What Would Make the AppStore Perfect

This past week we finally experienced the opening of the much touted Apple AppStore for the Apple iPhone and iPod touch. The AppStore does a lot of things right that developers have been clamoring for: it puts software right in front of every iPhone consumer, it makes it super easy to purchase and install apps, and it makes the whole process accessible for the majority of developers (no more carrier intervention, for example). However, the AppStore is like any piece of 1.0 software—it has it's 'bugs' and exploitations that can only be discovered by massive usage and adoption. This post will note a few areas of needed improvement.

The AppStore 'breaks' one conventional expectation of mobile software—it is no longer “shareware” so free trials are no longer available. A few exceptions of “Lite” versions are possible, but there is no built in way to “upsell” to the more feature-rich version. Some developers have combated this lack of trial by adding videos on YouTube, or extensive manuals on their website. Many long time users of mobile software are not happy because they can't test out a product before buying. This business model worked well in the brick-and-mortar, sell-in-the-box, desktop software, but it's too soon to say if this will work in the mobile world. One side effect is a lower price—in case you don't like it, you can just “throw it away” because the investment wasn't very high. However, the customer base for the iPhone apps is also different—so perhaps a different business model than shareware is possible.

Another area where the AppStore could improve, is to eliminate the obvious abuses within the store, both by users and developers alike:

Naming Rules
Since apps appear to be renamed on the fly, developers have found an exploitation, commonly seen in the paper yellow pages: Start you app with “A” or a space, or a character, and it will migrate to the top of the list. Right now there is no way to sort by anything but alphabetically while on an iPhone (you can do some additional sorting on the desktop iTunes), so the way to get noticed among 500+ apps is to show up on the first page. A new name does the trick.

App names are also being renamed “Most Popular {fill in the blank}” to artificially inflate an app's popularity or quality. The number of downloads has been disabled, probably due to a press exploitation of projecting Apple's revenue by adding up all the paid downloads (Someone actually has time for this!), which could invalidate these claims. Hopefully this feature will come back after the number of apps (or downloads) is no longer manageable for calculating that number. It's a powerful tool for users to understand how many people have actually bought an app (vs the number of reviews by non-paying customers), a powerful tool for developers to understand how they match up to their competition (and how to improve their product), and also a way to understand how the price affects the popularity, among other things.

Naming rules need to be set so that these abuses are eliminated. Adding additional sort options would also curb this behavior.

Moderation of Reviews
As many have probably observed, the review process is broken. Anyone can review a product without a purchase, which has lead to a lot of abuses.

  1. “Reading-a-book-by-its cover” reviews. Since products are not shareware (no trial period), people who review without purchase are only providing reading-a-book-by-its-cover reviews. The only content for pre-judging the product are from the description, the screenshot, and the price. Many of these reviews focus on price—everyone wants the apps to be free and some are very rude about it. However, since these "price" reviews are across the board, they essentially filter themselves out.
  2. Kill the completion with negative ratings. A competing developer can either bombard an app with negative ratings and/or pump up his own ratings by adding bogus 5 star reviews to his own app's page.
  3. Reference to competing apps.. A competing developer (or even a user) is free to mention the competition in a rating. While this is a way to promote your application, it is very unethical. This practice has been eliminated in other mobile distributors—the reviews are moderated and the competitor's name is removed from the review. The idea that a competing product is better remains, but the user must discover the competition for himself.
  4. Reviewing for reviewing sake. Some of the reviews are completely unrelated to the product, looking for help, commenting on the store, on Apple, or on nothing whatsoever.

Reviews by non-buyers have been allowed in other similar stores, but because you could try-before-you-buy, these are usually based on valid experiences with the application. In addition, all developers were allowed to either contact the reviewer or respond to the reviews. This benefit allows the developer to work with the constructive input to improve the product and to provide feedback when things have improved. The reviewers also realize they are not completely anonymous, so it limits the amount of competitive abuses and other abusiveness that can come by being able to post anonymously. When a conversation is started between the user and the developer, everyone wins.

To improve the review process some sort of moderation needs to exist. Either policing by Apple, by the developers (as mentioned above), or by the community, or a combination thereof, would greatly enhance the experience. In addition, if non-buyers are allowed be review, some indicator should be present if the reviewer bought the product or not. Reviews by non-buyers may be valid, but knowing if that is true is also valuable. A way for the developer to respond (besides posting a rated review) would also be beneficial. This response could be done publicly (by allowing a non-rated response, as seen on blogs, or within the description), or privately (by email communication between the reviewer and the developer). Another indication would be helpful—a date or version number to which the review corresponds. If a bug is reported, it should be noted that it has been fixed. This process can show that the developer is responsive (or not). Separating the bug reports from the reviews—let the bug reports go to the developer—would also help.

Right now, if a product is updated, it shows up as new. Updates can be either small bug fixes or feature additions. New products are also lumped in with these. Many developers and mobile users alike remember how this process has been exploited to a science by unethical developers, literally ruining the “updated list” feature on some distributors. Plus, no one wants to wade through thousands of applications to find the new ones. This area has the potential for as much abuse as the named “$#%#AAA Application”.

The easy way to fix this is to separate the new releases with the new updates, and to moderate the update releases. The developers should have to include release notes, which will also eliminate the totally “fake” updates (only a revision bump), which is a commonly seen on unmoderated sites in other mobile arenas.

Better Navigation
Another improvement to the AppStore would be better navigation of the catalog. The iTunes navigation on a desktop computer is much better than on device. It would be nice to be able to sort the apps better on device, which could naturally eliminate some of the above abuses. Sort functions I'd like to see: by release date (to find new titles), by update date (to see if an app is stale), by rating (after the review process is fixed), by price, by developer, to name a few. By category is ok for now, since the number of apps is low and all are new, but better navigation in the future would be great.

Some good things
From a developer standpoint, lots of good things are happening at the AppStore. Developers can provide a link to their website (on the iTunes store only), so customers can easily contact the developer for more information, to report bugs, to suggest features, or even to opt-in to a newsletter. (This communication has been eliminated on many other mobile distribution sites and via the carriers.) While the developer doesn't get a customer list with emails (good for the customers' privacy), they are allowed to promote apps in the store that have paid desktop or web companions.

As mentioned in the opening, the process to view, add, and buy apps has been greatly improved by the AppStore, but a few “bug fixes” remain. An improved process for decision making prior to purchase should be employed, if shareware trials are not implemented. If the review process, naming process, and update processes are improved, the store will be nearly perfect. Looking forward to AppStore 1.10!

update: 7/16/08 Looks like the leading character naming scheme has been eliminated, but now it's hard to tell in what order the apps are listed. Good to see some of the issues are being addressed quickly.

A few other discussions:
Listeners Found This Review Helpful - furbo.org
A Better App Store - TUAW