On Negative App Store Reviews During Betas of iOS and OS X

Earlier this week, Apple released the first public betas of iOS 9 and OS X El Capitan, and, knowing that would be the case, I cautioned MacStories readers against leaving negative reviews on the App Store for third-party apps that developers can't update with new features and fixes yet.

It's worth pointing out that, at this stage, third-party apps from the App Store can't be updated to take advantage of the new features in iOS 9 and OS X 10.11, which could limit the potential benefit of trying a public beta for some users. On iPad, for instance, only Apple's pre-installed apps can use the new multitasking features in iOS 9. For this reason, users interested in installing the public betas should also keep in mind that developers can't submit apps and updates with iOS 9 and El Capitan features to the App Store – therefore, it'd be best not to leave negative reviews for features missing in apps that can't be updated to take advantage of them yet.

Unfortunately, since yesterday I've already seen tweets from the developers of two excellent iOS apps – Screens and Day One – post screenshots of negative reviews they've received by users who are unsurprisingly running into problems when using their apps on the iOS 9 beta.

What's even more unfortunate is that this happens annually for every single iOS and OS X developer seed, but I fear the problem will be exacerbated this year by the availability of public betas anyone can try. Therefore, this bears repeating.

Betas are, by definition, unfinished software, and unfinished software has bugs and works inconsistently. As Apple writes on their Beta Software Program website, "you can take part in shaping Apple software by test-driving pre-release versions and letting us know what you think". The focus on testing unfinished, inevitably bug-ridden software is further elaborated upon in the FAQ section of the website:

Please note that since the public beta software has not yet been commercially released by Apple, it may contain errors or inaccuracies and may not function as well as commercially released software.

As far as Apple is concerned, it doesn't get any more obvious than that. In spite of a newly minted "public" tagline, a beta is still a beta, and it cannot be expected to function as reliably and consistently as finished, non-beta software does.

For third-party developers – the folks who make the apps you use every day – the problem is compounded by the fact that their finished apps can be installed and run on an unfinished version of iOS/OS X and that users can leave regular, public App Store reviews for them. This is the core of an issue that presents itself every year.

Developers can't submit app updates with official support for iOS 9 and El Capitan yet. It's not that they're lazy, or they don't want to – they can't because the App Store can't accept software built with iOS 9 and El Capitan features yet. This happens every year: Apple typically opens submissions for apps with support for the latest versions of iOS and OS X a week or two before the release of the new OSes, but until that time third-party apps on the App Store are limited to the current, shipping version of iOS and OS X. This makes sense on Apple's part: because those operating systems aren't finished and millions of customers aren't running them yet, the App Store has to wait for the official release of the new iOS and OS X.

Again: it's not that your favorite app hasn't been updated with iOS 9 and El Capitan support because the developer is busy counting millions of dollars or has forgotten about you. Developers don't have the tools to submit app updates with iOS 9 and El Capitan improvements yet. There is nothing they can do at this point. It's not their fault.

The frustration of the tweets embedded above generates from the fact that some users are leaving negative App Store reviews pointing out problems with running apps on beta versions of iOS and OS X. Some of those users may not know this (and understandably so, it's not their responsibility to know), but App Store reviews are important to developers. It is widely believed that positive reviews affect the ranking and visibility of an app on the App Store, but, perhaps more importantly, reviews are, for customers, the primary way of knowing whether an app is worth downloading or not. An app with several 1-star reviews? Probably not worth installing for many.

In this day and age of high competition and over 1.5 million apps available, having negative reviews displayed on the app's product page is a problem for developers. But it gets worse when those negative reviews cite problems that developers can't fix yet. At that point, developers feel that it's not fair to receive a negative review for something that's completely out of their control. And when the livelihood of independent app markers is at stake, it's hard to argue aganst their sentiment of frustration and disappointment. There's nothing they can do to fix their app issues on betas of iOS and OS X and they can't respond directly to reviews on the App Store – and yet they're taking all the blame. This, every year, repeatedly for every beta of iOS and OS X, and it's possibly becoming more of a problem now that Apple has two public betas.

This is an incredibly tricky problem to solve. I like to think that customers who are leaving negative app reviews mentioning issues on beta software believe they're doing developers a favor in bringing up the problems in the first place. On the other hand, I understand how it may be too complex for Apple to block the ability to leave reviews for Apple IDs who are running betas of iOS and OS X . What if the same user also owns devices with a stable version of the OS and is legitimately interested in leaving a review?

I don't know what the solution is, but I've been observing this problem for six years now, and I'd like to offer a list of suggestions and ideas that will hopefully act as reminders for the future.

  • If you're running a beta version of iOS or OS X and a third-party app isn't working correctly on it yet, an App Store review is not the best way to provide feedback at this stage. Instead of leaving a review during the beta period, tap on the App Website link on the App Store, find a support email address on the product's website, and get in touch with the developer directly. This way, you're doing everybody a favor: the developer will love your private, personal feedback, and you'll likely make a concrete, non-disruptive contribution to future improvements of the app.
  • If you're a user, remember that beta versions of iOS and OS X are problematic, but third-party developers can't fix their app problems or add new features for the new OSes during the beta period. You are perfectly entitled to your positive or negative feeeback, but the App Store isn't the best place for it yet.
  • If you work at Apple and the App Store team, please consider finding ways to prevent or filter App Store reviews that mention problems encountered on the betas of iOS and OS X. Some ideas: hide reviews that mention keywords related to the latest OSes; prevent devices on beta seeds (public or not) from leaving app reviews; display a prompt to users running a beta version of iOS or OS X, informing them that developers can't act on their feedback yet.
  • If you work at Apple and the Beta Software Program team, please consider updating the FAQ section with a clear, readable explanation of how public betas relate to third-party apps and reviews.

For the iOS and OS X community, the summer is always an exciting time. Apple is finalizing new bits of software we'll end up using in September; developers are working on updates to their apps or even brand new apps; and, users are excited to get their hands on new software as soon as possible.

We all have to keep in mind, though, that developers get the short end of the stick here. When it comes to App Store reviews that point out issues on betas of iOS and OS X, there is nothing they can do. They can't respond to them, they can't release compatiblity and feature updates for public betas, and yet they're left dealing with the outcome of negative reviews. These are smart folks, and they know that their apps have issues on beta versions of iOS and OS X. Not only it's not useful to leave negative reviews for those problems now – it's not fair to developers.

It's in everyone's best interest to have developers focused on building great software this summer instead of having them worry about negative reviews for problems they can't fix yet.

But this – this can be fixed.

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