Five years ago, the iTunes App Store kicked off business with a few hundred apps sorted into around 20 different subject areas.
Today, our favourite app store has an organisation problem. Every week for the past five years, thousands more products have arrived, and every week they’ve been dumped into the same 20-odd categories.
The result? The handful of apps in each area has mushroomed into a towering pile of merchandise, impossible for any individual shopper to sort through.
The Music category? Over 30,000 apps. The long-standing Entertainment category? A looming mass of over 100,000 apps. On its fifth anniversary, App Store festivities are tempered by the fact that most apps are buried so deep, few shoppers ever see them.
There’s no doubting the App Store’s success. With over 50 billion downloads and billions in revenue, the App Store is still defining a new economy. But its success is not evenly distributed. Whereas some app developers make millions, most struggle to get by. According to the Wall Street Journal, the majority of app developers (65%) make less than $35,000 annually. With hundreds of thousands of registered iOS developers, only 80 apps in the last financial quarter exceeded a million dollars in revenue. And the poorly-distributed nature of app success shows little sign of change: in 2013, the top app developers list contained only 2% newcomers (Distimo.)
The uneven distribution of developer success is really no surprise, given the Store’s lack of organisation. All of the featured apps and popular apps put together make up less than 0.5% of the apps actually available — the rest are buried. The Pile Problem is even reflected in the distribution of user ratings: while a few popular apps have millions of user ratings each, 70% of apps have 10 or fewer ratings, and over 30% have too few ratings for any to be reported. We like our apps, but we mostly see the popular apps; this means that they stay popular, and other, possibly superior apps stay buried in the pile where they landed.
The Pile Problem isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s the default position of a merchandising system that lacks visibility. Five years in, there’s enough merchandise that no individual shopper can grasp it all, so they grasp at what’s immediately visible. Nobody planned it this way: this is just what happens when the vast majority of products aren’t easy to find.
What about search? If you know what you’re looking for, text-based search can reach into the pile and grab some relevant apps. But what if you don’t know what to ask for? What about those apps that you know you’d like, if only you knew to look for them? And Recommendation Engines? Yes, they can recommend unknown apps, but they often just don’t know enough about you to find what you’d like.
The App Store has got to be one of the greatest collections of individual technological solutions ever created. It’s a huge asset to all of us, as well as to Apple. But despite its success, its five-year anniversary is tinged with regret: too many good apps are victims of their own invisibility, lying buried, unused, and unknown.
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