In six years Apple’s App Store has turned into a massive business.
In 2013, it did $US10 billion in gross revenue. For context, Facebook did just under $US8 billion revenue in 2013. In an average month, there are 2 billion apps downloaded.
And yet, the App Store is in many ways a mess.
We spoke with a dozen developers about the current state of the App Store. They say that as it’s ballooned to 1.2 million apps, Apple has been slow to innovate. The App Store is basically the same as it ever was.
The number one complaint we heard over and over again was that the search process was broken in the App Store.
“The App Store is still broken in terms of discovery,” said Ouriel Ohayon, CEO and founder of app discovery and promotion platform AppsFire, and former editor of TechCrunch France. “The App Store is a huge catalogue that has been able to grow the ecosystem. But the reality is that most developers still struggle to find the right engaged user, and most users still struggle to find the right app.”
Fixing the App Store is not a trivial matter. Developers are getting ~$7 billion per year from Apple’s App Store. Their livelihood depends entirely on the success of their application in the App Store.
From Apple’s perspective, it needs to keep developers happy lest they run to Google and the Play Store. As Apple competes with Android, one of its key advantages is the the ability to retain developers who are making brilliant mobile applications. Without those people, Apple risks losing the platform war to Android.
We reached out to Apple for comment on this story, but didn’t get a response.
Search And Discoverability
“Search in the app store currently sucks,” said Erez Pilosof, the developer behind Hop. Hop is an email app that reorganizes email into a chat-like messaging format. “If you search for Hop in the App Store, you get lots of stuff that isn’t remotely connected to email. Something in the search is really weird and is not working. Apple should be able to be smart enough to put some context into search.”
We tried searching for Hop, and the first result was Doodle Jump. It took us 23 swipes before we landed on the Hop email app.
It’s not just smaller apps like Hop that are hurt by the App Store’s weak search functionality.
When Facebook’s new Snapchat competitor Slingshot launched, simply typing in “Facebook” wasn’t enough to bring up the app. Even though the internet was buzzing about the app, typing in “Slingshot” brought up multiple pages of apps related to the word, requiring users to flip past at least four pages to find the right app.
Today, when you type in “Slingshot” it’s the first result, but the ranking of results appear to rely mostly upon the overall number of downloads, giving little consideration to what’s hot or trending.
Apple has made attempts to fix this issue. In 2012, it acquired Chomp, an app search engine that allowed users to search for apps based on function and use instead of simply by name.
In 2013, Apple acquired data analytics firm Topsy, an official Twitter partner that has indexed hundreds of billions of tweets since Twitter’s launch. It is widely speculated that both Chomp and Topsy will be one day incorporated into Apple’s App Store search, but there hasn’t been any noticeable improvement yet.
Fixing how search works within the App Store is a tough issue to tackle. Due to the App Store’s sheer size, many apps share a similar name, spelling, or keyword, which makes sifting through pages of obscure and ageing apps a pain, especially when you have a specific app in mind.
“The term that’s gone around is App Store rot,” said David Chartier, head of marketing at AgileBits, the development team behind popular password management app, 1Password. “Some of the changes to Search are good, but they don’t address that problem well. Old apps shouldn’t be in the store anymore. Apps that haven’t been updated in the last X number of years, they could get a check or some notification that the developer needs to update their app in a given timeframe.”
Basically, it’s an issue of keeping things fresh and relevant for the user when they’re on the hunt for a new app.
“I think a little more contextual awareness could help,” said Chartier. “I’m not entirely sure how to solve that problem, but there are some pretty simple indicators — like when apps are gaining coverage in the media — that could help filter apps to the top.”
That said, Google indexes 30 trillion web pages. And it does a pretty darn good job, so Apple should be able to handle 1.2 million apps.
“The potential in terms of search is insanely, insanely powerful,” said Hillel Fuld, Chief Marketing Officer of team communications app Zula. “But contextual search is very weak … Apple should be able to understand my intention and surface that. Google is amazing at that on the web.”
Just as Google draws upon a user’s past search history to personalise search results, Apple could also introduce some sort of personalised recommendation feature that could directly feed into search, adding a wealth of context.
“What the App Store is missing is personalisation, an App Store that is right for each user,” said Ohayon. “They tried in the beginning with Genius, but it wasn’t being used and it was failing. Now they’re replacing it with Explore, but there is no way to get personalised recommendations.”
Amazon is a good example of a hybrid model combining curation and and personalisation that works well and isn’t annoying. Google has also integrated personalised recommendations into its Google Play app store — it’s the first thing users see when they open the app.
