The King Makers: Apple Takes Down an Indie Dev

UPDATE:  There is a follow up post here titled Transparency and Due Process UPDATE:  If you would like to help Greg, sign his petition.

Greg Gardner is a good engineer.  In fact, he's a damn good one.  He's the kind of engineer that startup CEOs take comfort in, saying things like, "Oh, Greg has it, good."  He's the kind of engineer that you go to in the middle of the night when everything has hit the fan and you need someone that understands exactly how everything works.

I don't know this by reputation, I know this because I worked with him.  I can recall several times when he spotted issues with code that I had written, things that most people would have missed but that would have resulted in problems.  Code reviews with Greg were often not easy, but I always came away a better engineer.

But, Greg is not just a "good engineer", he's also a guy that gets it.  He has the ability to look into mobile and see gaps, then address them with some solution that is often unique and well-placed.

For instance, it has oft been lamented that app discovery is the achilles heel of both iOS and Android.  I have heard many, many times that the App Store/Play Store model is just broken and that it feeds those that pay to play but not those with the best apps.

Greg's first foray into the world of apps was an app that allowed users to more easily discover good apps.  It ultimately earned him a job at the company that I would come to work for a month later.  Greg would continue to innovate within that company for nearly three years.  He would add value and become a crucial engineer within the organization, one that would be sorely missed when he left.

So it was with some sadness, but more hope and admiration, that I heard that Greg was going to strike out on his own.  His stated goal: to make it on the App Store.  I wondered what new wrinkle Greg would add this time that would see him to another success.  And I had no doubt it would be success.

I can't say I was shocked at all when, just months after Greg being completely independent and only a couple days after iOS 8 was released, one of my friends texted me with this "killer new app" he'd discovered.  It was called Launcher - Favorites at your Fingertips from Cromulent Labs.  I laughed to myself as I realized Greg had done it again.

Just like I figured, Greg had seen his way to using widgets and app URLs to create a new type of app.  The basic premise is this:  Create custom launching icons for actions that you conduct on your device on a regular basis, then put them in the Notification Center so that they are always quickly available.  So, as you pull down the Notification Center, you can choose to call your mom, or text your wife, or launch Twitter, which is an app you're always in.  With the added emphasis on the Notification Center and widgets in iOS 8 it was a simple, yet brilliant, idea.

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And, boy, had he done it again.  According to Greg, he had several hundred thousand downloads in the 9 days it was on the App Store.  Several hundred thousand.

Folks, that's not a small launch.  That's a launch that most apps would kill for.  That's big, especially for a small indie dev.  Greg, through ingenuity and understanding how people use their devices, had hit it big.

Launcher vaulted straight into the top grossing productivity apps.  By September 24th, it was ranked as the 32nd top grossing app in the productivity category in the US.  The next day it was 28th, up by 4.  In South Korea, the story was even better.  On the 22nd, Launcher had achieved the top ranking in top grossing productivity apps and would stay in the top 10.

According to Greg, this translated into the dream that all indie devs have:  Supporting your family independently off of the trade you love.  "It would have supported me even if it had dropped off.  iOS 8 penetration is still under 50%, so it could have continued to rise as well.  Who knows."

Sadly, it was not meant to be.

On September 23, Apple contacted Greg and informed him that they would disallow any Notification Center widget that launched other apps.  Their only reasoning?  That it was a "misuse" of widgets.  Apple issued an ultimatum:  Release a version without app launching from the widget or else Launcher would be entirely taken down.

On September 26, Greg submitted what he believed was a valid compromise:  The click would take the user to the main Launcher app, and from there the app would call the appropriate action.

Apple rejected the update and within an hour Launcher was no longer on the App Store.

With the interest that has recently been going around about Jared Sinclair's Unread, and indie devs in general, the pervading question has been, "Can indie devs really, truly support themselves on the App Store?"  It's rather sad that, at a time when Apple really needs to reassure devs that this is the case, they have chosen to remove an ingenious app from the App Store that was obviously well received and well liked.  Apple could have held Launcher up as an example of just what needs to be done to really make it on the App Store.

Instead, Apple is being Apple and aggressively protecting things that do not need to be protected.  They do so with inscrutable and nebulous reasons that leave all involved feeling dismayed.

In the end, though, it's worth noting that this is Apple's platform and that Apple is the King Maker.  They have put into place the machinery and the tools which will allow an entire industry to thrive.  It is theirs and they guard it jealously.

Indie devs, and iOS indie devs especially, are taking a very large risk by living at the whims of Apple.  Apple can and does change its collective mind on a whim.  I've seen them pull the rug out from under entire industries without a bit of warning.  One day, the rejections just start rolling in.  The industry is left with cryptic messages and quoted clauses as they try to decipher just what caused the offense this time.  It is a volatile world in which many of the actions make sense only from within the confines of Apple.  And Apple isn't sharing those reasons.

Sadly, this can leave indie devs, and Greg specifically, in a bad place.  When asked what he will do next, Greg responded, "Not sure at this point. [I'm] not likely to develop iOS apps."