Developing Perspective

#176: Make it up in Volume


00:00:00   Hello and welcome to Developing Perspective. Developing Perspective is a podcast discussing

00:00:04   news of note, denial of development, Apple, and the like. I'm your host, David Smith.

00:00:08   I'm an independent iOS and Mac developer based in Herndon, Virginia. This is show number

00:00:11   176, and today is Thursday, March 6th. Developing Perspective was never longer than 15 minutes,

00:00:18   so let's get started.

00:00:19   All right, so this is going to be part two of my series about towards a better app store,

00:00:24   practical things that I think we can do to make the app store a better place. But before

00:00:28   Before I dive into that, I just want to do a quick aside to follow up about the request

00:00:33   I had two episodes ago to asking people for reviews for the show, whether it made any

00:00:37   difference in iTunes, everyone always says it does.

00:00:40   Thank you to all the people who contributed.

00:00:42   I think I had something like 150, 200 reviews over the last couple of weeks, which is awesome

00:00:47   and amazing and thank you for that.

00:00:49   It appears to have had no impact as far as I can measure or tell on my download numbers,

00:00:53   the visibility in iTunes, being featured, ranked, anything like that.

00:00:57   So thanks, I appreciate it, but just this is an interesting thing to find.

00:01:02   It doesn't seem to be quite as important as people may otherwise think.

00:01:05   Maybe it will help in terms of gradually growing listenership, in terms of people see it in

00:01:09   iTunes and it has a nice review.

00:01:10   Maybe it will help there, but certainly nothing dramatic, but I really appreciate you all

00:01:15   contributing.

00:01:16   All right, so I'm going to get into the main topic today, and today the aspect of the App

00:01:21   Store I'm going to tackle today is its size.

00:01:24   It seems a reasonable place to start, especially given that a lot of the other issues in the

00:01:27   the other challenges and the other things that I'm going to be talking about derive

00:01:31   directly from the challenges of scale, of size, of there being over a million applications

00:01:36   listed on the App Store. That a lot of the things like search or categorization or those

00:01:41   types of issues are driven by the size of it, why they become so hard, why it becomes

00:01:45   so tricky to give a customer a good experience in those is because the App Store is so big,

00:01:50   because it has a million items. If you imagine a store with that many items and you were

00:01:55   are trying to find something in it,

00:01:57   I don't know exactly what the equivalent is,

00:01:59   but it seems like that's a very big store.

00:02:01   I don't know if that's a Super Walmart, if that's

00:02:04   going to Costco.

00:02:05   I imagine it's even bigger than that,

00:02:07   in terms of trying to imagine what a million items in a store

00:02:09   would look like.

00:02:10   It's pretty daunting.

00:02:12   But it's an interesting thing, too,

00:02:14   because the size of the App Store

00:02:16   is something that is so often thrown around

00:02:18   as this valuable or useful metric for judging

00:02:21   the health and vitality of the ecosystem.

00:02:24   I'll hear Tim Cook talking to the Wall Street Journal,

00:02:27   and he'll brag on how many apps they have,

00:02:29   how many apps they have, compared to so-and-so,

00:02:32   compared to such-and-such.

00:02:33   Like, that is something that they have loved getting.

00:02:35   Every time you get a keynote, they're

00:02:36   always up there throwing it around.

00:02:38   Hey, man, we've got a million apps.

00:02:39   We've got 800,000 apps.

00:02:40   We've got 400,000 iPad apps.

00:02:44   And I understand that there's a certain value

00:02:46   in having a diverse and deep inventory in your store

00:02:50   to a certain point.

00:02:51   At a certain level, you need to have

00:02:53   that diverse deep inventory in order

00:02:55   that you can reasonably meet everybody's needs.

00:02:59   And so having a certain amount of volume is important.

00:03:03   It's an important thing as a customer to go into a store,

00:03:05   knowing that there's a reasonable expectation

00:03:07   that you're going to find what you're looking for.

00:03:10   But at this point, I think we're well beyond that point.

00:03:14   We're well beyond the point where the size getting larger

00:03:17   is a good thing.

00:03:18   Where the size getting larger is an important thing

00:03:20   making the customer be able to find things that they want.

00:03:24   The problem you have now is you have duplication.

00:03:26   You have people spamming the App Store.

00:03:28   You have decay of old apps.

