Apple’s Middle Finger to iPhone Developers

Here’s one developer’s perspective on Apple’s treatment of developers, from this summer:

The last session of WWDC ‘09 yesterday was about publishing on the App Store. The content of sessions is under NDA, so I can’t tell you what it was about. So I’ll tell you what wasn’t in it: the audience Q&A session that succeeded nearly every other WWDC session and usually provided invaluable access to Apple employees and useful additional knowledge to attendees. The session itself blew through its lightweight examples quickly, ending 45 minutes early. The majority of the audience was clearly there for the Q&A. As people lined up at the microphones around the room, the presenter abruptly showed a simple slide with only “WWDC” in plain lettering, thanked us for coming, and bolted off the stage. The Apple engineers, usually staying around the stage for one-on-one questions, were gone. The lights came up instantly, and it was the only session that didn’t end in music. The audience was stunned.

It was a giant middle finger to iPhone developers. And that’s the closing impression that Apple gave us for WWDC. Clearly, they had absolutely no interest in fielding even a single question from the topic that we have the most questions about…

In talking to many Apple employees this week, it’s clear that the hostility and inaccessibility is not generally a problem with most individual employees or any sort of universal culture inside the company. In fact, nearly everyone from Apple that I spoke with was helpful, friendly, and — most importantly — human. These were just regular people who deal with hard problems and need to keep a lot of secrets.

The problematic policies and attitudes, clearly, are enforced from higher up in the company.

To some extent, this is comforting: most of an app developer’s risky decisions (mainly rejections) are made by the lower-level people who seem well-intentioned.

I’ve also learned that many of the problems aren’t intentional: many parts of Apple’s internal infrastructure are overloaded or extremely outdated, and they’re scrambling to keep up with their growth, often ineffectively.

One major surprise was when an Apple employee told me that the App Store reviewers are not outsourced: they’re all direct, full-time Apple employees. Many of them work nights and weekends to keep up with the extremely high submission volume, and they’re constantly expanding the staff to keep up with the submission growth.

This seems to me like the unsurprising result of trying to impose bureaucratic control on a large and otherwise decentralized system. Look at any understaffed IT department in a large organization, and you’ll see the same dynamic: users perceive indifference and sloppiness, while administrators feel like they’re rushing to keep up with a firehose of requests.

My colleague Jim Harper has written about the problems that are likely to result if Congress is ever stupid enough to impose electronic employment eligibility rules on private employers: federal workers will be overwhelmed with complaints from employees—many of whom are victims of paperwork errors rather than actual illegal immigrants. From the employees’ perspective, the government bureaucrats will seem lazy and callous, while the bureaucrats will feel they’re struggling heroically to keep up.

The fundamental problem is that top-down systems scale poorly. Decision makers—whether in government or in the private sector—need to be mindful of the risk that what they perceive as reasonable oversight will become a bottleneck that creates an impression of arrogance and indifference to their concerns.

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One Response to Apple’s Middle Finger to iPhone Developers

  1. Rhayader says:

    Hah, wow. I bet the presenter felt pretty awkward if he was forced to snub questioners like this at the behest of a superior.

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