On PCalc, widgets, and how the App Store works

Earlier today PCalc developer James Thomson was advised by Apple that he'd have to update his app to remove its Today view widget functionality. This comes over a month after PCalc, with exactly that functionality, was approved by the App Store review team and featured by the App Store editorial team. So, what happened?

This is far from the first time an app has been un-approved, either in whole or in part. It happened with app launchers-as-widgets a few weeks ago. It happened with multi-window workspace apps when the original iPad launched. It happened with tethering apps in the early days of the iPhone. In PCalc's case, it looks like it's happening because Today view widgets on iOS were aren't intended to contain that much functionality. Instead, for anything more than short bits of glanceable information or quick interactions, they're supposed to kick people out of Notification Center and into the app proper.

Here's how Apple describes them in the developer documentation (opens in new tab):

App extensions in the Today view are called widgets. Widgets give users quick access to information that's important right now. For example, users open the Today view to check current stock prices or weather conditions, see today's schedule, or perform a quick task such as marking an item as done. Users tend to open the Today view frequently, and they expect the information they're interested in to be instantly available.

For most widgets, the line is incredibly clear. The vast majority of apps couldn't fit their core functionality into a widget even if they tried. A headline, a status update, a like, a share, are all examples of what's meant to be in Today view widgets.

Calculators may not have been anywhere nearly as clear. They've been widgets on OS X for years and remain so today. On iOS, however, Apple didn't put their own calculator widget into the Today view. Still, for PCalc, it was technically possible. Its core functionality was light enough, and its developer smart enough, that it could be squeezed into Today view. The line was blurred.

Because it could fit in Today view is probably why PCalc's widget made it through App Store review and got featured by App Store editorial. (It's worth pointing out those are two separate things — App Store review, like developer relations, falls under SVP of marketing, Phil Schiller, while App Store editorial, like App Store management, falls under SVP of services, Eddy Cue.)

During an iOS launch, it's hectic for both developers and Apple. Developers know that if they showcase Apple's new, tent-pole technologies in interesting and novel ways, they're more likely to get featured on the App Store, which is among the very best ways to boost their downloads. At the same time, developers have also come to learn that if they implement them in ways Apple didn't expect, they risk rejection, either immediately or at some point in the future. That creates tension.

Meanwhile, as much as developers race to get their apps submitted in time for launch day, the App Store teams race to get all the apps reviewed and all the new features programmed in time for them to go live alongside the new version of iOS.

That might be why it took Apple over a month to determine that just because PCalc could fit into a widget didn't mean it should. (My guess is that the time is also an indicator that the decision wasn't hasty or arbitrary, and that the ramifications for everyone were considered before the call was made.)

To be clear, this absolutely wasn't a case of Thomson trying to get an app approved that shouldn't have been, nor of the App Store team trying to hurt a developer and his livelihood. It's a case of a blurry line, and it's a situation that's bad for everyone — for Apple, because it gets them bad press and strained relations, for developers, because it costs them time, money, and faith in the system, and customers, because apps and features we like disappear on us.

It could be argued that Apple needs to communicate better, sooner, so that developers who come anywhere close to the line, blurry or not, get waved off long before their apps hit the store. However, at the App Store scale, and considering how Apple runs it, that simply won't be possible for all apps, all the time. (When Apple says what developers do with their frameworks sometimes surprises them, that includes implementations they simply didn't foresee.)

It could be argued that edge-cases should be flagged during the review process and kicked upstairs so a determination can be made and a policy set before any apps hit the store. However, again, not all edge-cases can be foreseen, and if too many flags get raised to often, the already lengthy review process — especially during the already insane iOS release cycle — could become untenable.

It could be argued that once an app is approved it shouldn't be un-approved, and should instead enjoy an exemption to whatever policies are later put in place. However, that could also be considered unfair to apps that simply didn't get into or through the approval process as quickly, and result in one app being allowed to do what its competitor is not, creating a whole range of different problems.

It could even be argued that what Apple truly needs is a dedicated, high-profile, passionate, engaged, empowered, VP of App Store, whose one and only job would be to collect and bring together the various parts and make an even stronger whole. Given how much revenue the App Store is generating these days, it could absolutely be worth the attention. However, that's not the world we currently live in.

I've been a PCalc customer since the day it launched in 2008. I've been on the beta at times, and I downloaded the iOS 8 version the day it launched. I love the widget. I swipe down, type in the numbers, and then get on with whatever else I was doing, and I've barely had the need to launch the app itself in weeks. Losing it will put a severe cramp in my workflow.

Yet the reality remains that Apple, apparently, doesn't want full-featured apps in the Today view, including their own iOS calculator. Disallowing that, unfortunately, means disallowing PCalc. Because, if a functional calculator is allowed, why not a Twitter client, or a music player, or a note pad, or so on?

Apple could always change their mind at some point. It's happened before. All sorts of apps are on the App Store now that weren't allowed in the past. This is also Extensibility 1.0. The very first version. It will no doubt grow and expand its capabilities over coming years and versions.

For now, however, it looks like anyone considering a widget for the Today view would do well to keep it light, and to keep information and interactions glanceable and quick.

