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How Information Superhighway got Approved for the App Store

On July 8, 2020 Apple rejected my first personal iOS app, Information Superhighway, from its first App Store Review submission for violating App Store Review Guidelines 4.2 and 4.2.2.

4.2 Minimum Functionality
Your app should include features, content, and UI that elevate it beyond a repackaged website. If your app is not particularly useful, unique, or “app-like,” it doesn’t belong on the App Store. If your App doesn’t provide some sort of lasting entertainment value or adequate utility, it may not be accepted. Apps that are simply a song or movie should be submitted to the iTunes Store. Apps that are simply a book or game guide should be submitted to the Apple Books Store.

Other than catalogs, apps shouldn’t primarily be marketing materials, advertisements, web clippings, content aggregators, or a collection of links.

I understood how trivial the app could seem but I disagreed with the ruling. It started as a bit – can I make something useful with only one screen – and I stubbornly did not want to concede that bit.

I resubmitted the same build with different screenshots and marketing copy in the hopes of better explaining the usefulness of the app. The submission was rejected on the same grounds. I appealed the second rejection to the App Review Board. There is no record of what I wrote – it was typed nervously and directly into the text field in Safari on my iPhone – but the App Review Board denied my appeal so nothing of value was lost.

At this point I gave up. It was easy to chalk up the submission rejections to the randomness of App Review, but the appeal rejection meant that I was failing to meet the guidelines even under scrutiny.

Throughout July I resubmitted the same build four more times to App Review with different marketing copy and all were rejected. I don’t know why I persisted except that there wasn’t much else to do. That was an unexpected side effect of giving up.

A month later my ego recovered and I took another run at it. On August 23, 2020 I resubmitted that same build with the same marketing copy and appealed the same rejection to the App Review Board. The message that went along with the appeal was different. This time I didn’t mash out a scared plea on my iPhone: I wrote a confident statement on my Mac. And this time the App Review Board reversed the rejection and approved Information Superhighway for the App Store.

On September 1, 2020 it went live.

I am including the message that I wrote in that final appeal below. I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t have any examples to go off of. Hopefully this can be that to someone else. I would have loved to know that 500 words and a good app are all it takes.

RE: 4.2 and 4.2.2

I worry that there is a misunderstanding that I have done a poor job reconciling. I am trying to build a very polished and focused app experience, but at a glance it can seem like it is trivial and useless

The app has neither a limited amount of content, nor a limited set of features, nor does it not support much native iOS functionality.

For content, the app pulls down select articles from Wikipedia and supports 275 different Wikipedia editions / languages. A cornerstone of the app is that the user never has to stop scrolling, there is endless content.

For features, the primary display of the app is purposefully minimal and distraction-free. I worry this is getting mistaken for simple or trivial. The app is a first-class citizen of iOS and iPadOS; it supports all major, oft-advertised features of the OSes, including:

  • Background App Refresh
  • Context Menus
  • Dark Mode & Light Mode
  • Drag-and-Drop
  • Handoff
  • iMessage Stickers
  • Magic Keyboard & Trackpad
  • Multi-Window
  • Settings in the Settings App
  • Siri Shortcuts

It supports these features, and supports them well. For example, through Siri Shortcuts, the app exposes the ability to fetch the Markdown content of any Wikipedia page. That functionality isn’t exposed by any other other – the official Wikipedia app doesn’t support any Siri Shortcuts at all.

Sharing articles, either in plaintext, markdown, or to Instagram, are all supported through context menus. This lets the app hide “extracurricular” features without disturbing the primary interface.

Beyond these first-class integrations, and discrete features, the app is ruthlessly performant in the name of user experience. There is a lot of work put in to making sure that the app is intelligently downloading and pre-caching content for the user so that there is always fresh content and they never have to wait for network downloads, online or offline. On a device that has cached content, the app loads instantaneously – there is no perceptible loading screen or splash screen on modern iPhones. There are very few native iOS apps that meet this performance bar, and certainly there are no websites or web apps that do.

The value this app provides is its complete dedication to a fast, smooth, and uncompromising user experience on iOS. It is full of features that are only available on iOS, and has performance – both in perceptible experience and energy usage – that is only possible on iOS.

I love developing for this platform, I do it very well, and I believe that I have built a special app with Information Superhighway. It is not large, and does not have many traditional user interface elements, but that does not mean that is a scam or is a trivial work. We have the same goals of seeing great software on the App Store, so please believe me when I say that this app belongs.

P.S. This message is an unflattering example of how I write without editing. It is a Herculean effort to remove most of the punctuation.