Daniel McKenzie

digital product design

MUSINGS ON DESIGN, TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE {STUDIO NOTES}

For those of us who make a living partly by selling mobile applications in Apple’s App Store, there’s been a lot of concern expressed on blogs and amongst developers about whether or not the App Store is a dependable resource. With over 65,000 apps and more than 100,000 developers, the general consensus is that Apple isn’t being as helpful as it could be in regard to both facilitating the app submission process and helping customers find apps.

With censorship and a recent refusal of a Google Voice app, the App Store hasn’t been without its controversies. It seems that Apple has been wrestling with the demands of developers and bloggers on one hand and the maintenance of their highly valued brand and business strategy on the other.

To try and address some of the issues on censorship of content, Apple has set up mandatory application ratings that work together with the iPhone’s restriction settings (Settings > General > Restrictions). They also have an unofficial approval process that includes the following:

The rejections of certain apps have caused the blogoshere to foam at the mouth and with the latest Google Voice rejection, some have even sworn to put down their iPhones until Apple changes its ways. While we would all like to see something as large as the App Store be as democratic as possible, Apple has no intention of letting go of the reins for a few rebel developers and for anyone following the Google-Apple marriage—the honeymoon is over. Unfortunately, in this case, Apple and AT&T’s business goals had to take precedent over their users’.

You won’t find a shortage of advice when it comes to App Store improvements. For the most part, it revolves around legitimate business concerns that effect developers and small businesses and can be summarized as follows:

1. “I have put countless hours and money into building an app for which Apple gives no guarantee if or when it will be published to the App Store.”

2. “The App Store is a massive black hole where I throw in my app, never to be found again.”

Issue #1 would be a concern for any entrepreneur. While most apps are approved in two weeks, building a product with no guarantee of entry into the only place where it can be sold, is risky business. This is even more critical for multi-person companies whose entire business depend on the success of their app. It also makes it extremely difficult for any PR planning. Not having a set launch date can hurt any much needed marketing efforts.

Apple provides developers an email for questions for their “App Review Team”, but with over 100,000 developers I’m skeptical that developers are receiving the feedback they need. Some developers are reverting to workarounds where they submit a prototype of their app with a launch date set far into the future. By doing this, they’re able to get a review of their app before spending more time and money on it. Nevertheless, they still end up waiting 2 weeks or more for feedback, putting a lull in their product schedule.

What’s needed is a better way for developers to get feedback on their apps before submitting it for approval. At the very least, Apple should have an FAQ blog to keep developers up-to-date with evolving standards. Clearer communication and more honesty on the part of Apple would help both parties save time and money.

The App Store as a big black hole seems to be the biggest problem facing developers, users, and Apple right now. Actually, it’s a black hole with a layer. The layer is the unbalanced promotion of gamer apps.

One blogger complained:

“Apple does not feature enough non-games in other categories in their “What’s Hot” and “New and Noteworthy” front page sections to incentivize other applications other than dollar games. A quick look in iTunes or in the App Store on an iPhone or iPod Touch will leave users the impression that Apple is all about games and not much else. We have run into this feeling from our customers who say their bosses are reluctant to let them buy software for their iPhones because they view them as toys. We’ve made the bet that the App Store is a better option than BlackBerry or Palm’s offerings but Apple needs to do more to demonstrate to professionals that it is for real.”

At last glance, the App Store home page promoted the following number of gamer apps:

  • 7 of 8 apps under “New and Noteworthy”
  • 8 of 10 for “Top Paid Apps”
  • 6 of 10 for “Top Free Apps”
  • 6 of 8 for “What’s Hot”

Everyone knows games are by far the most popular apps anywhere but unless you’re a gamer, promoting them so heavily on the home page isn’t useful and creates the perception that the App Store is mostly about games. The solution might be to create a separate “Game Store” (and possibly other stores for big categories such as books) that levels the playing field and provides more space for others to promote their apps at the home page level.

Another issue is the pricing structure. Charles Wolf of Needham & Company noted in his analysis of Apple’s July earnings report, “In some respects, the App Store has taken its place alongside YouTube, where poor taste is the defining metric. More ominously, it has led to a deterioration of the entire pricing structure for iPhone applications. The risk is that developers who hope to build quality applications that have a long shelf life may be discouraged from doing so because prospective development costs exceed the revenues they expect to earn on the applications. In short, this race to the bottom has the potential to degrade the overall equality of the applications sold at the App Store.”

Ge Wang of Smule Ocarina fame commented that he would “like to see a top app list that counted revenue instead of straight downloads, something he said would encourage more premium applications.” In short, there needs to be some way in which quality apps can rise to the surface and be discovered despite the possibility of having a more expensive price tag. Apple is in danger of becoming a receptacle for bad apps that cheapen the Apple brand and cover up more valuable applications like Wang’s Ocarina. Wang’s suggestion is a good one and could be taken a step further by creating a “quality” list based on not only revenue but also on user ratings.

Some other suggestions for the App Store include:

  • Adding a Genius sidebar to the user’s Library Applications screen
  • Making the App Store more similar to the Amazon.com experience with top reviewers, “Listmania!”, save to wish list/bookmark and a personalized homepage based on search results and purchase history
  • Stop the proliferation of “Lite” versions by allowing apps to run for a specified amount of time
  • Allow sellers to integrate an App Store module for purchasing apps on their own web site so developers and companies can offer their customers a more customized experience and better promote their other products.
  • Replace “Staff Favorites” on the App Store homepage with something more meaningful like “Killer Apps” or “Genius Just For You”
  • Give users the ability to filter search results
  • Provide developers a better method for demoing their apps from the App Store. For example many developers like to publish video of how their app works which usually results in dark, out-of-focus YouTube videos. Apple could come up with a method for easily creating animated demos, giving developers an opportunity to show user flows and specific screen details in a coherent and unified way.


 

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