In an extremely rare move, an Apple executive has publicly commented on the App Store approval process as it relates to a controversial dictionary application.
Apple's Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing and last seen playing the role of Steve Jobs at Apple events this year, e-mailed John Gruber of Daring Fireball to comment on the approval process of Ninjawords, a dictionary application that was initially rejected from the App Store because it supplied the definition of several dirty words. Schiller blamed the snafu on poor timing, saying that Apple never directly censored the application but felt it deserved a 17+ rating, which wasn't formally available as an option until parental controls were released along with the iPhone 3.0 software in June.
Ninjawords draws on Wiktionary.com for its definitions, Schiller said, which means it offers up a few more choice words than the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary have gotten around to including. "Apple rejected the initial submission of Ninjawords for this reason, provided the Ninjawords developer with information about some of the vulgar terms, and suggested to the developer that they resubmit the application for approval once parental controls were implemented on the iPhone," Schiller told Gruber via e-mail.
The developer of Ninjawords isn't exactly mollified by Apple's reasoning. "Apple may slap a 17+ rating on our app and wash their hands, saying 'you're not required to censor your app', but at the same time, they're putting a great deal of pressure on us to do so. Who wants to be the only illicit dictionary on the App Store?" said Phil Crosby of Matchstick, which created the application. Crosby and Gruber noted that several other dictionaries in the App Store contain language that some may find objectionable yet are not required to carry the equivalent of an R movie rating.
But while the debate over Ninjawords will rage on, what's perhaps most significant is that Apple has directly commented on its decision-making process regarding the approval or rejection of a specific iPhone application. As far as I can tell, Apple has never done this in the year-plus history of the App Store, with the notable exception of Baby Shaker. But even then, Apple didn't explain the reasoning behind its decision to approve an application it eventually called "deeply offensive."
Perhaps now that the FCC is taking a closer look at the Google Voice debacle, Apple will now start to finally give developers and iPhone users some specific input on the criteria it uses to approve or deny iPhone applications. To this point, the process has been a black box, frustrating developers time and time again.
Gruber credited Apple with perhaps waking up to the reality that at some point, the App Store approval process went off the rails. "That Schiller was willing to respond in such detail and length, on the record, is the first proof I've seen that Apple's leadership is trying to make the course correction that many of us see as necessary for the long-term success of the platform. The improvement I consider most important is a significant focus on fairness, consistency, and common sense in the App Store review process," he wrote.