and portray his company in a positive light — after all, he does work in marketing. But Apple is unlike any other corporation: The widely known veil of secrecy that shrouds the company permeates through all of its departments, including marketing and public relations. And why not? It's this ability to keep secrets that leads to rumors and speculation that excite the tech community and create free publicity.

But as Apple began rejecting applications from the iPhone App Store with little explanation or clarification as to what was required to meet the its litmus test, some developers and pundits began to criticize the company's tactics. That's when Schiller stepped in.

After Daring Fireball's John Gruber wrote a highly critical piece on the App Store, Schiller personally responded, an action basically unheard of from a company that almost never publicly acknowledges its critics. While the sending of the first e-mail was unprecedented, a week later it was commonplace, with reports of personal notes received by an iPhone developer and another Mac developer.

App Store troubles

How many more have been sent and weren't publicized? Likely many, but AppleInsider knows of at least one. Alex Patsay, product director with Russian development team Ripdev, had his own App Store struggles. After he wrote about it, Schiller — as has become part of his job lately — responded. Patsay spoke with AppleInsider about his experience.

Ripdev dabbles in the "dark side" of the iPhone, creating popular tools for jailbroken hardware like Icy and InstallerApp. But it also sells on the App Store, under the developer name Unsanity, i2Reader, a $9.99 e-book reader that supports multiple formats, including EPUB, PDF, RTF, HTML, FB2 and plain text. The application originally began its life on jailbroken phones in 2007, before the App Store existed.

Ripdev also creates Kali Anti-Piracy, copy protection software for iPhone apps. When i2Reader was first released, it used Kali Anti-Piracy, which was not compatible with the yet-to-be released iPhone OS 3.0. Because of this incompatibility, i2Reader was rejected from the App Store. That problem was fixed, only for another to arise: Apple required all software with the ability to make purchases through the application go through the App Store.

"We had an agreement with Russian online book store LitRes so users could buy books from them directly in the application via built-in Web view," Patsay explained. "So we were rejected for not using (the) official in-app purchase process. We had to cut the store from the application, since we didn't have time to re-implement everything."

Those were just the first of many rejections:

  • In one iteration, the application allowed users to transfer books to and from the iPhone via a separate desktop application. An Apple reviewer mistakenly thought the feature did something else, Patsay said. "We tried writing to Apple explaining the functionality, but haven't received any response, so we had to simplify the application."

  • i2Reader was also affected by an Apple App Store policy that has caught the ire of some developers: all browser-embedded software, regardless of its content, must be rated for mature audiences. Not knowing this policy before it was publicized, the application was submitted with a rating for ages 4 and up. Apple's formal rejection, Patsay said, didn't specifically state the age requirement. It only told the developer that the rating was inappropriate.

  • Without any clarification from Apple, the developer submitted the application again, this time with a rating for ages 12 and up. It was rejected once again. Patsay said at that point they realized it needed to have a 17+ age rating.

  • Finally, it was rejected again with a notice from Apple that said i2Reader 3.0.1 could not be made available for sale "because this category of applications is often used for the purpose of infringing third party rights."


An issue finally resolved

Confused by the final rejection, Patsay wrote a blog post entitled "The most ridiculous App Store reject I've ever seen." After reading that Schiller had personally e-mailed a number of people regarding the App Store, Patsay decided he would try to contact the Apple executive to see if it would get him any answers. To his surprise, Schiller responded the same day.

"His letter was nice and helpful, though he claimed that our app was rejected most of the time because of the crashes, but it's not exactly right," Patsay said. "And most importantly, he gave us the contact at Apple that we could get in touch with to find out more."

Schiller requested that Patsay not republish his letter, but a copy of it was provided to AppleInsider, and the summary is as follows: Most of the rejections of i2Reader were because of crashes, but the last rejection (regarding copyright violations) was due to the fact that the program allowed users to share books with each other. The e-mail also included an apology for a perceived lack of clarity.

"Suddenly it all made sense," Patsay said. "Apple is very afraid of the copyright infringement, and the ability of the application to share books directly from the app with other users didn't feel right with them, even though LitRes, our online store companion, didn't (have a problem with) that functionality."

Schiller forwarded Patsay's issue to Phil Shoemaker, Apple's director of Application Technology. Shoemaker and Patsay spoke about the lengthy process i2Reader had gone through. The Apple director said though the developer had stripped features from the software to get it in the App Store, that wasn't the intent. His only goal was to have the application follow the terms and conditions of the store.

"He offered some advice (on) what we should do with both content providers and Apple in order to restore some features into the application," Patsay said of Shoemaker. "I was actually very moved by his letters, since they clearly demonstrated the interest in having great apps on the iPhone."

i2Reader was approved about a week later. While Patsay is happy that the product is finally available for download in the App Store, he said he wishes it didn't take so long to find out why Apple would not approve it.

"In general I am very satisfied with the resolution," he said, "though I'd prefer to have a system that doesn't require such interaction like writing a letter to a high-profile exec of the company — I'm sure he has many other important things to do. But the fact (that) Apple responded at all shows that they are reading and listening, and maybe they are going to do something about the App Store situation."

Listening to developers

While Patsay's situation was resolved, others continue to grab headlines. Arguably the biggest scandal in the short history of the App Store so far has been Apple's rejection of the Google Voice application. While Google kept a straight face and began work on a browser-based version, pundits and developers alike were once again critical. Apple still hasn't officially explained why the software was rejected, though the situation has led to a Federal Communications Commission investigation.

The Google Voice development came just as some became even more vocal in their criticism of the App Store. While not the catalyst, the situation certainly did add fuel to the fire, and only served to further press coverage that showed Apple in a negative light.

Whether or not Schiller's e-mails will change the tide of public perception remains to be seen. However, they have helped to portray Apple in a better light — one that, in the eyes of Patsay, is at least somewhat receptive to developers' concerns.