Earlier this week, Apple announced it was rolling back previous restrictions on the use of third-party development tools for building applications for the iOS mobile operating system and that it would be, for the first time ever, publishing its once-secret “App Store Guidelines” for all to read. These guidelines explain, in detail, how Apple determines which apps are granted acceptance into its ever-growing iTunes Application Store, now home to around 250,000 mobile apps.
Some of the language in the developer agreement is rather strong and very direct. For example, Apple proclaims that it has “lots of serious developers who don’t want their quality apps to be surrounded by amateur hour.”
Apple also says: “we don’t need any more Fart apps,” but it couldn’t be more wrong about that, and here’s why.
Amateur Developers: Apple Says Stay Away
It’s almost unimaginable that a company whose developer community has, in a large part, contributed to the success of its mobile application business, would call out a portion of its newest developers as “amateur hour.” Everyone is an amateur at first, after all. But that’s typical of Apple. The company has a reputation for quality products, but the flip side of this desire for “being the best” has an air of exclusiveness about it. “If you want in our App Store, you had better be good” is message Apple is now sending its developers.
It’s a shame, though, that rejection and the disparagement of its own community is how Apple is addressing the very real issue of “app overload” that has come from a flourishing mobile application ecosystem. Now more than ever, mobile development is where so much of today’s technology innovation is taking place and the growth rate for application stores across the board is incredible. Depending on what analyst report you read, mobile app stores could be either a $2 billion or $7 billion marketplace by the end of this year, or a $17.5 billion market by 2012. Why restrict it?
Here’s What Apple Should Do Instead (But Won’t)
Apple doesn’t need to lay down the law in such Draconian terms. Instead of rejecting apps because there are already “plenty” of them out there, Apple should develop better filtering, ranking and recommendation algorithms for displaying available applications to interested users.
Currently, if you search for an app by keyword via your iPhone’s App Store interface, there’s no way to tell why results are placed at the top, at least to the untrained eye. They’re not necessarily the highest rated applications, it seems, or the ones with the most downloads. Instead, Apple uses a weighted average ranking mechanism that first matches keywords and then ranks applications based on their popularity on a four-day average with the current day having the highest weight.
While that may be good enough for the default view, it’s definitely not a good enough system going forward as the number of mobile applications surges deeper into the hundreds of thousands, and maybe one day, the millions.
What Apple needs is a search engine interface for finding applications. You should be able to search not just by keyword alone, but by a combination of factors. Through a clean user interface (the user experience designers at Apple, some of the best in the world, could simplify this process, we’re sure), users could find apps through the use of advanced and detailed queries. Want only top-rated apps that have been around for at least 6 months? Done! How about only apps with more than 20 positive reviews? Ta-Da! Only apps that work offline and have been downloaded more than 5000 times? Here you go! And so forth and so on.
That’s not Apple’s plan, though.
Who Will Figure Out Mobile App Search First? Our Money’s on Google
Google, the company behind the soon-to-be number one mobile operating system in the world, is surely going to figure out mobile application search before Apple does, given that it is, in fact, a search company.
Even though the Android Marketplace search interface currently leaves a lot to be desired, the combination of its open submissions process and rapidly growing market share will quickly lead to the exact same problem facing Apple today: how do you separate “amateur hour” from quality?
Google has a bit more time to figure this out than Apple does, of course. There are only 80,000 Android applications available now compared with Apple’s 250,000. But Google will likely figure out an algorithm-based methodology that works. We would be shocked beyond belief if it did not. Apple, meanwhile, will simply reject “amateur” apps. Or those it has enough of. Or those it feels the need to censor. Etc., etc., etc.
But I Don’t Care About “Fart” Apps!
That means that the next big thing in “Fart” apps won’t show up on iPhone, it will show up on Android. But who cares about “Fart” apps?, you may ask. Lots of people do – kids, especially, of course. But also the harebrained parents who will download anything that gives them a few minutes of peace-and-quiet.
If you personally don’t care for “Fart” apps, and say “so what?” to this news, you’re missing the point. “Fart” apps were used to illustrate this particular aspect of Apple’s policy. It’s not going to be just “Fart” apps that will be affected, sadly. Apple is relying on a staff of human reviewers to determine what belongs and what doesn’t. Don’t we already have too many of X app? Rejected! This app does the same thing as that one. Rejected! This app is inappropriate! Rejected!
This system of application review prior to acceptance is actually Apple’s main selling point for its App Store, but also its Achilles Heel. Apple is offering a “curated” collection of applications instead of all of them. Apple fans will tell you, unequivocally, that this is what’s best. This is the way to do it. But curated directories didn’t end up working for the Web and they won’t end up working for mobile application discovery, either. There is a point where browsing through lists is no longer efficient, only search is.
Forget Curating, Crowd-Source It
What will work is allowing us, the millions upon millions of smartphone users, to determine what’s best. This can be analyzed through a combination of download and usage numbers, rankings and other statistics an advanced search engine could surface.
So, as Apple puts its foot down, saying “we won’t allow this” and “we have enough of that,” mobile developers who are convinced they have the next great idea for a new app within a common genre of mobile applications will have no choice but to develop for Android.
And Google, being Google, will soon figure out how to properly surface those new apps and other top results via a “PageRank” algorithm designed for especially for surfacing the best mobile apps.
Apple, through its desire for quality or its arrogance, depending on how you view the company, is betting against developers of mobile apps and the consumers who download them, believing instead that only Apple knows what’s best. That philosophy is hard-wired into the company, but when it comes to mobile applications, it may not be the right one to embrace.