Apple Says Yes to Opera, But App Approval Remains a Crap Shoot

Last Updated Apr 13, 2010 1:13 PM EDT

Trying to understand the whims of Apple when it comes approving iPhone apps can lead to madness. The latest example is the Opera Mini Browser, which Apple finally approved. But as a developer who is also a reader of this blog noted, Opera clearly reproduces functions provided by the iPhone . (The Opera press release only mentions the iPhone and iPod touch, not the iPad.) So why did Apple approve it and not the native app version of Google (GOOG) Voice? Two reasons, I think: animosity toward a major rival in one case, and a painful need for some good PR on the other. Either way, it's yet another symptom of Apple's fickle treatment of app developers.

As the video shows, Opera provides some impressive abilities: speed, tabbed browsing, quick panning over an entire page. Page loads are much, much faster than Safari. That could technically be the reason why Apple approved it and not Google Voice:
However, Opera Mini had several things going for it: for example, it's not a full-fledged client-side app, relying instead on Opera's own server-side functionality to handle much of the content rendering and manipulation tasks, including interpreting and executing JavaScript code, which would otherwise be against App Store policies.
But then, Apple showed Google Voice the door for duplicating phone features of the iPhone but approved the Vonage app, which did much of the same.

This is why Apple's demand to completely control the ecosystem around the iPhone OS is so dangerous to companies that want to create apps for the platform, and why Apple's approach will ultimately fail. The problem is not the desire to lock in developers and keep out competition, so much as the arbitrary way in which Apple wields that power. Smart business requires that you calculate and manage risk. But software companies can't be sure how Apple will apply judgment and whether their investments will come to fruition or naught.

I suspect that is why Apple approved the Opera browser. There wasn't an obvious issue with look and feel, the company poses no threat to Apple, and it gives hope to developers, which is vital. The iPhone OS business stands on a stack of cards: Business cards of all the app developers who want to make money.

Apple is unlikely to disclose this data, but I suspect the distribution of income for paid apps is incredibly lopsided, with a relative handful doing very well and the vast majority making modest amounts, if anything. Apple runs the risk that developers may end up disillusioned from seeing their work in a dumping ground of 150,000 other app choices a consumer could make. Concerns over draconian restrictions in the developer agreement only aggravate that possibility. Every once in a while, Apple had to do something to seem reasonable and give developers hope. I think that's exactly what the Opera approval was all about.

Opera Image: Flickr user Tom (Todas con licencia CC, Atribución), CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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