As I see it, the App Store has three main problems. One of them is a customer’s concern, and the other two are developer’s:

  1. Customers hate paying for crappy applications.
  2. Developers have a hard time getting exposure for their apps.
  3. Developers want high enough prices to support development of their applications.

Identifying these as problems isn’t exactly a revelation, but I want to state them clearly. That way, when I examine potential solutions, I can see how well a given solution solves them.

Customers care about revenue, right?

A common solution that has been bandied about is the idea of changing the application ranking algorithm. Right now, applications are sorted based on how many people have bought it, which strongly favors the $0.99 applications. The “fix” is to rank applications by revenue. The logic is that by incorporating the price of an application into the ranking algorithm, it won’t be so biased towards $0.99 applications, and higher priced applications can flourish.

From what I’ve heard of this argument, it is attempting to fix both developer problems: non-$0.99 applications would get more exposure and applications can have higher price tags.

Unfortunately, this solutions fails the test for a number of reasons:

  1. Sorting by revenue heavily favors large companies who produce blockbuster applications, such as Sega with Super Monkey Ball. Since they are well known, they can charge more and still sell a lot. This solution effectively squeezes out any small companies, or anyone with a niche application.

  2. This solution only helps the top 100 revenue earners. Everybody else is still screwed. A solution that only fixes the problem for a small fraction of the developers isn’t really a solution.

  3. Any ranking algorithm, no matter how complex, can be gamed. If an app is in the top 100, it makes an enormous amount of sales. That’s a lot of incentive to game the system.

  4. The solution not only doesn’t address the customer’s concerns, it serves to confuse the customer more. What customer asks how much revenue a product generates, when deciding on a product of any kind? It is possible they might ask what the best selling one is, with the thought that it’s popular because it’s good or at least safe.

    Since this solution hurts the user experience, it’s pretty much DOA. Apple isn’t going to change the App Store to make it more difficult to use, even if it does help a few developers.

I think the proponents of this solution want it because it sounds like a quick fix that will at least shake up the top 100, and maybe give them a chance to squeeze into it. While I can sympathize with the desire to get more exposure, this solution doesn’t actually fix the problem and only serves to make things worse for users. But before I talk about another solution, I want to talk about the problem of getting exposure for an application.

Fixing the wrong problem

So the deal is the App Store can’t actually fix all three of the problems I mentioned. Specifically, it can’t fix developers not getting enough exposure for their applications. I know that Apple said they’d take care of all the marketing of iPhone applications when the store launched, but it’s time to face the fact that they can’t and won’t. Apple won’t feature all apps on the front page, and even if they tried, they could only do each one for a short amount of time. It’s simply not enough to bring in a sustainable stream of customers.

This has parallels in the real world. A store, such as Target, may advertise products it sells, but only certain ones and only for a certain amount of time. The manufacturer also must do some advertising in order for people to become aware of the product and actually buy it. This is true for all products, including the $0.99 a pack chewing gum that’s next to the checkout lane (the real world’s version of the top 100 apps).

Developers are too wrapped up in getting on the top 100 as a means for getting exposure. Everybody wants their product next to the check out lane, but the reality is only a few cheap, impulse buy type of products will ever make it there. All the other products are going to be out in the store aisles, where customers will have to be looking for them to find them.

The bottom line is that finding customers for your application isn’t a technical problem, and a technical solution isn’t going to fix it. It is a marketing problem, and it requires marketing to fix it. Since developers can’t count on Apple doing the marketing, they need to do it themselves. I know that’s scary news to those of us who have only ever been engineers, but we need to acknowledge it and work through it.

Taking a test drive

Now that we’ve learned that getting exposure for an application isn’t a problem the App Store can fix, I want to focus on the remaining problems it can fix. Another solution that has been proposed is the now ubiquitous (on the desktop) try-before-you-buy model. The idea is simple: a potential customer can download an application for free and use it for a set amount of time, say 30 days. At the end of the 30 days, the potential customer can either buy it or it’s deleted from their phone.

This solution, while more complicated than the ranking solution, actually solves the problems:

  1. Because the customer gets to try out the application before buying it, they don’t have to worry about paying for a crummy application that doesn’t solve their problem.

  2. Since customers can try out more expensive apps without risk, they are more likely to buy the more expensive application, since they can figure out if it’s worth the price or not. This allows more expensive apps to survive in the App Store.

As an added bonus, the top 100 becomes more accurate because only the apps that users actually think are worth something increase in rank, instead of apps that had the best screenshots or descriptions.

The thing to remember is that the App Store is still young and still maturing. While it is different from other markets, it’s not that different from the desktop market or the other mobile markets. People still want to try out applications before they buy them, and developers still need market their products if they want someone other than their mother to know about them.