Irony of the App Store

July 31 2009
This is what it looks like, sensible people who don't spend money on frivolous electronics.

This is what it looks like, sensible people who don't spend money on frivolous electronics.

I’ve figured out what’s been bugging me about the iPhone App Store (apart from all the platform restrictions and draconian approval process, that is. I mean, come on, we could have cool AR apps by now but someone won’t let us.).

Like most people, using the App Store has been an absolute revelation in terms how easy it is to use, and how many software programs I’m suddenly prepared to pay for, despite a lifetime of sticking mostly to the free stuff. The things it enables my phone to do are amazing, from playing a game, to figuring out which star I’m looking at, to streaming obscure Zambian radio stations to my car.

Pocket Universe: the location of the pole star finally revealed.

Pocket Universe: the location of the pole star finally revealed.

I’m especially happy with the apps that let you do almost everything tethering does, but without the contract or having to jailbreak. Like Documents, which will download stuff from Google Apps, share it with a nearby PC over WiFi.

As most iPhone/iPod Touch owners are aware, though, the one weakness of the App store is being able to find good apps from the 50,000+ that are up there if they’re not listed in the current top 25s. The whole thing is very much like Digg – if you’re not one of the ones at the top of the list, I suspect you’ll vanish quickly from the chart regardless of merit and never be seen again.

Part of the problem, which doesn’t seem to have been picked up on, is that while Apple has a peer review system in place – you can award stars to apps you like and help them climb the recommendation tree – it isn’t very good. All systems like this, from eBay to Amazon, are fundamentally flawed in that they’re a) open to abuse by cynical scammers and b) as a general rule the public doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

(Don’t be offended by that, how can you confidently award an app five stars if you haven’t played with hundreds of similar ones? Sure, you may have found one that changes your life, but there may be one that changes your life more that you just don’t know about yet. That’s why professional reviewers aren’t quite all unemployed yet.)

Here’s the problem with the App Store, though. You can rate an app from within iTunes (which, because I’m Linux based, I only run occasionally through a virtual machine for the purposes of back-up). But you have to go out of your way to do it – iTunes searching mechanism is slow and tedious when you’re looking for something you need. It’s not exactly inviting to go into when you don’t have to just to rate a program you like. The only time you’re actively prompted to award stars to an app is when you uninstall it.

Would you rate this app?

Would you rate this app?

Now, I don’t know about you, but the only time I ever uninstall apps is when I don’t like them, have got bored of them or have found something better. Or it’s become borked and needs reinstalling. None of these situations predisposes one to award a high score. Like most things internet-y, only the negative comments filter through.

Which is why – I suspect – some of my favourite apps only have three star ratings and I don’t use the in store scorings as any kind of recommendation now.

You can't rate an app from your local library, you have to revisit the app in the store. Odd.

You can't rate an app from your local library, you have to revisit the app in the store. Odd.

There’s no easy way round it. To change the situation you either need to put up nag screens on every app until stars are awarded – which would be annoying beyond belief – or you need to remove the question on uninstallation that asks you to give out points. Peer review is a potentially wonderful thing, but if the mechanism is skewed towards one end of the score sheet, there’s a problem.

While we’re on the subject, App developers really should learn the value of demo versions too. Just because it’s 69p, without a reliable second opinion there’s not many apps I’ll take a chance on. There’s several I’ve upgraded to the full version of though.

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