If the rumours are true, tomorrow Apple will release a tablet device that runs the iPhone operating system. Like millions of other geeks, I'll be following Steve Jobs's keynote to see the big reveal.
But I'll also be watching for changes to the App Store, which has increasingly become the weak link in Apple's iPhone-iTunes ecosystem. At last count Apple had about 133,000 apps in the App Store--and that's a 50% increase from just a few months ago.
Many app developers were unhappy with their prospects in the App Store even before its explosive growth. Unless their applications are...
- featured by Apple (in the Staff Picks or New & Noteworthy sections),
- make it onto the App Store charts (the Top 50 free and paid apps lists), or
- get immediate traction on the newly released app lists
... developers may not get enough downloads to recover their investment.
The problem with the App Store is, fundamentally, a problem of information architecture: poorly designed categories, navigation, search, filters and aggregation mechanisms mean that all but a tiny fraction of apps will be lost in the sea. Finding any particular app within iTunes--unless you know it's exact name--will be like searching for a needle in a ever-growing app haystack.
A tablet device running the iPhone OS means a host of new apps, and additional pressure on the already strained IA of the App Store.
Consider this story from one app developer:
The problem started when Pickin’ Time was approved on October 9th. We’ve all been busy working on other projects, so we delayed the launch until October 27th by setting the availability date in iTunes Connect. That gave us time to get the website and other promotional materials finished.
Unknowingly, it also gave us plenty of time to shoot ourselves in the foot. iTunes uses the date of approval as the “release date”, not the day you set for availability.
The result is that there’s no sign of Pickin’ Time in any of the “new” application lists: the casual browsers aren’t finding the app. There’s none of the momentum that’s so important in the App Store.
It’s frustrating that success, after months of hard work, can hinge on something unknown and completely out of our control. The customers who have found the product, are leaving great reviews [iTunes link]. It’s not a question of the game’s quality, it’s a problem of being lost in quantity.
The problem is, in fact, much deeper than just findability. The App Store's poor information architecture has started a vicious cycle where developers compete on price and volume rather than quality.
The App Store's price wars are already well documented. The latest trend is single-serving apps: developers release multiple versions of the same app in an effort to gain visibility and increase revenue (by selling more copies of cheaper apps).
Take Your Mobile Apps Inc. as an example: instead of releasing one quality e-reader, it has more than 1000 public-domain books as apps. Some are free, many are 99 cents or $1.99. Or there's EVOLENS Productions, which offers nearly 200 celebrity reference applications for 99 cents each. (Want to know all about Judge Judy? There's an app for that.)
Single-serving apps might help a developer make short-term sales but they exacerbate the App Store's fundamental problem: its design doesn't scale. And over time they make the marketplace worse for everyone.
Single-serving apps are also part of strategy where developers can dominate the default first page positions for a particular category by releasing all of their apps on the same day. Just yesterday (January 25) Your Mobile Apps inc. released more than 60 "apps". Evolens dumped 50 of its products into the App Store on January 21.
You can't blame the developers entirely--the design of the App Store rewards this kind of high-volume, low-value behaviour.
What can Apple do?
I'll be watching Apple's announcement tomorrow to see what improvements they make to iTunes. But if I were at Apple, this is what I'd focus on:
- Dedicated Search. The App Store needs a dedicated search engine--the intermingling of app results with movies, music and TV shows in the iTunes no longer makes sense. Apps are a different kind of search problem.
- Search Filters. Along with dedicated search, the App Store needs search filters to let users narrow their choices by price, rating, recency and other factors.
- A Real Product Taxonomy. The App Store has 20 categories, and only one category (Games) has sub-categories. Some of these categories contain nearly 20,000 apps, with only rudimentary paging and sorting controls for navigation. What the App Store needs here is a real taxonomy for apps that can be integrated with search, and tied to its charts, editorial selections, and recommendation engine. A taxonomy will not only make it easier to browse the store, it can bring order to the other navigation systems within the App Store.
- Stronger algorithmic and user-generated recommendations. Jeff Bezos once described Amazon.com as a "discovery engine"--and part of the company's core strength is that it's really good at helping you find other media you might be interested in. Apple needs to take this same approach to the app store by offering more algorithmic recommendations and creating more opportunities for users to share their favourite apps (e.g. iTunes' celebrity playlists or Amazon's lists).
- Better navigation controls. Does someone at Apple really expect me to navigate through 933 pages of apps one by one? Paging, sorting, filtering--these controls are essential when people are navigating a large (and growing) volume of information.
But the most radical change Apple could--and should--make is to free the App Store from the shackles of iTunes.
The App Store should be part of the web.
It may make sense to purchase movies, music and TV shows within iTunes, because all of those things are consumable inside iTunes. But the App Store won't flourish if it's trapped inside a media player.
This is where Apple needs to look at Amazon and YouTube. Amazon has a great internal structure--a deep product taxonomy, strong search engine with filterable results, well-organized product pages. But part of Amazon's success is how it connects to the web at large. It has dramatically improved it's search engine optimization in the last few years, and its affiliate programs encourage links back to the Amazon store. There is an external structure to Amazon as well--the network of sites that link to product pages--that helps people discover products. And these external structures also help Amazon tap the long tail of niche products it offers.
The internal structure of YouTube is, I would argue, nearly as bad as the app store. But the whole web is driving traffic to YouTube and helping people discover interesting video content. The web itself provides a scaffolding that lets YouTube get away with poor internal information architecture.
The App Store as it currently exists will never have a robust external structure simply because it so difficult (and counter-intuitive) to link to iTunes. iTunes is strangling the App Store.
Will Apple make any of these changes?
We'll see tomorrow, and over the next few months, whether Apple is going to fix the App Store. If the new tablet is indeed an app-centric device, I bet they will.
If they don't start to make changes they face some strategic issues. One is losing developers to other platforms that are more financially rewarding. The other is losing consumers who would rather choose from a smaller selection of high-quality applications.
And there's also the lost value today--how many more apps would people buy if the App Store made searching and browsing easier? It's hard to price a lost opportunity. But given that the App Store is now a multi-billion dollar marketplace, a one percent increase in sales would mean tens of millions of dollars in increased revenue annually.
Posted in Opinions on January 26, 2010blog comments powered by Disqus