A PayPal Developer Challenge Experience

Update : I’ve put a list of 17 apps out of the current 54 which we believe don’t comply with the rules. You can find the list here.

Towards the middle of December 2009 I came across details of the PayPal X Developer Challenge, which is a contest to write apps using PayPals adaptive APIs. There were two prizes, one of $50,000 cash + $50,000 in PayPal fees, the other $25,000 cash + $25,000 in fees. At my company (Funky Android) we’d been trying out some ideas for a payments system, so it seemed like a good idea to enter.

We submitted the idea before the deadline stated in the challenge rules and began work on tidying up the proof of concept app we’d made so that we could submit it for approval by the 17th of January (which was the date PayPal had stated apps should be submitted for approval by). The 13th came around and we were putting some final touches to the app prior to submission and we received another Email from PayPal saying quite clearly;

In order to have your application approved before the contest submission deadline, you’ll need to request approval by Jan 17th

Which we did, only to receive an Email four days after the deadline saying that the submission deadline was being extended to the 31st of Jan…. yup, that’s a 2 week extension granted after the deadline had passed, which made the long sessions and weekends we’d spent look like a lot of totally unnecessary overtime.

At this point we were annoyed, but if that had been the only alteration to the rules we would have just taken it on the chin…… Unfortunately it wasn’t.

The deadline for the next step was the 14th of February, at which point, according to the rules, developers should have submitted the following;

– Link to the Application, which is fully functioning, and must have gone through the application submission process on www.x.com
– Entrants must submit a two minute video describing and promoting their Application. The video must comply with the following:
* Must show someone using the Application.
* Must contain no profanity and inappropriate language.
* Must be no larger than 7MB in size.

we released PortaPayments to the Android Market and AndAppStore on the 10th of Feb so we could get some feedback and ensure that there weren’t any nasty problems on some devices that may need fixing before the 14th.

By the 14th we had our video finished, and had a site which that included a link to the approved app and could be used in the ways shown in the video. We submitted all of this to PayPal and froze development to avoid allegations of post-deadline modifications.

The next phase (public voting) started over a week later (22nd of Feb) so we had a relaxed week knowing there was nothing more we could do… or so we thought.

On the 20th I received an email saying that PayPal may contact developers and let them make adjustments to their entries if PayPal thought they weren’t up to scratch (e.g. glitchy audio or if the developer had submitted corrupt files for videos).

This started ringing alarm bells; the rules were clear that entries were suppose to be completed by the 14th. Call me harsh if you will, but to me, if the video had glitchy audio or was corrupt when the deadline passed then that’s what should be judged, and developers shouldn’t get extra breaks just because they couldn’t organise themselves to comply with the rules.

On the 22nd I received an Email from PayPal saying that voting was starting that day and provided the official voting URL, which was great as we’d got some PR plans ready to roll.

So before voting started I thought I’d check out the what else had been entered and the alarm bells went from loud to roaring.

Several apps were missing links to live sites, some apps had no video, and some of the “live” sites linked to seemed to be little more than place holders where you’d get an error if you tried to register despite the video for the entry saying you could register, download, and use their product from their site.

By this point not only were the alarm bells roaring, we were starting to feel like we’d been penalised in terms of development time just because we’d stuck to the rules.

I contacted PayPal to raise these issues and got a detailed response which caused the alarm bells to explode. The response included;

Some teams submitted their applications in a timely manner, but involved complexities that prevented us from approving them before today. If our compliance, legal, and risk teams approve their apps during the voting period, we will add them to the voting list, so you may see the number rise a little more.

Which appears to go completely against the rule stating apps “must have gone through the application submission process on www.x.com” by the 14th. We have seen signs that PayPal have been adding new entries into the finalists list because the total number of apps went from 50 to 51 on the 22nd, and then went up to 54 on the 23rd.

In relation to one specific example we provided were told;

….. is approved with live credentials in our system; we’ll follow up to check on why their site suggests that it is pointing at a sandbox implementation.

Which means goes against the rules stating that by the 14th the submission needed to contain a “Link to the Application, which is fully functioning”.

Another specific example we gave of a place holder site where you couldn’t register let alone do what the promotional video showed. The response from PayPal was;

…’s site appears functional, and they are live/approved in our system. It does not appear that they have apps on board leveraging their product. That doesn’t make them ineligible though.

which seems to skip over the part about the entry not providing a link to an “Application which is fully functional” website, but does appear to acknowledge that they don’t have any method of users using their product. (and yes, I did try it again after receiving the email and you still couldn’t register).

We were getting pretty frustrated and annoyed that PayPal seemed to be simply ignoring their own rules and giving other developers extra time and tips. The only reason for this we could think of was that PayPal wanted to increase the number of entrants, and the only way they could do this was to help developers who would have been excluded from the competition if they had enforced the rules.

But then things started to get even worse.

Despite the Email being sent by PayPal on the morning 22nd saying that voting would begin that day… it didn’t (I know because at 10:30pm I gave up waiting for the “voting has started” email).

During the 22nd the “official voting link” stopped working, which meant even if voting did start users wouldn’t have been able to vote.

And then PayPal informed everyone that votes submitted using a direct-to-entry-page link may not be counted, even though the page for each entry was a static URL and many developers (including us) had circulated these direct to app links to help people find where to vote.

All of which caused us to go from annoyance to despair.

So, where are we now…

* I received a “voting has started” email at 2:30am GMT on the 24th of Feb which says they’ve gone back to the original voting link.

* Who knows how many votes have been (and will be) lost because of the inability to use direct-to-entry links, and the requirement that users navigate the competition site to try and find the app they want to vote for.

* The current count of finalists is 54, meaning that 4 new entries have been added since the “voting starts today” email was sent yesterday, so who knows how many others will be added after voting has started.

* By our reckoning 17 of the 54 apps (over a 1/3rd of them) don’t comply with the rules, and 3 of those are like PortaPayments in their use of scanning as a central part of their idea, yet don’t provide a link to a fully functioning scanning app.

For us it’s been a really eye-opening experience, and one that we probably would look to avoid in the future.

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