Under the Radar

Under the Radar 113: Grading the App Store in 2017


  welcome to under the radar a show about

  independent iOS app development I'm

  Marco Arment and I'm David Smith under

  the radar is never longer than 30

  minutes so let's get started so in the

  grand tradition of early January podcast

  episodes we decided it would be nice to

  kind of do a 20-17 in review episode and

  to look over some of the things that

  happen in 2017 that were relevant to iOS

  developers and then kind of our

  perspective so far on how those are

  going or how those have changed things

  so far and kind of where we see things

  going and I wanted to start out you know

  and first of all just a brief opening

  statement here they've been killing it

  ever since Phil took over like there

  have been so there's been section a

  pleasant and dramatically improved rate

  of progress in the App Store ever since

  they at like a year and a half ago

  basically authority of it transferred to

  Phil Schiller and I don't know what

  other changes happened at that time but

  there's there's a pretty clear trend

  that like since that time things have

  gotten significantly better and

  significantly faster that and then the

  progress that used to happen before that

  which was pretty minimal so big thumbs

  up to Phil and whoever else was involved

  with that so one of the big changes that

  has happened this past year too is

  greatly broadening subscription pricing

  for apps it started out in actually in

  2016 in in in June right before the BTC

  when they announced that more apps would

  be allowed to use subscriptions and that

  the for from years - onward of a

  subscription you would get 85% instead

  of 70% of the Commission so while that

  was the year before the effects of that

  I think have been felt more in 2017 and

  especially because starting in June of

  2017 we got our raise we got those first

  round of 85 percent renewals and for me

  that that those started in September I

  think or October because that's it that

  was like the one year anniversary of me

  launching my auto renewing plan for

  overcast but I think subscriptions have

  you know there have been there's been a

  lot of developer wish lists over the

  years that have included thing

  like free trial and you know and paid

  upgrades and things like that that that

  are basically the old ways of monetizing

  software the ways that that that we

  pretty much always had as many companies

  still use on PC and Mac and we don't

  have those yet and I'm not sure we ever

  will have those on iOS but with all the

  changes to subscriptions and some of the

  new features that were added for things

  like free trials of the subscriptions

  and different flexibility and different

  price tiers and everything else I think

  we've come very close to those and it's

  not nearly as easy as it was before but

  you can now simulate free trials in a

  few different ways that that people are

  are seemingly doing with success so that

  that's a pretty big thing and also just

  by expanding subscriptions so much there

  are so many more business models that

  that have become possible that while it

  is still not like trivially easy to make

  money in the App Store in a sustainable

  way we have more options than we've ever

  had before

  and I feel like now if you can't find

  something if you can't find some way to

  monetize your app that people actually

  want then I don't think you're looking

  hard enough so you know thumbs up for

  all this all the subscription changes

  and the the rules around subscriptions

  becoming loosened in some ways for

  really giving us way more options for

  how we monetize our apps and having the

  85 percent on the years 2 and above is a

  pretty nice raise also yeah I think 2 is

  also nice to see that but and this is to

  earlier point about that now that it

  seems like the changes that are being

  made into these types of business model

  changes or more policy changes they're

  not in a situation where what they just

  sort of like one and done like they felt

  like oh there's a problem with

  subscriptions let's change something and

  then now it's fine they what's nice to

  see I think now is any things continue

  to get better over time like in the you

  know towards the end of 2017 we got

  introductory pricing as a new option in

  subscriptions it's like now this is new

  on bidding you know there's this new

  mode there's this new tool and

  I like that with something like so you

  know business models with subscriptions

  in this case it's nice to see that

  continue to develop and that it's Reno

  it's reasonable to imagine in that you

  know 2018 we'll continue that process

  that Apple will continue to expand both

  sort of the types of subscriptions that

  are possible and some of the mechanisms

  mechanically with that like I know we

  also I think at Dover DC last year we

  got a bunch of new like web hooks I

  believe for being able to you know do

  validation and understanding around a

  user state in a subscription so all

