The App Store: Curation For All

Discovery on the App Store is a hot topic amongst the Apple geek community that seems to flare up two or three times a year, generate intense discussion, and then fade away until next time. The continuation of this cycle is a worrying trend because it highlights the fact that nothing is really getting better. However much or however little Apple is doing behind the scenes hasn't made finding great apps for your iPhone and iPad any easier.

To a certain degree it's understandable, nobody has ever tried to serve up a menu of 1.2 million apps before quite like Apple is trying to, it's a tough problem with sheer awesome scale. The worry isn't that this problem exists, it is — after all — inevitable to some degree, the worry is that it's 2015 and nothing seems to have gotten better throughout the entire existence of the App Store. In fact things seem to be getting worse. To the naked eye Apple's acquisition of Chomp only seemed to result in the implementation of a "cards style" system for displaying Apps (introduced in iOS 6) which made browsing the App Store even less convenient. Thankfully this was later canned, but the replacement differed little from that of the inaugural browsing system, other than displaying more information up front, and to this day the acquisition of Chomp now seems like it was a fruitless exercise. A recent piece by Ged Maheux (hat tip: Marco Arment) really put this problem in perspective. Ged's simple search for 'Twitter' threw up results dominated by apps with no relation or a merely tenuous relation to twitter, along with a whole host of spam apps. This undermines the iOS platform as well as Apple's rhetoric of "It just works"™ simplicity. It also makes them look like hypocrites in a world where they're rejecting apps for using public APIs that would make the lives of users easier, despite them being unable to get their own house in order. What does it say about Apple that they can't even optimise search results effectively on their most important software platform for something as culturally ubiquitous and widely used as Twitter? That doesn't sit right with me, certainly won't sit right with developers, and shouldn't sit right with Apple themselves.

In the face of this, tech geeks like myself (and possibly you) have found a reliable, albeit detached, workaround for app discovery. We're using fantastic web sources like MacStories, The Sweet Setup, and iMore to find new, interesting, useful, and innovative apps for our devices, and what's more we're doing so with success. This workaround — whilst not ideal — is serving us pretty well, but it's not a solution for everyone. In order to use these sources to discover new apps you first need to discover the sources exist at all, it's yet another barrier to entry for the vast majority of people who aren't super nerdy about their technology and just want to be able to use their iPhone to the best of it's potential without any hassle. Not too much to ask, is it? So with all that in mind, I started wondering: rather than trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to app discovery, is there a way to bridge the gap between these web sources and 'regular' people?

Now, while I don't think I've completely cracked it, I do think I have an idea that would significantly improve the situation for millions of iOS users. What if Apple could bring these trusted web sources closer to the eyes of the masses? Imagine a service that's integrated into the App Store for following publications, websites, curators, etc. of your choosing. This could work in a similar way to how music websites and services make 'apps' available inside of Spotify to showcase music they recommend and review. Now obviously, simply dumping web content into the App Store isn't going to cut it, these web services would have to alter their scope and design for a different medium, but I don't doubt for a moment that they'll jump at the chance to do it. The people running these websites are already passionate about wanting app discovery to improve, they would be more than happy to be a part of the solution, and all the while this would significantly increase their exposure and thus, their earning potential.

For this idea to work Apple would have to play their part too. People aren't actively going to go looking to opt into these sources, it would take a commitment from Apple to place this new feature prominently in the store; and what better way to do this than doing away with the top charts currently featured as the store's second tab? These charts serve nobody other than a tiny handful of predominantly huge development houses, they keep the big apps big and make the task for smaller, indie developers even harder than it already is to find a foothold in the market. They don't even help customers either, the apps featured in these charts are ones that people already know about, many of them are household names and the rest are so popular that they will end up being passed on by word of mouth eventually anyway. Essentially, top charts were somewhat useful in 2008 when most people didn't even know what an app was, but seven years later everyone is much more enlightened and the charts are now hindering the health of the App Store, not helping it. Replacing these charts with a 'Recommendations' tab for example, with the ability to subscribe to app discovery sources would be so much more beneficial to casual and power users alike. In fact Apple could go one step further and take the discovery sources that people subscribe to and use them to personalise the 'Featured' tab, which is currently curated by Apple and Apple alone.

Some might argue that even prominent placement within the store wouldn't be enough to capture everyone and that some people would never opt into such curation sources. No doubt that's true, but to what extent? Spotify is used by millions of people, discovering new music all the time, isn't it possible that a portion of this discoverability is occurring through Spotify apps? They're certainly not hurting the cause and I don't see how a similar system for the App Store could possibly make things any worse than they already are. Provided the feature was implemented well, it could be a huge boon for everyone with an interest in the App Store, including Apple.

Of course, weather Apple would be willing to implement such a service within the App Store is a big question. On the one hand Apple tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to their ecosystems, with the App Store seeing little change in presentation and features throughout it's lifetime. On the other hand Apple has never been more open to third party solutions in recent years than right now, as indicated by such decisions as allowing alternative keyboards within iOS. All I can hope is that Apple are doing something behind the scenes to tackle this problem which seems to compound itself year-over-year.