AppGratis pulled from the App Store. Here’s the full story.

The blog post is translated into French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese.

I’m Simon Dawlat, CEO at AppGratis.

I founded AppGratis back in 2008, and have been running it ever since.

Today, for the first time, my company is dealing with an incredibly difficult moment.

A few hours before starting to write this, I landed in São Paulo, Brazil on a visit to our local office here. I turned on my iPhone after an exhausting 12-hour redeye from Paris, only to receive notifications for over 75 missed calls, and a seemingly infinite flow of unread text messages.

I almost fainted.

These things only happen when a relative or a friend dies, or gets caught in a terrible accident. I immediately thought that someone in my family had passed away during my flight and couldn’t touch my phone for a few minutes. Scared. Paralyzed. Trying to imagine what the terrible news could be.

But by now Apple has issued an official statement, and the Wall Street Journal has published it. And as you’ve guessed, my friends and relatives are fine. They’re just worried for me now.

Friday, April 5th was the day Apple decided to pull AppGratis out of the App Store, leaving our 12 million iOS users wondering where one of their favorite apps had gone, my 45 employees wondering if they’d still have a job next week, my partners and investors in shock, and myself with an absolutely crazy situation to deal with, thousands of miles away from our headquarters.

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First of all I want to reassure our users, our clients, our investors, our friends:

Even if our iOS apps are momentarily unavailable, your app recommendation service, AppGratis, is very much up and running. If you’re part of the 12 million lucky people to have downloaded our app before last Friday, know that it will keep updating everyday with new free apps and cool discounts. So will our website, and so will our daily newsletter.

Our iOS apps may have been unavailable now for a few days, but at the same time, a few million free apps have been downloaded through AppGratis since last Friday.

So for now, it’s business as usual in AppGratis’s world.

Second, I want to set a few things straight:

I’ve read a lot of comments and media features saying things like “R.I.P. AppGratis”

I want to tell these people the reports of our death are greatly exaggerated.

Also, some people have been wildly speculating on whether or not we may have been using illegal tactics to secure more than 5% of the iOS marketshare in the US. As the CEO of a 45-person company, all who I’ve hired myself and deeply respect and care for, it’s pretty obvious that I would never have crossed Apple’s rules so foolishly, risking the jobs of so many people and the destiny of a company it took me four years to build.

Part 1. What happened with our Apps.

In the Fall of 2011, we made quite a big product mistake. As we were starting to roll out AppGratis into new countries, we decided to use one specific app for each territory we wanted to address, basically running several instances of our flagship app on a country-by-country basis. It seemed a light and easy solution that enabled us to go global very quickly. But very soon, not only did we end up with more than 20+ different apps to maintain in the App Store (a nightmare for our engineering team), we also quickly hit Apple’s iOS guideline 2.20, stating that:

Developers “spamming” the App Store with many versions of similar Apps will be removed from the iOS Developer Program.

We hit a first wall in the form of an update being rejected in October 2012 for 2.20.

But more surprisingly, also for a new guideline 2.25, stating that:

Apps that display Apps other than your own for purchase or promotion in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store will be rejected.

And – gasp! – also for guideline 2.12, stating that:

Apps that are not very useful, unique, are simply web sites bundled as Apps, or do not provide any lasting entertainment value may be rejected.

Given the crazy amount of work and passion we’ve put into AppGratis, and given how highly-requested and praised by our users the app has been, let alone the fact that AppGratis is filling a major gap in a fairly broken App Discovery world, this was the hardest one to understand.

And to be very honest with you, all of this was very confusing from the beginning, especially since these new guidelines seemed scarily open to any kind of subjective interpretation.

Luckily at this point, we were contacted by our usual Apple App Review team member, C. [allow me not to mention full names here for personal privacy reasons]. I can honestly say that C. has been a great person to work with, investing crazy amounts of time in the conversation, making herself very available at all times, always listening to our arguments, and guiding us through the necessary changes we needed to bring AppGratis into the App Store. C. was later joined by K. a similarly helpful manager at App Review.

An actually quite long conversation resulted in:

Regarding 2.25: we were able to make a strong point on the fact that AppGratis had nothing in common with the App Store. The App Store is a 1M+ hosted app catalog. AppGratis is like a media reviewing one Apple product a day like thousands of other sites, blogs, and apps on this planet – dramatically different mechanics. We got OK-ed on this one, since our app was later approved (and has been live for months).