  these types of things that are you know

  they just make that better and better

  and I love to see like irrespective of

  Eros whether in the individual you know

  sis it the individual details are

  important or useful have panned out

  wonderfully what is most important I

  think is that this is an area that Apple

  is clearly continuing to enhance over

  time and it seems generally speaking to

  be the area that they are putting the

  most effort behind in their in their

  kind of in a lot of their development

  and their allocation of resources and

  attention that they are making

  subscriptions a better and better way to

  monetize your apps and you know if

  that's true and that's sort of where

  they're pushing then it kind of makes

  make sense to sort of think about it

  like I currently don't use any and I

  know you do but it's certainly something

  that I'm aware of because anytime that

  it seems like you know things keep

  changing in a direction it's like hmm

  that's interesting you know maybe I need

  to be thinking thoughts will of a way to

  take advantage of that because clearly

  it's something that is you know

  seemingly just getting better and better

  of a deal and more more flexible of an

  option over time also when subscriptions

  launched we a lot of people had concerns

  about whether App Store customers would

  feel quote subscription fatigue this is

  the idea that like well one or two apps

  can charge prescriptions but then but

  soon all the apps will be charging you X

  dollars a month and people will get

  tired of it and don't want that many

  subscriptions and they will stop paying

  for all of them and I don't think that

  has really happened I haven't seen any

  in just anecdotally I really haven't

  seen any signs of that

  many apps are still not charging

  subscriptions so it isn't like they all

  all of a sudden changed over and I

  haven't really heard from people who

  meaningfully have a lot of feedback from

  people saying that they won't pay their

  subscriptions because they have too many

  subscriptions like that doesn't seem to

  be happening which is good and I think

  it's it is with all these things I feel

  like there's this fundamental question

  of are you providing some service or an

  eval you to your user that exceeds the

  costs that you're asking for that

  service like at its basic level and like

  subscription fatigue I'm sure is a thing

  and it's certainly something that's

  possible but you kind of imagine a

  scenario where if someone is feeling

  that and they have that many apps that

  are providing that much value to them

  they're going to be more apt to continue

  to pay like the situation I think is

  more it's a subscription fatigue is

  perhaps a shortcut for saying you're not

  providing enough value to your user to

  be able to justify subscription pricing

  which i think is entirely reasonable and

  I mean that's in many ways the reason

  why I a lot of my apps don't have

  something like subscriptions where I

  don't feel like I have something

  tangible enough to warrant that kind of

  direct action on an ongoing sustained

  basis but other apps do and you know it

  doesn't seem like that's actually a

  problem in practice that if you provide

  a service that has a tangible value

  going forward that charging a

  subscription for it is a reasonable

  thing and fair enough like not everybody

  is going to take advantage of that and I

  think there is a certain element of

  getting used to the mindset that not all

  of your customers are going to be paying

  customers is something that is certainly

  a very important thing to understand and

  just be comfortable with that there are

  going to be people who use your

  application and you never really

  directly receive any monetary value from

  that but like that's okay because as

  long as you have a reasonable proportion

  of users that do get enough value to be

  motivated to do that you know you'll be

  okay in the end

  so moving on one of the other big

  changes that was announced early this

  year is that developers got the ability

  to respond to App Store reviews and this

  was long-awaited I think the Google Play


  had it like since the beginning or since

  early on and so iOS iOS developers were

  clamoring for this for years so we

  finally got the ability to respond

  publicly to user reviews in the App

  Store how has that been going for you um

  I think it's one of these things that I

  am glad that it's there

  that I think overall like as with all

  the stuff like I love that it's a tool

  that is now available the impact of it I

  think is more measured and some of that

  is dealing with also some changes to the

  App Store that I think we're gonna talk

  about later but the way the new app

  store is set up the reviews like textual

  reviews I think are less emphasized than

  they used to be in the sense that

  there's really you see one review and

  it's kind of hard to even understand

  that there's even more than one review

  so assuming that you're like your main

