June 25, 2009
The App Store's approval process has had its fair share of controversy, and that's putting it lightly. Nearly every single day there is one developer or another telling us their story about how Apple has failed them with the approval process. But, this isn't that kind of story, because the story of Lyrics has a unique twist. The developers of the famous Easter egg filled app don't really feel wronged by anyone, including Apple; they simply set out to make a solid app that happened to include a feature that no one else had ever included and it happened to gain quite a bit of attention. I first discovered Lyrics way back in early May. My job usually consists of trying to highlight some of the more unique apps available in the App Store, and at that time I had felt Lyrics was one of them. It offered an extremely comprehensive music database that few, if any other apps were able to match. That wasn't even the biggest selling point, as I had discovered a not-so-hidden Easter egg via an App Store user review. The Easter egg allowed users to turn off the extremely strict profanity filter with only a few simple steps, and this is where the controversy stemmed from. When I first discovered the Easter egg, I personally thought nothing of it. I felt that it made a useful app even more useful, but that's it. Sadly, the app gained a lot of attention rather quickly because of this hidden feature, including a quite extensive article from Wired.com that explained how this app was "a quiet screw you" to the App Store approval process. Not long after this article was published, Lyrics was pulled from the App Store to never be seen again. I wanted to find out more about how this hidden Easter egg came to be, and what the real reason was for the app being pulled from the App Store. I was able to get in touch with Joris Kluivers, one of the developers of Lyrics, and this is what he had to say. What initially made you and your team want to develop applications for the iPhone? I'm a computer science student, and I have always had hobby projects that involved programming. Because I've been using a Mac since OS X came out, I learned to use Objective-C and Xcode myself. When the iPhone SDK was announced I was happy to see all of the programming was in Objective-C, which allowed me to use the same development tools I was already familiar with. Besides the great development platform and of course the first phone I actually think is usable, it's probably the App Store that attracts most of us to the iPhone. I always distributed anything I created for free, and never thought about selling software I created. With the App Store it became so easy to actually charge for software, the decision to start developing for the iPhone was not that difficult to make. Currently the Lyrics team consists of three people: the business developer (Melvin Mughal), the creative (Jelle Prins), and the tech guy (me). We work together under the name Moop.Me and think of innovative and fun new products, or we find ways to improve existing experiences. How long did it take to develop Lyrics? We don't develop full-time, so I'm not actually sure how long it took. But from first ideas to a final product, it probably took 3 months as a part-time project. How long did it take to get approved? Was the application denied? More than once? We first submitted the application early in January. We heard nothing from Apple for the first 3 months or so. In April we were rejected for the first time. It took several iterations within 1 to 2 weeks to adjust the application, submit it again, and wait for a response. So yes, we were rejected multiple times, sometimes for obvious reasons (for example a not yet discovered crash) but sometimes for less obvious and even somewhat silly and childish reasons. Finally, we were rejected for obscene words in some lyrics. Did you consider the profanity filter Easter egg the only way to make the application useful? Apple did have a point to reject us. Some lyrics were pure porn, just without the images. Other lyrics, however, only contained one occurrence of the f-word for example. We in the Netherlands don't usually censor our radio or television shows with bleeps in it like it is common in the US, so we were not actually sure if Apple wanted all lyrics with obscenities out, or just the very extreme ones. Just to be sure and avoid another rejection, we decided to create a very strict filter and remove all lyrics with obscene words in them. This resulted in a kind of unusable application, because most of the songs were missing. Just because we ourselves wanted to use the full database of songs, I built in a way to disable the filter. We eventually published the trick online so others could decide for themselves to use a filtered or unfiltered database. You made it very clear that Apple didn't force you to pull Lyrics from the App Store, but did they contact you about it in any way? They did contact me. Because the easter-egg made obscene lyrics available again we were kindly requested to change the application a bit. It just happened that we pulled the application only a few hours before they requested us to do so, so there was no problem at all. It was just a call they probably make to anyone with features in an application that slipped past the approval process. What kind of impact do you think Lyrics has made on the Apple's application review process with its Easter egg? I seriously hope no impact at all. The Wired article made a big fuss out of a simple feature. It is indeed possible to get things past the approval process using easter-eggs, things that might be more offensive or hurtful than some lyrics, but no sane developer will probably use this to add something like porn to an application, just because it's not worth the effort. What's happening with Lyrics as we speak? Will there be a profanity filter? Since the 3.0 SDK and the App Store will contain age ratings, Lyrics can be made available again for 17+ for example with a less strict filter (we'll probably just remove the very extreme stuff). Any words of advice for other developers who are just starting out? I've spoken to several mobile developers (Android devs, windows devs or other CS students) that see the App Store approval process as a bit of hurdle. In reality, I actually think the overall experience is pretty good. The approval process makes sure most of the applications adhere to the user interface guidelines, which I think improves the overall quality of the applications available in the App Store. Just try to create the best experiences within the limits accepted by Apple. So, that's it. The team at Moop.Me had no malicious intentions, and they weren't trying to prove a point to Apple; they just wanted to create an app that they felt was useful and the only way they thought they could achieve that was by including a simple Easter egg to turn off the filter. Once the news of the Easter egg reached the mass media, it was game over for Lyrics. The story of Lyrics has shined a little more light on how the approval process is still a work in progress, but that's pretty much it. Even if Apple were to allow another Easter egg filled app to get through, it would get pulled just like Lyrics did once everyone found out about it. All we can do is hope that the new parental controls and age ratings in the App Store and iPhone OS 3.0 will help developers get through the approval process a little easier. Kluivers has told me that Lyrics is indeed going to be making another appearance in the App Store, and it should be even better this time around.