Regarding 2.12: as we stated in another blog post, AppGratis has a very simple user-facing interface. But its back-end is a wild beast. We were able to show to C. and K. the depth, complexity, and usefulness of our product on the technical side of things, and also how important our editorial-based recommendations were to our users. We also got OK-ed on this one.

Regarding 2.20: we eventually agreed to come up with a major update of our app that would consolidate all our existing apps into one. We actually had seen this one coming and already had a beta of such a product in development. We shifted our 10 engineers’ efforts onto finishing it, and got it to Apple’s servers in record time. Everyone pulled together. 45 people, working to make finding apps simple again.

Apple approved the v3 version of AppGratis for iPhone in November 2012, and a little while after that, we closed our $13,5M Series A with new investors: Iris Capital, sponsored by Orange and Publicis, and other financial players. And we got back to work, thinking that 2013 was going to be an exciting year. Since then, not only has Apple approved the v3 version for iPhone, but it actually approved our iPad version less than a week ago, as well.

Yes, you read well.

A. week. ago.

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This came to us as a very strong validation of the amazing value created by our product for the whole App Store ecosystem, something we were intimately convinced of since the very beginning, and eventually had the opportunity to discuss with Apple, with a positive outcome.

We were about to launch and announce our iPad version. The launch was in place. Newsletters ready to go. Unique editorial content created for 30+ markets ready to go. The app had been approved. I was on a plane to Brazil…and…

And then last Friday, a few days after Apple had approved our latest iPad version, a new App Review team member named R., who no one on my team had ever had contact with before, came pretty much out of the blue and after trying to call me three times without being able to get hold of me (I was on a plane), decided to pull out our apps because of guideline 2.25 and also – re-gasp! – because of guideline 5.6, stating that:

Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind.

Yet another surprise for us since we only send one “system notification” a day to our users, coming in the form of a generic, opt-in only “Today’s deal is here!” message, which is precisely how Apple recommends developers to use its push notification service.

Part 2. What happened on Apple’s side.

Initially, I thought we’d been caught in an internal communication accident and not the victim of a supposed “ban on third-party apps.” We checked the apps of our competitors, all of them were available for download. All the lights had been green for the past few months with Apple, so it seemed very unlikely that such a company would change its mind pretty much overnight, in what looks today like an extremely volatile action.

Early Monday, R. gave me a follow-up call. He basically couldn’t go beyond repeating multiple times that our app had been pulled out due to guideline 2.25 and 5.6.

I asked how he and his team could have possibly changed their minds overnight, pretty much pulling the plug on a 45-person company. He seemed very detached regarding the gravity of the situation, and was unable to let me know on what specifics these decisions had been made.

A few minutes after we hung up, the Wall Street Journal published a very concise statement issued by Apple, confirming that AppGratis had been pulled out for violating guidelines 2.25 and 5.6.

For us, obviously, it’s a hard hit.

And as I’m about to push the ‘publish’ button on this story, I’m still in absolute shock as to what is happening to us.

But our mission is far from finished.

Part 3. Far from finished.

First and foremost, we’re still responsible for the daily app digest of more than 12 million iOS users in the world. While we stand in total disbelief that Apple actually made the decision to cut a service used by so many of their users, those people still have AppGratis on their iPhone and iPad. And we owe them new app deals every day.

And that is pretty much where we stand, still stunned that Apple took the decision to destroy so much value within their own ecosystem, but more than ever convinced that what we’re doing is good, and accomplishing a much needed mission in a broken App Discovery world.

Now for the courageous ones that have read it all, a few action items :

1. If someone in charge at Apple reads this and wants to discuss the matter more in-depth, I’m happy to jump over to Cupertino anytime to prove to you that we’re on a mission for good. My email is simon@appgratis.com, so feel free to email me anytime.

2. If you are a user of AppGratis, a friend, a client, an app developer, or just a person that thinks AppGratis is good for the world, please share this post.

3. Finally, to my team, as always: keep pushing. You guys are doing an absolutely amazing job. And I know that right now, some of you are sad and scared. I am too.

But even in dark times, every problem has a solution.

And we are going to find one.

More announcements will come very soon.

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