  review is a positive one the other is

  kind of disappear into the sort of

  disappear into the ether behind it and

  so it's less important in that regard

  because it you know but the reason why I

  think it was initially very useful is

  that if you you know there was a huge

  whole section of your App Store page

  that was about reviews and if someone

  was you know was asking a question or

  talking badly about your app in a way

  that wasn't true or accurate or that you

  could help with even you know the in

  just from a positive customer service

  perspective now it's good to be able to

  respond to that like that was important

  it's I would say it's less important now

  and I view it now it's just another in

  some ways it's just another support

  venue you know that else you know people

  email me and then some people leave

  reviews and it's nice to be able to

  reach out to them and you know it avoids

  that situation where someone was

  complaining about something like oh man

  I wish this app it did this or you know

  it when I do this this is you know it

  doesn't seem to work right and being

  able to reach out to that person and

  correct that but it's much more of a

  customer service thing than it was a

  marketing thing I think initially so

  like I'm glad it's there it's useful but

  I don't think it had a major impact in a

  way that it may have if they hadn't

  redesigned the App Store yeah I I'm in

  complete agreement I mean it like the

  when you it turns out like the in

  practice the reading of the reviews with

  these responses like I loved how Mike

  put it on connected this past week here

  on relay FM they were doing the year

  review if like kind of just all Apple

  tech news and and they mentioned this

  and Mike said it's it's kind of like

  reading somebody's email chain it's like

  yeah like because in practice you used

  to like one person's you know it's

  talking about some problem and then you

  see like a support person saying we're

  sorry you've had this problem please

  contact us and we'll help you resolve it

  like it's it's it's like resolve it's

  like basically reading somebody's

  support email like in public it's kind

  of weird

  as a reader and and as a developer I

  I tried responding to reviews for a

  little while but found it mostly not

  worth doing and I think you nailed it

  with like one of the biggest reasons is

  the new App Store design change where

  reviews written reviews are so sidelined

  in the new App Store layout that they

  barely matter at all anymore and frankly

  I think that's all for the better

  because you know for four years I think

  it's been apparent that your your star

  average mattered way more than what any

  particular written review said and

  there's so many problems with written

  reviews it's just it's it's it's a

  system that is so deeply broken and

  dysfunctional and always has been so the

  ideal solution would be to get rid of

  star ratings and reviews altogether and

  replace it with like a thumbs-up

  thumbs-down kind of thing that way you

  remove the the problem of different star

  levels meaning different things to

  different people like what does it mean

  like what does it mean for for me to

  write four stars versus five stars and

  is that the same thing that you

  distinguish between four stars and five

  stars like it that whole system is

  dysfunctional but the way they've done

  it now I think is a significant

  improvement where it is way less

  emphasized you hardly see any written

  reviews unless you really try to seek

  them out and even then you're likely to

  only read the first one and maybe two if

  if you really get into it but it's so

  cumbersome to actually scan through

  written reviews that they might as well

  not even be there which also means that

  it's not really worth responding to most

  of them it's you know unless unless

  you're the kind of developer who I

  greatly respect you who you know goes

  through and answers every single person

  who has anything to say to you that's

  wonderful I don't have time for that I

  can't do that I'd like if you have staff

  or if you're so motivated that you can

  do that awesome this is one more channel

  for you to do that in but for people who

  don't have the time to respond to every

  it's every single thing this like the

  the written reviews and being able to

  respond to written reviews I think

  should be treated the same way you treat

  support email or tweets which is if you

  can respond to them all cool if not this

  is no different than those and you don't

  need to worry about it and with the new

  app store changes it's less important

  than ever yeah and I think probably that

  the biggest change that they made which

  was a 20-17 change is not resetting

  reviews on updates now right being an

  optional sure making an optional making

  that you in general you can choose to do

  it and you would opt univis obviously

  only do it when it would made sense to

  do it

  that in general it's kind of changed the

