Posted on March 24, 2009 at 6:51pm EDT. More.

Why Apple won’t pre-approve apps

A lot of iPhone developers have wished that Apple would offer some kind of pre-approval process for applications. Right now, you could spend months developing an app, submit it to Apple, only to have it rejected. If you could get a thumbs up or down based on a design, before you started coding, you could save yourself a lot of heartache.

Sorry, but Apple ain’t gonna do it.

First of all, there is no way Apple is going to offer a binding approval based on a design. You and they may have interpreted the design differently, and if your finished app does something they didn’t expect, they will want to reserve the right to reject it. Thus, even with a design review, you still risk rejection.

Even so, a design review that offered only an early rejection result would still have some value. To you. But it would be insanely expensive for Apple, because of supply and demand. Specifically, the supply of and demand for an app reviewer’s time.

It’s basic economics

Although iPhone Developer Program membership only costs $99/year, there is an additional hidden cost for every app you want to submit to Apple: the expense of creating an app in the first place. This effectively limits the amount of work that Apple’s review team has to do.

A design review program would effectively be a huge decrease in the cost of a reviewer’s time. Creating a good design and mock-ups takes substantially less effort than building a complete application. And creating a hastily put together paragraph with poor spelling about your app idea takes even less effort than that. So, with next to no effort at all, you will be able to send your app idea to Apple for review.

And I’m certain that lots of people will, because there is a huge surplus of ideas out there. It’s easy to come up with an idea. Everybody I know with an iPhone has told me about their idea for an app. Apple will be absolutely flooded with these design review requests. In order to handle them all, they will have to hire more reviewers and train them.

What does Apple get in exchange for that expense? Well, nothing. At best it might reduce their app review load, since some ideas that would have become app submissions will be stopped at the design review stage. But that number will be insignificant. Meanwhile, the expense of maintaining a design review team will be enormous.

It might work if the design review team was entirely financed by the people requesting reviews. A per-review fee could accomplish that, but it would have to be a non-trivial amount. In the end, most developers would scoff at it. (“Design review? What a waste of money! Why not just develop the app and submit it?”)

A happy ending

Given that iPhone apps must go through a review process, somebody must do the work of evaluating whether a design will be permitted on the App Store. Right now, Apple is asking the developers to do the work, since they have little to gain by doing it for you. True, they don’t publish an Ultimate Approval Guidelines Document, but you do have access to the iPhone Developer Program Agreement, the iPhone Human Interface Guidelines, trademark and copyright law, and a catalogue of all apps previously approved. So it’s not like it is completely impossible to figure out what’s allowed.

The good news is that, for all the complaining, rejections are not a serious problem. Rejections are not fatal to an app, and most of the time the violation is fairly easy to fix. The complaints I see on mailing lists are mostly about things like improperly used or trademark infringing icons. Even Podcaster eventually found a home on the App Store as RSS Player. I don’t know of a single case where an developer was completely unable to post their app on the store and get the opportunity to recoup their investment. (Prove me wrong in the comments.)