00:03:30   You have-- it makes things like search tricky.

00:03:33   It makes editorial staff curating new arrivals more

00:03:37   daunting, because there's just more things that they

00:03:39   have to try and filter through.

00:03:42   So as size as it is now, what I would argue

00:03:44   is that the App Store's size is hurting it,

00:03:48   rather than helping it.

00:03:49   And I don't exactly know when that transition point happened,

00:03:53   but it seems like it's probably about a year ago,

00:03:56   if I had to just sort of generally put my finger on it,

00:03:58   that about a year ago, it kind of hit that point where

00:04:01   it wasn't so much about developers branching out

00:04:05   and finding all the little niches that needed to be filled

00:04:07   so much as having done all that reasonably.

00:04:11   And now it's kind of just being piled on top and on top

00:04:14   and on top in a way that isn't constructive.

00:04:17   At the same time, it's not an easy problem to solve.

00:04:20   I mean, how do you determine what apps should be allowed

00:04:23   and which ones shouldn't?

00:04:24   How many Flappy Bird clones should

00:04:26   be allowed to exist on the store?

00:04:28   Five, 10, 1,000?

00:04:30   At what point do we have enough of those to that we don't

00:04:33   really need to add more?

00:04:35   And I don't know if you can easily say that.

00:04:39   It's kind of completely arbitrary to say.

00:04:40   I remember they were saying about a third of games

00:04:43   in the couple weeks after Flappy Bird was pulled

00:04:46   were clones of it.

00:04:47   Like, is that a good thing?

00:04:48   Is that a sign of vibrance and vitality?

00:04:50   Or is that just clogging up the works with junk?

00:04:55   And another thing, too, is it becomes incredibly hard,

00:04:58   I think, on the app review side.

00:05:01   I have a lot of sympathy, honestly, for app review

00:05:04   when I think about the size and the scope of the problem

00:05:07   that they're dealing with.

00:05:09   There's a great chart.

00:05:10   If you chart the number of new apps approved each day,

00:05:14   which is a number I'm getting from 148apps.biz, who

00:05:17   has a great resource on App Store metrics.

00:05:20   If you look at the chart of that, which I'll

00:05:22   have in the show notes, and I also

00:05:23   recommend just looking at the source data for it.

00:05:26   But at this point, App Review is at a pretty consistent basis,

00:05:31   dealing with at least 1,000 new apps each approved every day.

00:05:37   And that's not updates.

00:05:38   That's not the number of updates that they're

00:05:40   having to look at as well.

00:05:41   Just new apps that are being approved each day, it's about 1,000, and has been around

00:05:47   a very steady trajectory growing basically since the App Store was launched five years

00:05:52   ago.

00:05:53   And that has got to be an incredibly daunting problem in terms of managing that.

00:05:59   But at the same time, if they don't, if they don't continue to be very strenuous and tight

00:06:07   on that, then the quality will fall.

00:06:10   And that's also not good.

00:06:13   So what does that mean?

00:06:15   What is that-- where does that kind of leave us?

00:06:17   And that will kind of get into my recommendations.

00:06:20   But before that, I have a quick aside about this.

00:06:23   It was a couple of assumptions that I'm just going to make

00:06:26   about recommendations that I have that I'm not going to gate

00:06:29   them against this or otherwise.

00:06:30   I'm just going to say that I want

00:06:33   to assume that Apple is constrained by neither budget

00:06:36   nor desire in making the App Store better.

00:06:40   That somewhere in their massive profit and loss,

00:06:43   they have the money to afford the people they would need

00:06:45   in order to manage any whatever policies they

00:06:47   wanted to implement.

00:06:49   And then two, they have the desire and the motivation

00:06:52   to do that, to make the App Store an amazing place

00:06:55   to find software.

00:06:56   That they-- creating an experience

00:06:58   where any app a customer downloads

00:07:00   is going to lead to some amount of satisfaction,

00:07:03   lead to that customer wanting to buy more and more apps,

00:07:06   in the hopes that ultimately then they're

00:07:08   going to be buying more and more phones, which

00:07:09   is great for Apple and great for app developers.

00:07:12   So I want to get into my actual recommendations, though.

00:07:15   So what can we do about volume?

00:07:18   And dealing with volume is actually a really hard problem.