  I don't know if it's right words it's a

  bit almost like app reviews were this

  weird kind of vague currency before

  we're like you as a developer you're

  trying to build up this number as

  quickly as you can

  for every updates you do so that you can

  appear good in the store and continue to

  you know grow and look like you're a

  good app that's worth downloading but

  this change I think had a I mean I've

  been it's probably if I had to pick my

  favorite change out of everything in

  2017 it's probably that mostly because

  it's changed the way that I can can like

  think about my development cycle and

  doing small updates are now like fine it

  doesn't really matter like I can if I if

  I had the time and ability I could

  update my app you know once a week and

  it would be fine it wouldn't have this

  weird tension that I had before where

  every time I updated the app I knew that

  I had to kind of like rebuild all this

  and so things like responding to reviews

  would have been more important because

  if someone you know had you've given it

  a one-star and I respond to them and

  they changed their one start to a

  five-star that that difference was very

  more measured whereas now if you've you

  know it's like either if you use the new

  ratings prompt system which also came in

  2017 or yep you just gradually build up

  your reviews over time

  once you have a certain number of

  reviews you can just keep them and

  assuming that you don't massively mess

  up and do something to jeopardize it you

  can maintain a good star rating that

  makes you look good in the App Store and

  it's generally positive going forward

  and you have to worry less about your

  App Store reviews in that way and I mean

  that's basically what I did for a lot of

  them firm my main apps is I don't love

  the ratings prompt system it's certainly

  it's very effective but I is we've

  talked about many times I don't love

  interrupting customers and so on but

  what I kind of love about is that plus

  non resetting reviews is I just set up

  my app so that I you know I was tried to

  be very respectful but when I would do

  it that it was only at the end it's like

  you've clearly been in the app for a

  while and you're returning from

  finishing an operation rather than

  starting an operation and I sort of set

  the app up such that it only prompts

  until I had a certain number of who

  views and then since then it's just

  turned off and I haven't done it so it's

  like there was a two-week period or one

  week period maybe even where like I was

  asking people for reviews on a

  semi-regular basis and that built up

  enough reviews that now the app looks

  great in the store and I can just turn

  that off and in some ways like as long

  as I keep you know keep shipping quality

  updates and I'm not going to end up with

  this big flood of one stars like the app

  review system is not something that I

  have to concern myself with which I love

  and I can just kind of keep moving

  making that better and better and it

  doesn't have this weird external effect

  that I'm trying to counteract and that's

  how it always should have been like the

  written reviews medes made like the

  loudest most upset people it made their

  review count for more than it should

  have counted for and now that now that

  we have a larger number of reviews that

  persist between between updates and that

  we'd have this this way to get quick

  star ratings from people who don't who

  aren't upset enough to write a full

  review like they just like your app and

  just use it quietly like they're likely

  you know it the silent approving

  majority their opinion now matters more

  and and I think that's great for

  everybody because it more fairly

  represents how people actually hope

  you'll actually think of your app rather

  than just focusing on the few people who

  were most angry enough to write reviews

  and and one thing that's kind of funny

  is I feel like it's made me less as a

  customer I'm cared less about the star

  rating that I used to because it seems

  like every app has a couple thousand

  reviews and it's four or five stars like

  that's just sort of like that that's

  like the baseline now and so it makes it

  as if an app doesn't have that I'm

  almost like I'm actively worried like

  something is really weird with this app

  if it's having really bad star rating

  because they have so many more tools

  they don't have to reset them every time

  and rebuild that audience it's like it's

  now it's just this thing that you have

  and so it's like it's nice to it in some

  ways that's nice in some ways that's

  that's not so nice but I do love that I

  just it's a thing that I care I have to

  carry and focus less about you know I

  don't have to actively check and

  maintain and manage the star rating of

  my apps like I used to and I appreciate

  that being able to just focus on other

  things that are much more important to

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  this show so the other thing that is

