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This article was published on July 5, 2012

Widespread app corruption highlights Apple’s lack of options for affected developers and customers

Widespread app corruption highlights Apple’s lack of options for affected developers and customers
Matthew Panzarino
Story by

Matthew Panzarino

Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter. Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter.

If you’ve downloaded an app from Apple’s App Store recently and it has crashed on launch, you’re not alone. A widespread corruption issue is plaguing app updates submitted to the store recently and it appears to be the fault of Apple’s FairPlay DRM.

The corruption is causing immediate headaches for developers as it has prompted a huge number of one-star reviews to get submitted for an issue completely out of their control. The issue is on Apple’s end, has nothing to do with whether the apps themselves work or not and is being prolonged by the corrupt apps continuing to be hosted on Apple’s servers.

Instapaper developer Marco Arment drew attention to the issue in a blog post yesterday evening, which has since been reported on by a large number of outlets.

But the real issue here isn’t the corruption, which will hopefully be addressed by Apple soon. It’s the current system that Apple has in place for developers to communicate serious issues with the purchasers of their apps.

Currently, the problem has been going on for over 24 hours, causing a massive downward trend in the review scores of apps that have been affected. Roughly 50% of the reviews of the latest version of Angry Birds Space HD Free, for instance, are being submitted as ‘one star’. These represent the users which have downloaded the update from a server affected by the corruption. Not all servers are affected, so there are still some 5 star ratings coming in.

Note that this app customarily receives a huge amount of 5 star ratings, and has now been besieged by one-star reviews. This has lowered its overall score significantly, down to three stars for the current version.

For an app like Angry Birds, this is a blip in the road, and when the corruption issue is fixed the 5 star reviews will no doubt come pouring in once again. But some developers don’t have the download volumes of Angry Birds, or a corporation with millions of dollars behind it to ride out bad reviews.

Many independent developers rely on the 5 star ratings that they get for favorable placement in the App Store’s charts. A ranking in the top 200 of any category can literally mean the making or breaking of a small developer’s business. 24 hours of one-star ratings on a huge app like Angry Birds is a blip, 24 hours on a ‘one-man-team’ app like Instapaper could make a huge impact.

Readdle’s Scanner Pro, an app that I use and love, was also affected by the corruption. About 105,000 people downloaded the update pushed yesterday and up to 5% of those downloads appear to have been corrupted. In the case of this issue, there is very little for the customer to do besides delete the app and reinstall it, hoping the issue has been fixed on Apple’s end.

At the core of the issue is that developers publishing on the App Store lack control over their updates and communication with their customers.

When the one-star reviews started rolling in, there was very little that developers could do to notify users of their app that it was an issue with Apple’s packaging of their apps, not the apps themselves. The users just saw that the app was crashing on launch and rated it accordingly. Because the App Store provides no way to alert users of critical problems, some developers had to take to novel approaches like editing their release notes into a blog post explaining the problem.

“Naturally, even with small percentage affected, we had thousands of users that got broken updates,” says Readdle’s Denys Zhadanov. “We put a huge amount of effort in 4.1 update and the team was waiting for a feedback different from ravings that update was broken. Angry emails, Facebook, Twitter and App Store 1-star ratings – all of that kept our team pretty busy.”

Zhadanov says that the issue appears to have been mostly cleared up for them and that issues with deleting and reinstalling the app won’t have as much of a negative affect, now that the latest version of Scanner Pro includes iCloud backup for data.

That’s a terrible user experience and an awful hack that developers shouldn’t have to use in order to inform users that there is a problem. Remember that an in-app notification wouldn’t work for users that had already updated, as the apps crashed on launch.

This is exactly the kind of situation that would benefit from turning the App Store into a community, or at least enabling an official channel of some sort that allows developers to reply to customers. Perhaps an alert system that lets developers place a notice on the App Store page for an app indicating major issues or that a problem is being worked on.

I spoke with Arment about the issue and he said that one possible solution to a major app issue would be a ‘panic button’. “One thing that would help a lot would be a rollback feature,” says Arment. “Currently, if you submit an update that has a serious bug, the only options are to leave it there or remove the app from sale completely.”

A panic button that allows a developer to offer the ‘last known good’ version of an app would help solve a lot of issues. It eliminates the ‘one-star-rating’ conundrum pretty quickly.

Arment also notes that emergency issues like this aren’t the only reason that developers might need to roll a version back. “Developers often make a very easy mistake to make: releasing a version that crashes only on some older devices or iOS versions. Apple doesn’t test them all.”

So there is a case for a ‘rollback’  that could allow for developers to at least offer the last version of their app they know was good. In a situation like the one going on today, it would begin delivering a ‘good’ version of the app to users who deleted and re-installed immediately, rather than whenever Apple got around to updating the version on its CDN.

There are reports that some apps have already seen a fix for the problem today, and we’re hoping that Apple is working on getting this issue fixed as immediately as possible. Any developers that are concerned should refrain from submitting updates to their apps or releasing new ones until they know the problem has been solved completely.

But the problem highlights just how few options developers have when a widespread outside issue affects their apps. They can’t communicate directly with users through the App Store, they can’t replace a bad version quickly and they’re open to substantial harm due to poor reviews.

It’s time Apple took a look at the App Store system with an eye toward improving communication and providing better tools for developers to handle issues.

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