Is Apple alienating App Store developers?

Apple's App Store is quite a success - but for that to continue, says Seb Janacek, the company needs to watch out it doesn't anger developers.

These are heady times for Apple's App Store. The online marketplace for third-party iPhone and iPod Touch apps is reporting huge sales since its launch in July.

Just a month after go-live, the App Store had sold more than 60 million applications with an estimated revenue of $30m. Since then, users have downloaded an estimated 100 million apps and raked in $70m for Apple and its developer partners to divvy up.

Reports claim this growth even outstrips the initial success for music tracks purchased from the iTunes Store.

Steve Jobs himself is naturally elated, telling the Wall Street Journal he'd never seen performance like this during his career in software. He estimated the App Store could quickly hit half a billion dollars in sales and end up being a $1bn marketplace.

However, the relationship between Apple and its developer community is showing signs of souring. In the last month Apple has pulled the plug on a number of applications - and it's the manner in which it acted that has made the developer community jittery.

There was the famous 'I am Rich' application that cost $999.99 and did nothing. Not that it stopped eight people buying it, one of them accidentally.

Then in the last couple of weeks, the company refused to allow an application called 'Pull my Finger' to be downloaded. The frivolous app simply made fart noises when a digital finger was 'pulled' by swiping the screen. It also invoked the iPhone's vibrate function, which was a nice touch. Apple said the app had limited utility. But so do dozens of other applications on the App Store.

And now the latest news that Apple has refused to allow a developer of a podcasting application (Podcaster) to sell its wares on the App Store has caused real concern. The app streams and downloads podcasts over wi-fi and mobile networks.

According to Apple: "Since Podcaster assists in the distribution of podcasts, it duplicates the functionality of the Podcast section of iTunes."

What's worrying is that Apple appears to be adopting an anti-competitive stance by stifling apps such as Podcaster that compete with its own.

Jobs has also confirmed the existence of a 'kill switch' that remotely swipes black-listed applications from devices during a standard software upgrade.

Presumably this means the developer can't sell the app from its own website for fear it will be deleted whenever the user upgrades the iPhone's firmware, which on current form is every few weeks.

Podcaster didn't break any rules or terms and conditions in the iPhone SDK - and nowhere is it stated that certain kinds of apps are not permitted.

As a developer you simply have to hope the application you spend good time producing and marketing doesn't irritate Apple. Because you'll only find out when you submit it to Apple for addition to the App Store.

It's fair to say the number of applications that have been banned from the App Store is a small minority compared to the thousands available for download today.

However, the refusal to allow Podcaster to be made available for purchase has caused a ripple of discontent through the web and will undoubtedly plant seeds of doubt in the minds of developers.

At a time when the nascent store is gathering real momentum and contributing millions of dollars to Apple's coffers, the company would be better off deciding whether or not the App Store really is a fair and open marketplace.

If it continues to reject applications for spurious reasons it should at least admit as much and publish a set of guidelines for what is and isn't fair game.

At a time when the platform is enjoying rapid, organic growth and incredible sales, Apple can ill afford to alienate the very community needed to make the marketplace thrive because of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

-- Posted By Seb Janacek