And anyone who hasn't yet should go try out PCalc because, widget or no widget, it's terrific. You can get PCalc lite (opens in new tab) for free now.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

27 Comments
  • Apple's new motto: Think Different...unless it's different from us.
  • I like this comment. ^ Sent from the iMore App
  • There is no calculator in control center on an iPad. Even if there was, you use it, it opens the app, and closes the app you were in. Then you have to multi task go back to the app. We have been wanting widgets for years. Now they say ok, but with restrictions, which makes the widgets really useless. A calculator is well a calculator. If you cannot do calculations in Notification Center, what use is it? There are Notification Center calculators still in the App Store. Guess they will be removed. Sent from the iMore App
  • This article made me realize how Apple operates. https://medium.com/@krautreporter/the-apple-media-distortion-field-644e9... It really shocked me!
  • At least Apple refunded my purchase of PCalc.
  • I understand the sentiment, but that punishes the developer for something outside their control.
  • True, but the widget is the reason I bought the app. It was highlighted in the widget apps if I recall. And I had always heard good things about the app. The widget finally put it over the top for me to purchase it. It's important to note that Apple caused this developer to be punished. Not me. Apple caused customers to all of a sudden have an app that is much less functional and didn't bother to provide any type of automatic relief for anyone. Or any explanation that is meaningful.
  • I suspect that this will be resolved. It may take some time, but Apple has been known to correct its mistakes. With this being so popular I can't help but think that it will be allowed back in at some time. I love PCalc and will not make any upgrades to keep this feature.
  • Okay, but Apple doesn't get punished. They can keep their 30%. From the developer's agreement with Apple, concerning users who ask Apple for refunds:
    "Apple will have the right to retain its commission on the sale of that Licensed Application, notwithstanding the refund of the price to the end-user."
  • Long as I was made whole, I didn't care. It would be up to the dev to seek his own relief..
  • I don't see why Apple cares, honestly. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yea this ones retarded... Huge Apple fan, not a fan of this move...
  • "...or perform a quick task such as marking an item as done". What's annoying here is that the widget doesn't contain the full functionality of the app. The widget works great if I just need to perform a quick task - like a quick calculation. When I need additional functionality I open the app. I get that it is a fine line, but this just cuts too close. I hope the dev can demonstrate to Apple that the widget doesn't contain the full functionality of the app, and therefore could fall within the guidelines. Probably not, but it's worth an appeal. Sent from the iMore App
  • OR....making Quick reply exclusive for just imessage... You suck, Apple Sent from the iMore App
  • Quick Reply goes beyond the current frameworks. It's a horrible analogy, but it's like how the Retina 5K iMac can drive that many pixels internally, but the right cabling doesn't yet exist for it to do it externally. Some features start off as Apple-only because they can secure and test them themselves. Over time, they roll out to developers. Touch ID was like that this year.
  • How am I supposed to mark a Task done in the Notification Center when Apples own Reminder Widget ether doesn't show in the Notification Center half the time, & when it does show its just the Reminders icon & say Reminders with the next Widget title bar directly below. How long will it be before Apple unapproves Reminder App Widgets because they work when there own is in predictable? Sent from the iMore App
  • Mine works flawlessly. But I think it only pulls from the "Reminders" list, not other lists you may have created. And they must have a recent it soon die date. Sent from the iMore App
  • Mine works flawlessly as well, and for all lists (I have them color coded).
  • Utterly stupid move. My most useful widget gets destroyed... possibly my only useful widget. Sent from the iMore App
  • Damn you Apple... I always use that PCal more than native apple calculator app... Why? Because it's easy... You just swipe down, calculate something, swipe back up, and still in the same page/app... Like a true multitasking... I dont like to open apple calculator where it would open another app, then i have to double click home button to get to the previous app... Too much hassle... Sent from the iMore App
  • This move by Apple is illicit under anti-trust and consumer protection laws. Once the app is forcibly updated (ANTITRUST), I hope I get my money back (CONSUMER), given the disappearance of the widget. Indeed, regardless of PC-CALC's vast functionality, the only reason I purchased it was for the widget and nothing else. Sent from the iMore App
  • I can understand where it may cause confusion. I know some new OS X users that run apps from a mounted disc image. Apple wants to maintain a consistent experience.
  • I disabled automatic app updates. I'll see how long the operating system will let me use it
  • The "at App Store Scale" apologetic is particularly galling. The same excuse was trotted out years ago during the political cartoon rejection controversy, when the App Store was far smaller. Truth be told, the problem has nothing to do with size, and everything to do with Apple not giving a damn about developers. They love to tout the benefits of the walled garden approach, but they have *never* cared one whit about living up to the developer responsibilities of that role. As Rene said in another thread, problems punish the developer for something outside of their control. The problem is that Apple could not care less about inflicting problems on their own developers, and never have, at any size. That is why so many of us, despite the great platform, and good-if-not-great tools, so many of us develop here reluctantly - or at least more reluctantly than we should, given the market opportunity. It is part of the reason the Mac App Store is floundering - because the opportunity there is not worth the hassle Apple deliberately introduces. That same tipping point for iOS seems far off, given how (justifiably) high iOS is riding right now, but it is closer than you think. Sent from the iMore App
  • Well said, Rene!
  • I'm baffled by this. They feature PCalc as sort of poster child for the new features in iOS 8 and now they take it down... You know there's an app called Wdgts that has a calculator as well. Do they need to remove that functionality too?
  • I'm also on the fence here. On one hand I don't use the app but I appreciate how incredibly handy it could be for some (I'm just really OCD and super-strict about my notification widget real estate). On the other hand I figure Apple has a decent reason for this. My initial guess would be potential battery life. Maybe the widgets get a lot higher percentage of slices of resources even during sleep / wake cycles. Even if this were the case though, you'd think any technical issues could largely be resolved.