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nextIn 1987, Steve Jobs introduced to the world the wonderful and somewhat puzzling NeXT “Cube.” It was designed as the computer for the college student who could also afford a $6000 machine with no floppy drive.  For all of the ridicule and head scratching the machine provided it pioneered a number of great technologies. Perhaps the most well known powers every Mac and iPhone now being made: OS-X.

One of the other less successful aspects of the NeXT episode was Jobs’ software distribution model. Considering that the Cube was meant to be a networked based system, all software distribution would be via the net (either that or via the $150 Canon “floptical” disks that would price most apps out of the reach of the demographics.) Jobs’ proposed electronic means of purchase and distribution of NeXT applications would have been pretty cool. Except for one small detail: there was no general solution for handling small secure transactions over the Internet. That is, no way to pay. His dream quickly vanished and vendors ultimately would have to sell there wares by permitting stores to copy them onto the customer’s own disks.

It would take 22 years but finally that vision would be realized in the form of the iPhone App Store. It’s not bad…for a first attempt that is. But there remains a lot to be done from both the developer and customer’s standpoint.

For developers, managing the app and gleaning sales trends is cumbersome at best. For customers, discovering great apps is tedious and a hit-or-miss affair. Go with the safe stuff , the stuff on the top-100, and you’ll be okay. If your app is one of the 34900 other apps not on the list, tough.

I imagine that the success of the store and the SDK caught Apple by surprise, and as such the store worked fine for small numbers of applications, but in the end proved not very scalable and soon started bustin’ the seams.

Customers and the Store

The most cumbersome thing about the store is the simple volume of applications to wade through, entertainment and gamesicon_appstore being the worst offenders. My applications, Distant Suns and Grand Tour, are in the educational category so has to duke it out with “only” about 3000 other programs, whereas “entertainment” is overloaded with over 6000 applications!

Apple has already taken the first of no doubt many steps to sort out this mess, namely having listings of top paid and top free apps for each category. But there is a lot more to do. Perhaps the worse offender is the fact that there are no subcategories in any but the game section even though iTunes is set up for that. Distant Suns, an astronomy app is placed right next to a math tutor, a golf trivia tutor and 86 (!) language dictionaries (by a single publisher!). And good luck going up against Brighthouse Labs in reference or books. As of this writing they have 1536 apps. (I am sure their Amish Cookbook is a best seller.)We really need to have subcategories, particularly in education and perhaps even an age-based system of sorting. So then if someone is looking for a cool astronomy program they don’t have to wade through hundreds of language dumpware apps (anyone need a Turkish to Korean dictionary?) or software for first graders.

Another way to get the word out for various apps is to permit cross listing in at least one other category. If you write an educational game, where does it go? In Games or Education? Distant Suns would fit nicely also in the Entertainment arena or reference, but that is not possible at this time.

Customers should have a method of registering for email alerts, similar to My Alerts in the music store. These could alert someone postings of new applications based on interests, keywords and authors. If I am looking for a Gaelic to Klingon tutorial I shouldn’t have to log into iTunes every few days and do a search for one “just in case.” Arrrrrr…..

There isn’t enough information in the basic listing to really drive potential customers to an app’s particular page. A pretty icon and name usually are not enough. The applications should have a short description as well.

While one can do searches based on words in the descriptions, the searches should be refined to support only keywords. For example, using Power Search the word “Moon” brings up about 30 applications from a version of the card game Hearts, to a deer hunting application (really!). Most likely, someone typing in “moon” is less interested in learning the best times to hunt deer, and more interested in say, the moon. A keyword-based search could go a long way to remove the noise and limit the results down to the 10 or so serious astronomy related applications.

Furthermore, the store severely needs a recommendation engine of sorts, ala, Amazon. On the apps page it would be nice to see something like “buyers of this app have also purchased…”. Or when you log in, get a custom page of the recent apps that match previous purchases. The Amazon engine is surprisingly good at this and when done right can both aid customers and developers.