  probably big has had the biggest impact

  on us as that Kate was introduced in

  2017 would probably be the

  a big App Store refresh redesign relay

  out whatever whatever you want to call

  it and the sort with that the big

  changes in the editorial process within

  the App Store where now we have in

  addition to just like a totally new kind

  of look and feel and a bunch of new

  fields where now we can have promotional

  text that's different than the

  description text and we have a subtitle

  now as in addition to just the regular

  title and the title it's got four

  shorter and we can have multiple app

  previews in the app reviews auto play

  like there's that side of things and

  then we also have the new kind of every

  day or several times a day editorial

  process that kisk sort of come along

  with it and I think and I think overall

  it's been good to me it's always like I

  mean I don't know if that's just a

  self-centered way to look at this but I

  think overall it's been a slight benefit

  that I think the design changes seemed

  to seem to work better or at least at

  the very least they they didn't have a

  negative impact and I certainly had some

  concerns that because of the a reduction

  in density in a lot of the screens that

  it would have had a negative impact but

  if anything it's had a yes and a slight

  net positive so I like that

  I think the editorial side of things

  seems really nice

  like I've been fortunate enough to be in

  a couple of the like roundups or like

  included in some of the the daily

  articles and it certainly has an impact

  and it's nice to you know have seven

  chances a week for that whereas before

  you had you know one chance a week to do

  that it was every Thursday here's the

  new set of features it's kind of nice to

  feel like we have more options and you

  know it probably proportionately means

  that the impact of any one featuring has

  gone down that read being premium having

  a substantial feature before would have

  had a resulted in more downloads but you

  can now get them more often and it seems

  like once your app is sort of in that

  world where it's on the list of being

  feat of kind of things that are being

  considered for featuring it's reasonably

  likely that your app will show up as

  they kind of cycle through the different

  things that they're trying to promote

  throughout the year so like overall I

  think the new app store is taking a bit

  of getting used

  but otherwise I like it and I think it's

  had a positive impact overall yeah I I

  was also a little wary when it launched

  of you know not just not knowing what

  kind of impact it would have and it was

  it's a it's a bunch of very major layout

  changes and so it seemed and major

  editorial changes so it seemed like it

  was likely to have a pretty wild swings

  in either way and he didn't really know

  until it locks like whether you're

  whether or benefit you or not and as far

  as I can tell I don't think it really

  has meaningfully affected overcast

  positively or negatively it seems like I

  kind of got away with a nice neutral

  outcome there but overall it does seem a

  lot more pleasant to use in a number of

  ways the information density is

  significantly lower and in some ways

  that gets in my way and feels clumsy but

  honestly it wasn't like the App Store

  layout and usability and things like

  that weren't that great in the previous

  one either so it's I think it's

  significantly better than it was and all

  the editorial changes are very welcome

  they're clearly putting a ton more

  effort into the weekly editorial stuff

  and now the daily editorial stuff on it

  one one area that this is a little bit I

  don't know of unsettling as the word but

  they they've added many ways in which

  companies with large marketing resources

  at their disposal like companies that

  can afford to have a very large

  marketing effort that coordinates with

  Apple that reaches out that supplies all

  sorts of different materials and and

  achieves all sorts of different you know

  goals and relationships and everything

  there's there is more for them to do

  there are more ways than ever for

  marketing people and marketing teams to

  help boost an app in the App Store and

  that's that's good I think those should

  exist and I think those kind of always

  did exist but now they're baby made a

  little more official but it also raises

  the the bar for independence like us for

  like how much of this marketing are we

  ever really going to do or can we afford

  to do or will we have the the tools and

  resources to do that is a little bit

  less awesome in some ways but I think a

  lot of that's just kind of an inevitable

  maturing of the App Store over time and

  we're gonna have to figure out

  operate in that environment yeah I mean

  it's an MA in many ways I think makes me

  think of search ads which is also

  something that it got enhancements in

  2017 and was something that it's like

  I've just sort of gotten everyone's as

  I've gotten a sense of the cost

  associated with that it's just sort of

  the understanding that the types of APIs

  I make don't justify playing in that

  market and that means that I'm never

  going to be the thing at the top of a

