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Nearly a Million iOS Apps and Discovery Still Sucks

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 7, 2013 5:00 AM PT

There are well over 800,000 iOS apps in the App Store, 300,000 of which are native to the iPad, and I'm constantly surprised and irritated at Apple's inability to help its customers discover great apps. Of course, maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm the only one who actively goes into Apple's various App Store points of entry -- iTunes, iPad and iPhone -- only to walk away without downloading anything.

Nearly a Million iOS Apps and Discovery Still Sucks

I also spend more time online than I care to admit, tooling around the online Apple universe -- and still, it seems like I just get lost in app reviews and news of things like Temple Run 2, which more than 50 million people managed to find and download. Maybe really great apps are all being found, and that as I look and look and walk away vaguely dissatisfied, maybe there's something inherently wrong with me.

More Than Room for Improvement

Here's what I don't understand: Apple is a freakishly large company that's focused on creating the very best consumer experience. It has resources -- billions of dollars and very smart employees -- and it has a vision of excellence. All of the apps in the App Store have to be managed somehow, and they have to be managed with a database. Databases are pretty amazing things -- and yet, the front-end to the App Store is woefully dumb.

Let's consider iTunes. First, Apple seems to be trying to put humans behind the discovery effort by letting editors select "Editor's Choice" apps. They also showcase a couple dozen "New and Noteworthy" apps. Then there's "What's Hot" and other topical, pithy, or fun categories like "Awards Season" or "Great Game Soundtracks."

These curated app collections are pretty good. Apple does about as good a job at it as I can imagine. The company has to create tame collections that won't offend anyone, freak out parents, or be confusing to the masses.

Hide? Sort? Filter?

The search works pretty well if you know what you're searching for. Search is not really for discovery though. Search is not about browsing. We can sort by iPhone or iPad apps. That's handy. There are about two dozen categories we can sort through -- like education, finance, games and news. Each of these has a What's Hot and New and Noteworthy list. Plus, there are more Apple editor-curated lists, like High School Zone within the Education category.

Within these categories, we can sort of drill down into 200 of the Top Paid Apps, the Top Free Apps, and the Top Grossing Apps.

So why do I feel like I'm wasting my life as I search for amazing new apps? Is it that there really are only a few hundred great apps at any one time and that there are just hundreds of thousands of apps that are either irrelevant for most people or just so bad that no one wants them at all?

The sheer effort of managing nearly a million apps is hard for most people to grasp. It's not an easy challenge. Imagine owning a small retail store in a mall and trying to find a good way to display a few thousand products on just a single wall of shelves. Yet I think improvements are not only needed, but doable.

What could be some relatively easy fixes? What might be some solutions that wouldn't require a wholesale recreation of a new App Store?

Hide That App, Please

Some apps are immensely popular, but I know I'll never buy them and never download them. I will not download Clear Vision. I won't download Fruit Ninja. I am not going to play Scribblenauts Remix, and I'm not ever going to pimp my screen or call Elmo.

If I could click or tap on a little "X" button on their icons and hide them from my view -- effectively giving a dynamic Top 200 list more spots for interesting apps to slide up into -- I would be very happy. This alone would be a huge boon.

To amp up this notion just a little, how about the ability to hide all the apps you've already downloaded? Suddenly a Top 200 list would have a lot more relevance to you personally, would it not?

What if you could hide categories that you don't want to look for? Like Games. If you could hide all the crappy games designed to create habit loops of addiction in small children . . . that would free up a heckuva lot of app discovery real estate. I'd call this an Exclude feature.

Can't you already exclude Games by browsing through other categories? Yes, but the point is to be able to browse multiple categories at the same time while eliminating the categories you don't want, like Games, Weather, Catalogs and Navigation. I'm not buying any new navigation apps anytime soon. I have several apps that do what I need really well and I don't want others. Same goes for Weather. I'm sure other people wouldn't mind eliminating Finance or Sports while they're looking for something new and surprising.

App Store Search APIs?

Of course, you'd think that Apple might provide some APIs that would let third-party developers search Apple's App Store and provide results. Apples does through its affiliate programs, and there are app-focused websites that provide reviews and information.

From what I've seen so far, though, they all turn me off. They're astoundingly cluttered and seem to work hard at just pulling the same old information into their Web pages in the hope that someone will click through and they'll earn some sort of affiliate commission. Some have real reviews, but if you care about volume, this means you'll be running into an awful lot of game, game, game reviews.

Is there a website that lets you select truly useful filters to help you discover apps on a regular basis? Is there a site that lets you filter out the noise and generate a Top 100 list that doesn't have a single game on it? If so, I don't know where it is. It seems to me that the economic considerations of the app world make it tough for third parties to be successful in the world of app curation.

There are even apps that are supposed to help, and one I recently learned about shows promise -- Applr. It's basically a social media app that lets you discover new apps based on your friends' recommendations. Here's one of the pitch points from Applr: "Ever notice that most new and notable apps don't seem very relevant to you? With Applr, top applications come from your friends' recommendations. No kids with their mom's credit cards here!"

So Applr understands the problem, but do I want to create yet another account with a company? And trust yet another social media play?

Just 3 Features to Fix Most Problems

I'm convinced that Apple could make a vast leap forward with discovery if it just enabled three new features: Hide, Exclude and Save.

I mentioned Hide. Why can't we hide apps that irritate us? Makes total sense to me. Apple already makes me log in to iTunes. I already have an account and have shared my credit card number, address, email address and phone number. Apple knows who I am no matter what device I'm using.

I mentioned Exclude. Why can't we Exclude the cluttered categories like Games to let innovative apps in other areas percolate to the top?

And Save? How many times do you like the looks of an app (or movie or song) but aren't quite ready to download it? How many times do you want to evaluate a few different apps that do similar things . . . or aren't on WiFi and able to download them?

If I could very quickly tap on an app and throw it into a Save bucket (or shopping cart) or Super Duper Spot for Evaluation . . . I'd be quite happy. I could get into a discovery rhythm, browsing here and there, from category to category, and then later, when I have time to pay attention, I could look at apps that interested me previously. And then buy them.

Instead, I do the opposite. I repeatedly see things that I've already mentally rejected dozens of times. I see new apps like Pixel People that I will never ever click on to open. So I shy away from the App Store. I shy away from wading through 800,000 apps to find gems. I'm getting App Store fatigue, and it's harder to shake than a bad case of the stomach flu.

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 WickedCoolBite.com.

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