Much has been written about the pricing model, so I’ll leave that to other bloggists. However I would be nice if something could be done to discourage the $.99 apps or to at least put them off into their own category. Perhaps by identifying apps from free up to say, $1.99, as “budget applications” and isolate them from the more expensive apps giving them a stigma that might discourage both customers and developers alike. Also defaulting iTunes to favor the serious applications over the cheapies should help keep the image of the iPhone/iPod as a serious platform and not for junk that mimics someone with digestion problems (wish I had thought of that first…grrrr).

Another way to filter out the hobbyists from more serious developers is to merely set the cost of developing too high for 8 year olds and cousin Zeke to want to bother with. Right now it costs a mere $99 to become an iPhone developer. This should be raised to $500/year or more. Some guy who is doing the 122nd flatulence simulator might think twice about writing out a $500 check for the honor. Either that or charge yearly fees per app, or per submission including upgrades. That would help restrict the developers who toss out updates every week or two just to stay visible.

Developers and the Store

On the developer’s sides of things, it can also be quite frustrating. Creating the storefront is easy enough, but after that we’re pretty much on our own.

For the uninitiated, the process is as follows: Once the app is deemed ready, the developer uploads it via their iTunesConnect account along with several screen shots, description and pricing info. Then comes The Great Wait. If all goes well, magically the Apple elves bless the software as listable and the developer will get the happy little announcement that their program is now available for sale. If not, they’ll get a “your app sucks” note and maybe some reasons why it sucks such as using illegal API calls, crashes on a first gen iPod Touch, and so on. All legitimate suckage. The acceptance process can take as little as a day on up to several weeks. (Or in the case of Live365, about four months). After that you just rake in the cash and give endless interviews to TUAW, Gizmodo and Larry King. Well, not really for the latter unless you’re one of the annointed.

Apple provides daily sales reports, but they keep those for only a week. These break down sales and upgrades on a per country basis making them difficult to read at best. Just to know the totals for a single day, one must download the report and count the numbers from each country by hand. Fortunately third party tools are now coming on line to make up for a Apple’s flimsy reporting system. Check out the still-in-beta

In any marketing endeavor, the publisher needs to constantly tinker with pricing, presentation and advertising, and then study the sales results to see what really works. The current App Store makes that very problematic. For example, I would love to know how many people daily actually view my store page vs. those who end up purchasing the program. If I get 1000 page views a day, but sell only 20 units, my calm can get damaged as I know that something’s not right in Whoville. I might be getting good exposure, but the presentation or price could be way off the mark.

Alerting one’s friends about a particular application should be much easier. There should be a way to let a person post “tell a friend” emails directly from within the application itself, feeding into the whole viral marketing maelstrom. However, one step in the right direction comes from the rumored feature in OS 3.0, that would permit might have a means to permit users to “beam” an app to another user, and have the Appstore handle payments automatically in the background. 

Nor is there is no way to track how people come to your particular storefront. Is it just via random luck? Is there a review that you don’t know anything about? Did someone post a link on his or her webpage? Such referrer information would be very helpful in tracking advertising and marketing patterns. 

A somewhat more difficult proposition would be to allow application bundles. It would be a very powerful mechanism if say, I wanted to bundle Distant Suns with a friend’s app for a promotional discount. 

As said, lots to do.

It’s a Good Start

The store as it is, is one of the best things Apple has going for it. It returns the ability for a single programmer to score and score big against the big guys and helps return the excitement and romance of the early days of personal computers.

But there a lot left to do. Apple has already surprised us with some welcomed enhancements, such as promo codes to support free copies to friends or reviewers and the aforementioned top-20 listings per category. But we can only hope that some of the other enhancements listed above will be acted upon over the course of the next year.

So say we all.


One Comment

  1. I agree with your analysis of the need for a real recommendation system of some sort. The easiest tactic online is of course to offer “most popular” lists but continually pushing the most popular offerings doesn’t necessarily serve users any more than developers.

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