Hey Eddy Cue, Apple, its time to fix the App Store

Apple [AAPL] is pretty proud of the App Store, which has generated billions of dollars for third party developers -- but past success is no reason to be complacent today.

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Improve App discovery

Take app discovery: Developers spend money building their apps, lots of money -- sometimes it costs millions to create that software. They work hard, engage a PR firm, try to buy drinks for the right people and attempt to get their app noticed by the public. Only to find out they have released their app in the same week as another firm ships one…

The competing app doesn't need to be in the same category, it just needs to be one which, for whatever reason, all the taste gatekeepers of the app review press decide to gush about. They talk about the second app, but skip the first. The more widely discussed app hits the market at number two on the app store, the other app hits number eleven or lower.

That's death to developers. Sure, everything is hunky-dory when you manage to get your app into the top ten apps on the App Store, but as soon as you slip from that position your sales shrink dramatically until they stop.

Did you recoup your millions? Probably not -- but on Apple's App Store there's always a chance you might.

It's not just Apple: Android developers face development hell.

Android isn't better

Not only is there not one clear market leading app store, but there's the need to test apps against a growing number of devices and different display resolutions.  This makes development even more expensive -- remember: we're already talking millions to develop for Apple's far more unified platform.

Not only this, but with the majority of Android devices still running ancient versions of the OS, developers need to focus on those features supported by the most available OS, rather than use those introduced in the latest Android edition. They develop for a platform that effectively runs as a dictatorship of the average, most users can't access the latest technologies. That's even before developers -- particularly of any apps involved in curating personal information -- begin to consider security.

This is why many app developers prioritise development for Apple's platform, are interested in Windows, and tackle Android last of all.

At least in a space in which all things are equal, but things are not equal.

Apple, be realistic

A source let me know that Macworld Expo was interesting for iOS developers this year. Why? Because Samsung was playing another of its tricks: that company is alleged to have been wandering round the show floor offering iOS developers cold hard cash to port their apps to Android.

It has to be a lot of money. Why? Because Android users have been raised into a culture in which free apps predominate. They don't pay for software, they have been and are being taught that software should be free.

This is why so many developers already offer in-app purchases within their apps, while those that don't probably have a plan to introduce them within the next 18-months or so. Cash is king, so developers work in a similar fashion on Apple's platform -- there's good money locked inside in-app purchase.

Then there's the emergence of data silos: A lot of people with app ideas are touring round the VC companies these days. Their bid is simple: "Invest in us, we have a plan to offer users useful features, but the eventual plan is to lock them into our app. We will own their data."

Users be warned

There are a lot of people who argue Apple does this within its iTunes media system. They are only part right: video and books are sold on condition they are protected by DRM; music these days is made available in an open format. Apple uses FairPlay DRM, which protects music and movie purchases.

However, other media stores also shroud such purchases in DRM -- just a different form of DRM. It seems specious to argue about what DRM system is used: the movie and publishing industries need to be convinced to abandon rights management. Only then will any of this content be truly "open" on any platform.

What seems likely to happen on both mobile platforms dwarfs the iTunes criticism of "closed". It will involve useful freemium apps you don't want to live without, apps which a little later down the line you realize are storing your information within a proprietary format and which do no allow you to export your data into a different system.

They will then begin to exploit their command of your data by offering you new features for a fee, one of which might be the facility to export your data elsewhere. You'll pay more for the export than you ever would have done for the app. You'll see this happen on all mobile platforms.

None of this is grounds for complacency for any mobile device user.

Expect weird statistics

Returning to iOS, Apple needs to take an honest look at the state of the apps market. It can't rely on past success as a measure of future achievement. It needs to improve its offering for developers. It need to ensure that what it offers developers (and users) is the best app store in the business.

With competitors wandering through the ecosystem offering big bucks to port apps to other platforms (cherry picking the best and the brightest as they do, while making no actual effort to foster new developers or to invest in new ideas), Apple needs to wake up.

It is essential that Apple improves app discovery. If it does so it should effectively raise the value of its ecosystem and make development pay. This will help those developers investing millions in their projects to recoup their cash; it will also stimulate long-term development projects. Even more important, it is likely to have the effect of making apps on iOS even more profitable. Another positive side effect of such a plan would be to make it more costly for Apple's savage competitors to pay for ports.

Apple needs to consider what the effect of the pay for ports attack will be on mobile app development statistics in future. It means we can expect a rash of reports citing the number of apps available on Android has grown; it will limit the unique nature of the store. It will also be reported out of context -- reporters will gush about the now thriving Android development market and skip the notion that where Apple's market grew voluntarily, Android's was boosted by pay to plays. The effect of such reportage will be to further dent one of the cornerstones of Apple's marketing message in support of its platform.

Adding credibility to App Store reviews

There's another big problem with the App Store: reviews. At present a developer cannot respond to critical reviews. That's insane, as we all know how mean competitors and people can be. A right to reply seems reasonable.

Another feature that should be implemented within App Store comments is buried in the Disqus system used here. If you click on a name you can see what else the commenter has been writing.

I use this frequently to sift through comments to my posts. I try to ascertain if a commenter is just someone who slams every Apple-related story they come across, or if they seem a genuine person who has a wider interest in technology. I trust people who read comments do the same, as it can help determine how much faith to give a commenter. We all try to separate intelligent debaters from those who like to (or are paid to) troll.

I believe App Store comments would also benefit from this. At present it's far too easy for someone with a grudge or a competitor trying to undermine another to leave one star negative comments on App reviews. These can have a dramatic impact on app sales, particularly because developers are denied the right to post an official response.

I don't believe enabling such comment features would constitute a scientific endeavor of spaceship construction complexity, really I don't: it shouldn't be rocket science.

Do you have hidden treasure?

What I'm saying is this: Apple cannot rest on its laurels when it comes to the app ecosystem. Improving app discovery isn't just a luxury item -- it is perhaps one of the most important things it needs to do.

I'd like to help raise a little attention for App Store undiscovered gems, those apps which were great but then disappeared without trace. As such I'm appealing for app developers to let me know about their apps.

  • These must be great apps, now "lost", with a backstory.
  • I'd rather hear from developers than media reps.
  • I can't promise to respond to everyone.
  • Please drop a line initially via Twitter.

I hope to publish a regular collection of Apple App Store Hidden Treasures in response to these contacts. I hope this is of use to developers and of interest to some readers.

Meanwhile Apple needs to improve the App Store, though I do note iCloud development -- while complex -- continues to be quietly improved. I suspect it will be far easier in a few weeks.

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when these items are published here first on Computerworld.

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