00:07:20   It's something that, honestly, I've

00:07:22   been struggling with for the last couple of weeks

00:07:24   as I've been preparing for this series,

00:07:26   because originally I kind of started

00:07:29   from that place of saying, well, which are the good apps?

00:07:31   Which are the ones that deserve to be in the store?

00:07:33   Which are these apps that if I was sitting--

00:07:36   If you showed me a random cross-section of the App Store,

00:07:39   I could point to it with my apps and say, get rid of that,

00:07:41   get rid of that, get rid of that.

00:07:43   That one should stay.

00:07:43   That one should stay.

00:07:44   And honestly, I think I could apply my own tastes

00:07:47   in that way.

00:07:49   And that would work for the App Store that's best for Dave.

00:07:53   But that really doesn't generalize,

00:07:56   because the things that I like and the tastes that I have

00:07:59   aren't necessarily things that are appropriate to apply

00:08:01   as gates to the App Store.

00:08:03   Because I know there are apps that I don't like

00:08:05   that I think other people do like.

00:08:07   And it gets a very slippery slope, kind of tricky thing,

00:08:10   to try and impose that kind of strongly opinionated taste

00:08:16   onto what apps go into the store.

00:08:18   Now, there's some degree of this that you can always--

00:08:21   that it's going to have to be applied.

00:08:22   There is some amount of things that Apple says,

00:08:25   this is allowed, this isn't.

00:08:26   This is allowed, and this isn't.

00:08:28   And there's a certain degree of taste going into that.

00:08:30   But it's not quite as personal or as qualitative

00:08:35   as it would have to be for me to be able to say only the good apps should be in the store.

00:08:41   If that was my recommendation, it would be kind of hollow because, well, what does that

00:08:45   mean? How do you define quality? It's a very hard problem. And so I had to kind of back

00:08:51   off from that. I kind of had to think that's not going to work. I can't invent this set

00:08:59   of criteria that would allow the Apple to say, "These apps out. These apps good." Because

00:09:05   the result is that the App Store would likely suffer from that. It would be more boring.

00:09:09   It would have less diversity. It wouldn't be quite as fun of a place to work. But they

00:09:15   still need to do something. I think they still need to do something to contract the size

00:09:19   of the store, to raise the average quality of apps up while at the same time doing it

00:09:24   in a reasonable way. And I ended up coming at something that's derived from an old parenting

00:09:31   adage that you should have few rules but enforce them strictly. And I think that's something

00:09:37   that I think the App Store should do to apply to this situation. And specifically, if I

00:09:43   was going to put that into a more specific recommendation, is that apps should be required

00:09:48   to pass approval on an ongoing basis. That the app review guidelines, which generally

00:09:56   I would say are very good, they've evolved, they've adapted. I think Apple has done some

00:10:00   pretty smart and clever things in terms of the way that they've adjusted them, the way

00:10:04   that they still were things, that they're a little bit of gray area but not too much.

00:10:08   By and large, the actual rules themselves, if you read through them, I think are a pretty

00:10:13   a good set of saying this is a great baseline for what an app and the App Store should be.

00:10:20   But except in exceptional situations where it turns out that an app was hiding something

00:10:25   from App Review or it turns out it's malware or something like that, once an app's approved

00:10:29   right now, it is always available. The issue isn't so much that the rules are wrong, the

00:10:36   issue is when those rules are applied. Right now, once an app's approved, it'll just sit

00:10:42   in the App Store forever, even if it wouldn't necessarily

00:10:46   pass muster now.

00:10:48   I think of all these apps that-- for example,

00:10:51   the App Store doesn't allow emoji unlocking apps anymore.

00:10:55   I think that was one of these things that they no longer

00:10:57   allow.

00:10:58   But there's a whole bunch of them

00:10:59   that are still sitting in the App Store that are still

00:11:02   getting downloaded that are kind of pointless.

00:11:06   But they're in the store because Apple has this tendency

00:11:08   to not go back and reapply the rules to existing things.

00:11:14   Now obviously that's a little bit dangerous, or scary maybe,

00:11:18   as a developer, that I could have something approved

00:11:21   and then it comes down a couple years later,

00:11:23   a couple months later, I come back

00:11:24   and Apple says, hey, that's actually not cool anymore.

00:11:27   But that situation isn't really practically different

00:11:29   than where we are now.