By not asking users which apps they like, Apple is missing out on tailoring the App Store experience to the individual user while simultaneously building a contextual framework for search.
Featured Content And Curation
One of the biggest problems with the App Store is that it uses a dated model for surfacing new applications.
On a podcast, Benedict Evans, partner at Andreessen Horowitz, had the perfect analogy for the current state of the App Store. He says it’s like what Yahoo used to be during the internet boom. Yahoo was just a page that updated when a new website came online. That seems like madness today, and yet it’s the exact model Apple has in place with the App Store.
The App Store’s Featured page is where Apple can highlight apps it deems well-designed and innovative.
Landing a spot on the Featured page is an instant boost in exposure and downloads, but there are plenty of beautiful and unique apps that are released that don’t get featured too. And since there’s no way to pay to be featured, it’s often tough for apps that don’t break into the top charts to not fall by the wayside.
It’s a problem often solved by creating a stunning app that’s engaging and innovative, but for fledgling developers and smaller teams without a history of feedback from Apple, it can be a tough code to crack.
Speaking with the development team behind the angle-drawing game, Angular, it became clear that developers would like a “Fresh” or “Trending” division of the Featured page solely for new developers.
“Fresh is more of a democratic system,” said lead Angular developer Adrit Lath. “If your app is good, it will make it to the top.
If there were some similar-staged process for the App Store, that would be great. I like that process of promoting good content.”
Apple has introduced an “Indie Game Showcase,” but this only focuses on one “popular” indie app and its development team; there’s still no space for new developers to call their own.
In 2010, Apple paid $US275 million for Quattro Wireless, a mobile advertising company. At the time, the idea was to provide an iOS-focused mobile ad network to make sure developers could make money on free apps. Google, with its expertise in advertising, was a threat to the App Store.
Apple had the right idea, but it never really committed to mobile advertising. Developers have gone other routes to advertise.
Big-time developers spend millions on advertising to gain visibility via social media, which increases exposure and leads to higher downloads and a movement up the App Store ranking. The paid app advertisements that show up in your Facebook or Twitter stream are a good example of popular ways for developers to promote their app.
Since fledgling startups usually have only a fraction of the marketing budget of established app studio, this makes it extremely difficult for indie developers to compete.
Apple could, and perhaps should, offer paid search listings in the App Store. It could, and perhaps should, offer paid slots on the front page, but developers with small budgets would be shut out by the big players.
In the absence of an easy, organic way to climb the charts, developers are going with alternative, less than ideal methods.
“What other shadier companies are doing — and this is really depressing — they pay people to rank the app,” said Hop developer Erez Pilosof. “You can spend literally $US5,000 and climb up the chart. I think Apple should fight that hugely, because it’s really really frustrating.”
Pilosof points out that the current expanse between obscurity and making the Top 10 or Featured list has driven developers to purchase fake 5-star ratings on the internet’s black market, which can bump an app high enough in the rankings to receive enough legitimate exposure to keep up.
It all goes to show that marketing, honest or dishonest, is now a huge aspect in determining which apps break into the spotlight, but with few avenues for recognition, it’s actually distracting development teams from what developers should be focused on: making the best possible app they can.
Storehouse co-founder and developer Mark Kawano, who was also Apple’s former design lead for iPhoto, disagrees with those overly concerned with marketing and gaining exposure, stating that app quality should remain the focus.
“Just focus on building the best app possible,” said Kawano. “Marketing and distribution is definitely something to consider, but from a bird-eye perspective, the best apps do surface still.”
That’s an idealistic view of the App Store. It’s also not uncommon to see apps shoot up the charts that make you scratch your head, such as “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood,” or joke apps such as Flappy Bird, Toilet Time, or Fatify, which are often downloaded and quickly deleted once the hype dies down.
In theory, the Top Charts should serve as ladder rungs toward a spot on the Featured page, but the combination of sillier viral apps and old-time favourites weighs the browsing experience down, and it’s just not a great way to discover apps that are raising the bar.
In the last six years, many users have foregone the App Store experience all together, relying on word-of-mouth through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to discover new apps, and that’s exactly what Apple should be afraid of.
The App Store should be as effortless and intuitive way to search the world’s apps, large or small, and a jumping off point like Google instead of the point-of-sale cash register it currently is.
No one doubts that Apple has ushered in the era of the app, but Ouriel Ohayon, AppsFire founder and former editor of TechCrunch France, says that there’s plenty of work to be done.
“The only thing that has changed in the App Store is that we went from 1 app to over 1 million apps,” said Ohayon.
It’s time for Apple to catch up.