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The Shameful, Shabby, Sorry State of the iOS App Store

The Shameful, Shabby, Sorry State of the iOS App Store

When I look at a lot of the software in Apple's App store, I'm surprised it ever saw the light of an iPhone screen. Some developers seem to expect that their apps will magically catch on simply by appearing on Apple's roster, which is ridiculous. It takes a great deal of marketing effort. But that still doesn't excuse Apple for the thoroughly shoddy condition of its App Store.

It seems to me that there is a sort of constant, low hum going on about app developers complaining about the challenges of getting their apps visible on the Apple App Store. In the past, there have even been illicit services and bots designed to constantly download free apps and game Apple's ranking system, running up numbers and putting wares into the store's Top 10 list, where they'll be seen and downloaded by real people. I think this grumbling murmur has been going on since about three months after the App Store launched.

One of the more recent grumblings came courtesy of a GigaOM article, "App Store Infested With Zombie Software, Claims Analytics Startup Adeven." According to a new tool Adeven created, there could be 400,000 apps that get no downloads, are essentially invisible to users, and get no rankings. Aside from the difficult metaphoric stretch to the word "zombie" in the headline, it should not be surprising that most apps don't get downloaded much at all. The article then went on to suggest that the App Store doesn't have proper search and if your app isn't in one of the top listings, then it's really tough to be discovered.

In some ways, this is just more railing on the App Store from a developer perspective where the App Store is the answer to marketing apps.

Know Your Customer, Know Your Market

To me, it's about 30 percent valid. The other 70 percent? That falls solely on the shoulders of the app developers. If you're going to build and sell something, it's your job to not only understand your consumer, but figure out how to market to your consumer and get them to buy.

If you're betting all your time and effort on a plum location in the middle of 650,000 apps or so, and you've based your hopes on the whims of the largest consumer tech company in the world, you're misguided at best, if not astoundingly naive. Personally, I was pretty close to pulling the trigger on building an app with some buddies of mine, but it became increasingly clear that there was no way we could effectively market to a fractured group of consumers in order to sell -- or even offer for free -- our app.

Was it a great idea? Definitely. Could it be marketed cheaply and effectively? Not really. It would depend on lots of viral marketing, press releases, bugging bloggers, and then, maybe after a year, we'd penetrate our market and make a little money -- maybe a US$1.50 an hour if we were lucky.

When I look at a lot of the apps in Apple's store, I'm surprised they ever saw the light of an iPhone screen. And when I hear someone moaning about how hard it is to sell in the App Store, I just roll my eyes. App selling should happen everywhere else, and the App Store is just the conduit. Tossing all your eggs into a basket you can't control, let along hold, is just stupid. I get the impression that more than a few app developers get some pretty good ideas, get their apps built, then mostly sit back and hope it catches on. If it doesn't, this isn't Apple's fault, and it will never be Apple's fault.

Moving on.

So what is Apple's fault? An App Store that is built so poorly it should collapse under its own weight, and if we were lucky, create a black hole so that Apple would have to start over to build a new one.

The Terrible App Store

As a consumer, finding and discovering apps in the App Store is an exercise of luck and patience. In my mind, the process of finding an app through the App Store is so bad that I'm constantly amazed it hasn't been fixed. Or tweaked. Or made better. I hate it so much that I have to force myself to use it to go look for new apps. And this is during moments of down time when I've got nothing going on for 10 minutes.

Why is it so bad?

For starters, the top charts are almost useless. You can sort by the top paid apps, top grossing apps, or the top free apps, but what do you get? A massive list of apps that you've seen before ... and tons of games. For example, how many times do I have to see "DragonVale" or "Poker by Zynga" or "Where's My Water?" I haven't bought those apps and I never will buy those apps. Why can't I check a box next to them to hide them, presumably giving other apps a chance to fall into place? The same goes for apps that I've already bought.

Or how about letting me sort through the top paid apps, but exclude some categories? Like games. If I could exclude games, I'd wipe out a large chunk of clutter and get to see some really interesting apps. Or if I only wanted games and entertainment apps, I could exclude the other categories.

What if I want to look at business apps? I can go to the Business category, but then I end up seeing a bunch of foreign language apps, too. Where is the sort option to only show me apps in the languages I understand? If I can't read the language or understand the icon, the app is just clutter. Obviously this goes in all directions based on consumers around the world.

Apple's Bundles

Apple does try to create bundles of curated sorts of apps that fall into interesting or seasonal trends, like Visit London apps or Apple's Games Starter Kit. These are helpful, but only for about three minutes. Apple can't create enough categories and highlight them to keep your browsing abilities fresh.

The editor's bundles are good, they just aren't good enough.

How about search?

In my experience, if you know a specific app that you're looking for -- as in, you heard about the app somewhere else -- Search will find it. But if you're searching on a general topic, you just get gobs of results without any way to sorting them. In addition, you don't even know how many results are available. I just tried a search on "Elephants apps," and iTunes delivered up gobs and gobs of elephant apps. I had no idea that many even existed. So how many? I don't know. By the third page I stopped clicking. If you try to refine your search, you might get no results. I tried "Elephants game apps." What did I find?

In the fourth position, the app was "Best Sex Positions FREE." The seventh position was "Pimple Pop," and in the 12th position an icon of a cow udder for an app called "Milk It!" On the fourth line down, there's an app called "Sexy Positions FREE."

Really?

Something is broken here. Very, very broken.

Or there's something going with sex and elephants that I'm woefully unaware of. (Enlightened readers: If the answer isn't appropriate to public comments below, there's always email.)

But it's not just search. The App Store is a very limited one-way browsing experience. You can't compare apps. You can't open up multiple tabs like you can in a browser. You can add items to your Wish List, but that's a hard-to-find feature. There's no shopping cart. I tend to use shopping carts, by the way, as a holding spot for items that I'm considering. The App Store has no good holding spot.

I find all of this a travesty not because it's so bad but because it's something that Apple has the resources and capabilities to fix. I think Apple is smarter than this. This is the same company that can cram a computer into a phone and add a touchscreen ... and they can't create a usable virtual store?

When I'm not irritated as a consumer, I'm utterly baffled. And I keep hoping that Apple will fix it sometime soon. Maybe in September.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.


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