Digital Device Ecosystem

Apple, Google and the App Store Responsibility

Andreas Pfeiffer | October 06, 2013

Major Points

Apps have become a major outlet for human creativity.

Current app stores focus on simple categorization and popularity of apps, but do not provide serious reviews, ratings and guidance in discovering apps we may not know about.

The monopolistic position of the key app store providers makes them responsible for providing sophisticated tools for researching and cataloguing the wealth of apps available.

It is quite remarkable to what extent big companies can have powerful product visions, yet fail completely to see the ramifications of their efforts down the line. One excellent example for this problem is the app store for smart-phones and tablets: introduced by Apple in 2008, with 500 apps, it is holding at latest estimates close to one million apps for iOS devices, and almost 400 000 that are optimized for tablets.
Apple’s efforts in the field were soon followed by the competition, with Google, Amazon and many smaller vendors opening app stores for Android. While reliable figures are hard to come by concerning Android apps —there is still no clear distinction between Android apps for phones and those optimized for tablets—it is likely that Google’s mobile platform is leading the market in terms of total numbers of apps available.

So where is the problem?

Let’s do the maths for a second: spread out over the five years of its existence, the total number of apps in Apple’s store would imply that there are over 500 app submissions every day – but since app development accelerated over recent years it is safe to assume that there are well over 1000 app submission taking place every day of the year.

During the five years that app stores have existed, something very significant has happened: apps have evolved from being small, widget-like utilities to becoming fully-fledged…. fully-fledged… What exactly? That is part of the problem: We do not even have a reliable definition any more of what an app is or does. From the utilitarian, widget-like nature of early apps, the genre has expanded beyond recognition in recent years.

Yet the app stores do relatively little to expose the wealth of apps. While there is probably a vast number of apps that are utterly forgettable, chances are that there are thousands of them that might be extremely useful/entertaining/educating, but which we have never heard of and never will.

Not that the app stores are particularly bad: the live up to their primary purpose, which is to get the owner of a device to discover apps he or she might feel like buying. None of the app store providers claim to be anything else than what they are: shop-owners trying to run their business in the most profitable way.

If only things were that simple…

If you are interested in music, books or movies – or any other field of human endeavour for that matter – you have an overwhelming array of ways to keep informed about your area of interest. The situation is quite different for apps: while there magazines, blogs and websites about apps, the sheer number of new entries appearing every day makes it literally impossible for outsiders to get a good grip of everything that is actually made available on the app stores. All one gets are endless lists of “most popular” and “highest grossing” apps, and a few forlorn staff-picks.

All this is fair business procedure, it would seem, until one starts to reflect on the function and the potential of an app store. If apps have become one of the most active fields of human creativity, it seems pretty obvious that there is an increasing need for cataloging, organizing, making discoverable the vast production that these mobile platforms have generated.

We are facing a serious issue here: of course, neither Apple nor Google can be expected to play Library of Congress for mobile apps just because they have created the operating system. Yet, at least in the case of Apple, the monopolistic approach the company takes to app-distribution puts it in a delicate role: if not Apple, who could possibly provide such a service? Who has the technical capability (let alone the funding) to deal with the problem I’m trying to outline here?

Even without going to vast academic visions of cataloguing and describing all apps (a truly herculean task it would seem) why is it that app stores have evolved so little since the early days? Sure, Apple’s app store is somewhat better than the ones provided by Google or Amazon, but that’s hardly a very impressive achievement.

Is it all just about the nature of commerce? That store-owners always display the best-selling items prominently is to be expected – they do need to pay the rent and the staff after all – but what is less obvious is that there is no way of drilling deeper into everything that is actually available. True, you can search, but search will only help you if you know what you are looking for. Of course there are apps designed to help app discovery, but that is beside the point. The truth is, that once you start thinking about it, you realize current app stores are frustrating: not because of what they are but because of what they could be.

Am I the only one to think that Apple and Google have a responsibility towards users—not to mention the developers!—to make the full wealth of their app stores somehow discoverable? That next to the enormous effort Apple puts into screening the thousands of weekly app submissions to make sure they adhere to their stringent (and sometimes questionable) standards, the company should provide a somewhat more impressive effort to list, describe, review, make discoverable all of the apps, not only the ones that through some stroke of arcane luck got traction with app store customers. Or are we terminally condemned to only discover what the most popular apps in a limited number of fields are?

There is a real long-term risk here, the risk of stifling a field of creation that has enormous potential, but that is bound to whither if there is no real chance for original, genre-defying apps to easily be discovered by its potential audience. This problem exists already today in the crowded market for magazine apps: increasingly, smaller or innovative magazine publishers are questioning their chances of getting any visibility at all in app stores.

What do you think? Do you share my frustration? Am I wrong to assume that app store providers should make a bigger effort?

Let me know what you think!


(First published October 6, 2013)