Around this time last year, Google began imposing a more strenuous review process on new apps and updates submitted to the Play Store. For many developers, this was only a minor inconvenience that slowed down publishing by a few hours or days. However, in the months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a growing number of people have detailed delays of several weeks for new apps and even simple bug fixes.
Complaints are spread across various social networks, but the lion's share can be found in a Google Play support thread that began back in March when a developer explained his app had been pending review for 3 weeks without any word from Google Play. More than one thousand upvotes have accumulated with about two hundred comments (from over 150 individuals) sometimes claiming wait times in excess of 40 days — though none have confirmed when or if they received approvals.
Some stories also focus on erroneous rejections. For example, one complaint cites several rejections of the IARC questionnaire (used for determining age restrictions) on an app that was previously approved for use by people of all ages. The developer attempted raising the requirement to teens, then to adults (18+), but even that failed to pass. Another incident claims an Android TV app was rejected on technical grounds, but after resubmitting without changes, it was then rejected for copyrighted content when it presumably didn't contain any.
Inconsistencies like this become a problem because they can't be resolved without restarting a submission from the beginning. But it's not just rejections that can restart the review process, even simple changes like updating the description can push a submission to the back of the line. And of course, some developers may fix bugs or even complete new versions before a previous update is approved.
Google posted a notice in the developer console at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to warn developers that delays were expected due to adjusted work schedules. Support agents reportedly also give this explanation when contacted about long review periods.
Most users are still seeing a regular flow of updates, but with popular apps usually passing through review almost immediately, it's unclear how widespread these delays may be. Developers in one recent reddit thread reported anything from a few hours to as many as seventeen days.
Naturally, some of the complaints could be missing details that might justify rejections or an extended review process, but there are enough stories to suggest there are extraordinarily prolonged reviews. The details are further clouded by the possibility that the delays are linked to things like geography or language — e.g. an app intended for a certain country may get assigned to reviewers in a particularly understaffed region.
Due to job losses and cutbacks, or simply having extra time at home, many developers have turned to publishing independent apps. This group is the most likely to be held for longer inspections, especially when they're first starting out.
Some game developers claim to have lost lots of players
Among the side effects of prolonged review times, some game developers claim to have lost lots of players because they can't publish updates in time for regularly scheduled events or timed promotions. Others are being held responsible by supervisors and clients for updates that were expected to go live much earlier.
Security vulnerabilities and bugs can also become critical issues if left unpatched while an update languishes. As wait times increase, so do the risks of holding back updates. A security hole left unpatched for a day or two will leave hackers without much time to exploit it, but it can become dangerous to hold updates for several weeks. The Heartbleed vulnerability discovered in OpenSSL several years ago was a striking example that required rapid updates to limit the impact.
Google has also been pushing developers to adopt App Bundles for distribution. This entails sending app resources to Google Play where everything is signed and distributed in split APKs. This is more convenient and results in smaller download sizes, but also means developers can't manually sign and distribute updates outside of the Play Store in an emergency.
It can become dangerous to hold updates for several weeks.
It's possible these incidents represent a relatively small portion of outliers, but that's still a group of developers that have established a professional relationship with Google and they should be able to get more information and feedback in the developer console and support channels.
Some people have suggested spending money to scale up the size of the review team, while others have proposed relaxing the rules or streamlining the process so each bug fix and listing change aren't thoroughly re-examined. Under the circumstances, many simply want more information about what is happening and a sign their apps haven't fallen through the cracks. A more informative review process wasn't strictly part of the promise of transparency made by Google nearly eighteen months ago, but developers would probably welcome it quite a bit under the circumstances.
We've reached out to Google for comment, but have not received a response.