Last summer, I wrote a piece about the iOS App Store around its fifth anniversary arguing that it may well be Apple’s best service ever. More recently, it has been argued that the Smartphone App Wars are over and that Apple has won.
App Store sales reached an incredible $10 billion in 2013 and Apple has now paid out over $15 billion to app developers since the App Store’s inception in 2008.
But, as invaluable and utterly irreplaceable as it may be, it is still far from perfect and shows some clear room for improvement, especially for end users.
It would be difficult to discuss the App Store at the moment without mentioning Flappy Bird. The game soared to the top of the charts, made $50k a day, and was subsequently pulled in a flash, it has led to an influx of copycat apps that essentially rip-off Flappy Bird’s gameplay in order to try emulate its popularity (not that Flappy Bird was the most original of games, but that’s another discussion entirely). The apps riding on Flappy Bird’s wave were hoping to be discovered through searches for Flappy Bird, often adopting the words “Flappy” and/or “Bird” in their app name in the hopes that this would drive downloads. Apple even began to crackdown on these rip-offs by not approving apps with “Flappy” in the title.
This isn’t a new problem, apps have often leveraged other apps’ popularity or been inclined to incorporate features from each other, but Flappy Bird has certainly brought the issue to the fore in an unprecedented way. Some developers have also taken to some nefarious means to cash in on this and, while this is not as much of a problem in Apple’s “closed” app ecosystem as it is on other application markets, it’s not great for end users.
Regardless, these junk apps now render the Top Charts almost entirely useless. If you’ve looked at the top 10-20 apps at any point over the past few weeks, you’ll know exactly what I mean and that is not good for app discovery which impacts badly on consumers and developers alike.
App Store search
The App Store now has over 1 million apps. Finding the one you’re after, or the best one to suit your needs, is not always as straight forward as it perhaps should be.
Sure, there may be some behind the scenes goings on compensating for misspelled searches and Apple has tried to make some useful design changes following its acquisition of Chomp but finding apps is still not all that easy through search.
If you’re searching for a specific app name, it may not be so bad – type “Evernote” and your first hit is exactly what you’re after. Same with “Facebook”, “Instagram” and so on. That’s great for those who know exactly what they are after by name, but what about those searching for a note-taking app or a shopping list app or a run tracking app? They are presented with a bunch of results and the first hit might not be the best app at all and the user then has to work to find the app that best suits their needs.
The search interface, particularly on the iPhone, in my opinion, was also hampered by its redesign – the card-like interface which shows on app at a time with a full screen shot is not so intuitive when searching for a broad term and swiping through results (a list makes much more sense in this case).
Tech fans might not see this as an issue – usually we know exactly what app we’re looking for, or get to the app from a tweet or a link we see, rather than searching for a vague term. But for a number of iOS users, App Store search is their first stop for finding an app and it could use some improvement. Perhaps this could come in the form of app popularity, reviews and ratings being incorporated and influencing results in order to provide users with the best options for them. There is also a lot of data tied to your Apple ID and your previous app purchases that could help inform this process.
Overall, Apple should put some effort into taking some of the leg-work out of app discovery for users. I am sure Apple is aware of the problem, and I bet the company is acutely aware that it will only get worse as the App Store’s catalog of apps continues to grow. I certainly hope App Store search is improved in the near future.
Editor’s Choice, Curation and Categorization
Apple also updates the App Store weekly with a new Editor’s Choice, Free App of the Week and new curated lists and app collections in an effort to keep App Store content fresh and show users the wealth of apps available. Apple is doing a decent job with this and sections displayed on the front page are usually full of useful apps.
However, I think that this could certainly be built upon and improved. Firstly, these curated sections are not available in search which I feel would make discovery much easier. If I have not seen that Apple has curated the best journalling apps and I go ahead and search for “journalling app”, I will not be presented with that curated selection in the search results when it would so obviously be perfect for me – I have to go out and find that section on the App Store home page.
The curated lists by App Store editors are also only available temporarily. One week may feature a “Shopping Apps” collection, and the next it may be gone and can not be found again. Perhaps these lists should remain available at all times (which would be especially great if they were discoverable through search).
Further, I feel Apple could update the App Store more than once a week. I know it’s probably a time consuming process curating content and negotiating deals for Editor’s Choices but at times, when I venture into the App Store, I just wish it had been updated since my last visit. There are thousands of great apps that could be featured, with apps being added and updated every day, why doesn’t the App Store front page reflect this?
Top Charts and Recommendations
As I mentioned earlier, the Top Charts are not the most effective tool for discovering the best apps. Sure, it’s a great place to go and see what apps are popular right now. However, an app’s popularity (especially for those that have managed to game the system and inflate their chart position) is not always a direct reflection of its quality. Yet, seeing an app in the top 10 can certainly prompt many users into downloading it.
There should be a way for Apple to offer up apps by incorporating app popularity with its reviews and ratings to more effectively promote apps that excel in quality and not only in quantity of downloads.
Apple used to make an effort to recommend particular apps to users through its Genius feature which was scrapped in iOS 7 for Near Me functionality. Genius, although by no means perfect, was a good place to find similar apps to those you already used or those used by people who used apps you already own. In my opinion, Apple took a step back when removing this feature and I feel it should have been developed upon as it could have been a really powerful and useful tool for app discovery. Apple has kept the ‘Related’ tab on each app’s individual listing but the functionality this offers is not on par with Genius (generally, it simply shows other apps by that particular developer).
Although I didn’t use Genius in the App Store often, I can safely say I got more use from it than I have from the Near Me feature (which remains zilch).
App Store trials
The lack of the ability to offer limited time, free trials in the App Store has been an ongoing debate that has existed almost as long as the App Store itself. Many blame the race to the bottom in pricing and the rise of the ‘freemium’ model on the lack of app trials in iOS.
Some developers have opted to offer a free download of their app, with additional features unlocked through in-app purchases. Others have taken to offering a separate, free (or Lite) version of their app with various limitations, giving the user a feel for what the full, paid version operates like.
App Store trials would potentially eliminate the need for both of these business models. Allowing developers to offer a trial, wherein the app is downloaded and fully functional for a limited time period, before becoming non-functional or being deleted altogether, would take the risk out of spending a few dollars on an app. It would also, again, take some of the leg-work away from consumers who would no longer have to scout out app reviews or visit the developer’s website in order to decide if this app is indeed worth the price – they can simply download it, try it for a short period of time before being prompted to purchase it if they want to continue to use it.
The implementation of trials is probably no trivial matter, though, which is perhaps why we still haven’t seen trials on iOS. How long would the app be available to the user for? How would it become non-functional?
Trials are also open to user abuse, perhaps. Imagine you need an app to quickly add your signature to a PDF document. You get an app capable of this on trial, use it for five minutes to complete your task, know you’ll never need it again so do not respond to the prompt to purchase it. That developer has just lost a couple of dollars. With the amount of apps on the App Store that offer similar functionality, you could probably get away with using trials of different apps for the same purpose for quite some time, too.
Personally, I don’t know if trials would help or hinder the iOS App Store experience. Part of the genius of the App Store is the way in which it has made the downloading of software so easy. You find the app you want, download it and then it is there for you to use. Adding trials creates an extra layer of complexity that may confuse or just put off some mainstream users.
What do you think would most improve the iOS App Store? Do you feel it is functional enough already or would you like to see some changes in the future?