Happy Anniversary, Apple App Store! Now About That Discovery Problem…

Welcome to the new undiscovered country.

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In light of Apple’s App Store turning five today, it’s worth thinking about the numbers Apple’s marketing arm likes to trot out celebrating the App Store’s explosive growth over the past half-decade.

Fifty-billion and change, that’s how many apps Apple says have been downloaded since the App Store went live five years ago. This was big news a few months ago in May, prompting Apple to roll out a few other eye-popping stats: App Store customers download more than 800 apps per second, topping two billion apps a month, and the company has paid developers over $9 billion to date. Apple even ran a contest in the run-up, and so when Brandon Ashmore of Mentor, Ohio pulled down a copy of Say the Same Thing (a word game starring Chicago alt-rockers OK Go), he pocketed a $10,000 App Store Gift Card in the bargain.

But let’s pull our heads out of Apple’s cloud for a moment and talk about what those figures mean — it’s a short conversation, because no one knows beyond their grandeur. Like any company, Apple doesn’t release detailed sales figures, say download and revenue statistics on a per-app basis, leaving us to gaze in wonder at that five followed by 10 zeroes. It’s like admiring Trump Tower having not a clue what’s transpiring within.

That creates a space for third-party “analytics” firms to occupy, driving at rough estimates, with the BBC running a piece this morning about App Store-related data from a company called Adeven, a mobile marketing company that tracks iOS app downloads. The BBC says it had a peek at some of Adeven’s data, which indicated that “over two-thirds of apps in the [App Store] are barely ever installed by consumers.” Apple’s App Store has around 900,000 apps (brace for the media mania when the store hits one million), another big-ticket number that sounds impressive up front, but according to Adeven, “579,001 apps out of a total of 888,856 apps in our database are zombies.” Zombies here are defined as apps that never make it into Apple’s “most-downloaded” apps chart, which apparently runs somewhere north of 300,000 slots.

That upset PC Magazine‘s Sascha Segan, who calls Adeven’s data “hideously bogus” and claims the company “uses a weird methodology that pointedly ignores what a lot of these ‘zombies’ may be up to.” Segan then argues that he “knows” because as an app-maker who’s developed a barely downloaded app himself, he’s “one of them.” Segan’s overreaching, of course: He says Adeven’s study uses a “weird methodology” without explaining what that methodology might be, much less what’s “weird” about it, and his claim to legitimacy involves an appeal to his membership in the barely-downloaded app club, as if all so-called “zombie” app developers were just clones of him.

But I see and grant Segan’s point that Adeven has a dog in the hunt: Adeven sells products designed to capitalize on its data, namely algorithms it claims can help you better sell your product to the masses. Data that indicates a majority of the products sold through Apple’s app store aren’t moving big numbers works to a company like Adeven’s advantage. That doesn’t itself invalidate Adeven’s data (or interpretations of it), but it triggers a yellow-flashing potential conflict of interest alert. Segan’s point that some non-bestselling apps may be selling to developer expectation is also well-taken, though it’s only anecdotally applicable. It may well be the case that a certain number of long-tail apps are doing just what they’re intended to: comfortably “satisfying” niches. But just because that’s what Segan’s app’s doing for him doesn’t mean all the “niche” app developers of the world with downloads in the thousands wouldn’t rather reach tens of thousands or millions.

Semantic nitpicking aside, my problem with both of these stories is that they ignore a more crucial deficiency: Apple’s App Store discovery problem.

The App Store, like any store, harbors a certain amount of detritus. I don’t mean niche apps only a handful of people are going to appreciate being dismissed by ignorant media critics as detritus, but actual junk, whether poorly designed, sloppily coded or shamelessly exploitive. When you see the revenue train picking up steam, everyone wants a seat, and in my experience, the App Store has its fair share of rubbish. I don’t blame Apple for allowing junk apps to proliferate, of course, and I’d rather see the company err on the side of app agnosticism (and even then, the company has censorship issues), but the flip side is that your browsing experience often bogs down in clutter and questionable search results.

So let’s talk about those 900,000 apps crowding Apple’s mushrooming App Store. How many have you seen? One? Three? Five? Ten? Over a dozen? How do you discover apps on your iPhone or iPad? I usually keep tabs on “Featured” and “Top Charts,” which tend to show the same things, month-in, month-out; new apps do pop in from time to time, but they rarely hang around for long.

Take games, where you’ll still find stuff like Tiny Wings (2011), Angry Birds (2010), Minecraft (2011), Fruit Ninja (2010), Plants vs. Zombies (2010) and more perched at or near the top of the charts. If the App Store were a console/PC game sales chart, the equivalent lineup in 2013 would be Modern Warfare 3, Just Dance 3, Skyrim, Battlefield 3 and Madden NFL 12 (the five chart-topping games of 2011 by sales). Nothing against those games, and doubtless gamers still buy them today, but in a healthy, mature software ecosystem, you’d see more turnover and less of the same titles dominating for years on end. It’s as if we’d hopped in a time machine back to the mid-1990s and everything anyone wants to buy is Myst, a game that dominated the game sales charts for years during PC gaming’s emergent period.

That may explain some of what’s been bugging me about the App Store as it works today: still an immature marketplace, on a still-maturing platform, used by a still-coming-to-grips-with-mobile-devices-as-PCs user base. It makes intuitive sense that some of these stuck-as-bestseller app sales may be driven by the ongoing smartphone conversion rate, as people who’ve never owned a smartphone or tablet buy what they’ve heard their friends talk about: stagnation via platform conversion and word-of-mouth.

But there’s something else going on here: In gaming history, to stick with that genre for a moment, we’ve never seen as many games appear in as short a time (all the games released on the App Store alone to date dwarf the number of games released for every prior electronic game system in history combined). A site like Pocket Tactics, which offers the most insightful coverage of the mobile game space for my money, covers a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what’s available. I’m unaware of anyone trying to seriously keep up with the outflow, because you’d need a small army to. Most PR-related emails I receive these days seem to be from vendors desperate for attention, and I mean any attention at all, positive or negative. Being covered, whether picked or panned, seems to be the new five-star review in mobile app-dom.

Extrapolate to every app genre (and between ecosystems — there’s the spiraling galaxy of Android apps to think about, too) as Apple’s App Store’s tally rockets toward one million and beyond, and the problem’s not going away until we figure out how to better pair user needs, desires and ecosystem awareness with developer content. Siri can’t search apps without goofy workarounds, and even if it could, it’s not semantically intelligent enough to understand, say, that you want a list of IBS-related apps, but constipation-specific ones, with an above four-star user average rating, less than six months old, FODMAP and gluten-free diet-aware and free without in-app purchases. It doesn’t help that Apple’s existing App Store text-field search and filtering options are primitive by even legacy search engine standards.

We can learn a little, most of it superficial, by thinking about the most flattering numbers a company rolls out, e.g. 50 billion app downloads. We can learn considerably more by focusing on the less flattering ones, or thinking about the flip side of mere quantity. Devising interfaces that meaningfully synchronize user needs with marketplace products should be foremost on Apple’s (and everyone else’s) minds, now more than ever as new content flourishes at unprecedented rates. For me, the most important thing Apple (or Google, or whoever) can do next isn’t faster phones or lighter tablets or post-Retina screens, it’s figuring out how to make me aware (without being intrusive) of all the things I might find useful, hidden in a surging ocean of information.