  search result even if I am the top

  search result there's always going to be

  someone else who is willing to pay more

  and as a result you know that's just

  sort of where the best I can hope for a

  second place and in general so far

  that's been fine

  but it is certainly a bit frustrating

  that it's you know the bet that there's

  a there's an heart of the App Store that

  is just not viable for me to take

  advantage of that you know would

  increase my visibility and you know

  maybe that's certainly I see that as my

  problem it's not like it's a problem for

  Fred doing search ads like I'm not I

  think they they're useful and they're

  I'm glad they exist I think overall I if

  they'd went away if I decided that they

  were you know that they decided they

  didn't want search ads anymore I

  wouldn't be sad but it certainly is one

  of the only kind of Dan net downside of

  kind of the way that this you know the

  App Store changed and I think it the App

  Store changes in in fact if anything in

  Iowa in in iOS 11 made the searches this

  dad's even bigger and slightly more

  prominent just because of the way they

  changed the layouts of everything so

  that's just one of those you know it's

  just like one of those things but it is

  it take a net win but in that area is

  probably a much more marginal one for me

  all right so to wrap this up if you can

  pick like one number one wishlist item

  for the App Store in 2018 you have any

  idea what that might be I would loved to

  see Apple further enhance the app

  analytics area especially around sources

  I think that would be very helpful to

  get a bit more insight into like when

  someone's when they say like this

  percentage of my users are browse this

  percentage of my users are search having

  some insight into what they were

  browsing for what they were searching


  I think would be helpful I like that I

  think that that's something that I

  certainly think of that would be would

  be nice I think I would look forward to

  it's like I'm trying think of other like

  things that I would love I love when iOS

  12 and watch OS 5 come out for them to

  drop support for some old devices

  because there's a couple of older

  devices that are making that make

  development a bit more clumsy and

  awkward then I would love and so I'd

  love to see that them to be slightly

  more aggressive and who knows the way

  that they're the recent battery scandal

  shenanigans situation has happened maybe

  they will be more apt to do that so

  that'll make my life easier and their

  life easier but those are these sort of

  the two that come to mind what about you

  I think you know within the realm of

  things that are actually realistic like

  yeah I would love for them to drop that

  70% Commission and and you know get and

  you know give us more like 85% all the

  time like that would be nice it's not

  gonna do it here within the realm of

  what's actually likely and and not

  counting things like API and SDK changes

  the for the actual store itself the

  biggest thing I want is better search

  and I don't just mean like different

  layout of search results I the biggest

  thing I want to see is improvements to

  their relevancy ranking that is the

  hardest part of search the hard part of

  search is not finding results it's

  sorting the results in a reasonable and

  useful way and and that's the area in

  which Apple has so badly fallen down in

  the App Store so much of a time and and

  that affects both the search results

  themselves and as previously discussed

  in previous episodes that affects the

  the relevance pricing and ranking of

  search ads as well so number one for me

  that's I think what the App Store needs

  the most is better search and more

  specifically better relevancy ranking of

  search results yeah I certainly would

  would love that I mean there's some

  things that is always so frustrating and

  I know this is partly because I have

  most of my apps a fairly generic names

  which is an intentional thing but it's

  also sometimes a problematic thing is

  where someone does a literal search for

  the name of my app you know so they they

  type in workouts plus plus that's their

  search term and it doesn't show up

  anywhere in the search results it's just

  very frustrating

  we're like I understand why like I'm

  sure they're just excluding the plus

  plus characters and then sitting there

  doing like a general you know general

  search and so on but it's just one of

  those things where like anytime that

  happens it is certainly very frustrating

  and so I would love for that system to

  be improved

  and but honestly also both as a user

  like I always kind of hate when I'm

  search I do a search for an app or a

  type of app and most of the initial

  results clearly are apps that have been

  updated in a while or are in lower

  quality or whatever that are just like

  apps that have been in the store for a

  long time like that's tombstone or are

  totally irrelevant to what you searched

  for sure so like definitely an

  improvement to that would be very much

  appreciated all right well here's hoping

  to a great 2018 and here's some thanks

  for a good 2017 to the App Store people

  yeah thanks everyone for listening and

  we'll talk to you next week bye