RIP: app discovery on iTunes and Google Play is dead

Grim Reaper

Grim Reaper

When last did you browse an app store?

As the iTunes App Store hurtles towards 1 million apps, with Google Play passing this number in July already, apps — especially good ones — are becoming near impossible to find.

Analyst Benedict Evans hit the nail on the head on episode three of the Cubed podcast, where he likened both app stores to the Yahoo! directory from the late 1990s. All app stores are currently nothing more than a directory of “things” with very limited curation. And they haven’t changed substantially since Apple popularised the idea through iTunes. The software remains a clunkily-expanded version of a music store. And that’s being kind.

Google Play is dramatically better, in that there isn’t a decade of legacy code sitting behind the creaking and bursting-at-the-seams store. But, a directory is a directory is a directory.

Imagine launching a brand new app today. What hope do you have of getting noticed? Where would you get noticed? In the app store environment? Would you have to spend fairly big on paid promotion on the web?

The problem is the top-ranking apps (even within categories) are a somewhat self-fulfilling phenomenon. The average consumer uses the top charts to determine what’s popular (duh!), therefore, any app on those charts stands and infinitely better chance of staying on those charts than any new app stands to break into them (I’m obviously not talking about mega-hit apps and games like Angry Birds Star Wars II).

Where’s the discovery beyond the list of default installs of WhatsApp / Skype / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Google Maps? And what about a layer deeper?

And I’m not even scratching the surface when it comes to paid-for apps. There, the average consumer will almost always choose a free app, as Instapaper founder Marco Arment explains:

Almost everyone, when presented with a paid-up-front app, will first seek a free alternative. (Usually, they’ll find one.) Many people with iPhones and iPads full of apps have never bought a single paid-up-front one.

This means that the “market for paid-up-front apps appealing to mass consumers [on iOS] is gone”. And that market was never there on Android to begin with. Getting consumers to spend a few dollars on an app when your only ‘preview’ of that app was a handful of screenshots and some user reviews (often fake/planted), was never going to be sustainable.

This change is significant and is going to have far-reaching consequences as developers react and adjust their apps, strategies and business models. In-app purchases for expanded/enhanced feature sets will become the norm.

But that solves nothing when it comes to discovery. In fact, in some ways its going to make it more difficult, given that paid-for apps were usually (not always) a sign of quality.

Apple knows discovery is a problem. It’s trying different ways of enabling better search and surfacing of relevant apps, like “Popular Near Me”. Although, the use case for that remains limited. It tried a “Genius” feature to surface similar apps to the ones you had installed, but the recommendations were laughable.

And Google (a search company after all!) knows this too.

Expect both players (and Microsoft with Windows Phone) to focus heavily on improving the app store experience in the next 24 months. A completely overhauled iTunes wouldn’t be a stretch. And the more Apple and Google know about users and their habits (obviously within the bounds of privacy regulations), surely the better the recommendations in both app store environments.

Combining location data, search (/Siri) history, and existing app usage data, surely an algorithm would be able to accurately offer up suggestions unique to me? We shouldn’t be stuck with a default, one-size-fits-all app store ‘homepage’. And, while curated lists are useful, they don’t solve the bigger problem.

Just last week, Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba invested US$50-million in a US-based search engine for mobile apps, Quixey. You’re going to see both Apple and Google lead the gold rush to acquire (or acqu-hire) many more of these companies and the tech behind them in the next year.

For developers, the problem is even more acute – especially in iTunes. Google, via Analytics, now shows user and conversion flow in the Play Store. For iOS, there’s practically no way to tell how users discovered an app and whether or not they downloaded it. Developers are flying blind.

In their current guise, app stores are stuck in a bygone era.

There’s got to be a better way.



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