00:11:30   Because if I ever want to do an update to that app, which

00:11:32   hopefully I would want to, I'm going

00:11:34   to have that same criteria applied to me.

00:11:36   It would only really apply to these cases

00:11:38   where apps are being abandoned or shelved but are still sitting around in the store.

00:11:44   And it seemed like something too where once I kind of hit on that as a concept that every

00:11:50   app in the store should be able to pass review today, that's a perfectly reasonable thing.

00:11:57   At least on the surface it seems. That if you have a set of criteria that any new app

00:12:03   it has to meet to be in the store,

00:12:06   that same criteria should be applied

00:12:07   to apps on an ongoing basis.

00:12:11   Now, exactly how you do that doesn't matter quite so much

00:12:14   to me.

00:12:14   You could imagine a variety of things

00:12:16   where on a monthly basis every app is reviewed,

00:12:19   or on a quarterly basis, or honestly, it

00:12:21   would be an improvement even if it was just on an annual basis.

00:12:23   That on the anniversary of an app, if it hasn't been updated,

00:12:27   it gets evaluated, or something like that.

00:12:30   And you then get a rejection.

00:12:33   and likely it would be some kind of time bound thing.

00:12:35   Like you don't necessarily immediately pull it

00:12:36   from the store.

00:12:37   You say you have 30 days to submit

00:12:39   an update that passes review or your app will be delisted.

00:12:42   Something like that.

00:12:43   And this simple rule, I think, would apply more generally

00:12:47   to a lot of other problems.

00:12:49   I think of the issue of abandonware in the App Store,

00:12:54   which I think is actually kind of a big problem,

00:12:56   that I think a huge proportion of the apps in the store

00:12:59   are kind of abandoned, that aren't updated for iOS 7,

00:13:02   for example, that aren't taking advantage of new technologies

00:13:05   that may be broken in a variety of ways,

00:13:08   that wouldn't mean that they wouldn't pass review now.

00:13:11   But the developer has no incentive

00:13:12   to take them from the store, and so they just sit there.

00:13:16   It's like since February 1, all new submissions to the App

00:13:19   Store have to be built against the latest SDK,

00:13:21   and to quote Apple, "be optimized for iOS 7."

00:13:24   And if that's going to apply to new apps,

00:13:26   it should apply to old apps as well,

00:13:28   with some reasonable boundaries to it.

00:13:31   But this is the thing that I think

00:13:32   would be the most rational approach for contracting

00:13:36   the App Store, to say, we have these rules.

00:13:39   We have these guidelines.

00:13:40   We've put a lot of time and energy and effort

00:13:42   into making these guidelines what they should be.

00:13:44   Let's apply it to every app.

00:13:46   Let's make sure that any app in the store that a customer buys

00:13:49   is going to meet those guidelines.

00:13:51   Because right now, the honest answer

00:13:52   is, unless it was very recently approved, it probably doesn't.

00:13:56   And that's not good for customers.

00:13:58   That's not good for developers.

00:14:00   That's putting in a situation where people

00:14:02   are going to be disappointed.

00:14:03   And that's the thing that worries me.

00:14:06   It's like the stated goal of the guidelines--

00:14:08   this is from Apple's website-- is

00:14:09   to ensure that all apps are reliable, perform as expected,

00:14:13   and are free of offensive material.

00:14:16   And I think every app should meet those criteria.

00:14:18   And I think as you created a system where

00:14:20   you had to re-evaluate apps on an ongoing basis,

00:14:23   I think that would be an actual true statement.

00:14:25   And that would be much better.

00:14:27   All right, that's it for today's show.

00:14:29   Like I said, this is part of probably going to be a seven or eight part series.

00:14:32   I've got all kinds of other topics and things I'm going to be addressing for kind of trying

00:14:35   to think of these similar kind of things.

00:14:37   Like what are practical things that you could change the policy to that would make the App

00:14:41   Store better?

00:14:42   I'd really, really appreciate your feedback.

00:14:45   If you have any thoughts or comments, please let me know.

00:14:47   This is an ongoing thing and I really want some discussion to hopefully come out of it.

00:14:52   If you want to get a hold of me, I'm @_davidsmith on Twitter.

00:14:55   You can email me, david@developmentprospectives.com.

00:14:57   Otherwise, have a great week.

00:14:58   Happy coding.