Kenneth Ballenegger

Angel Investor, Engineer, Startup Founder

App Store Retrospective

Three years ago, I wrote a summary of the major problems with Apple’s App Store as an email on the iphonesb mailing list. Three years later, I think it’s a good time to look back and see how Apple has handled the situation, and assess whether we’re better off.

App Store:

Junk Apps: The App Store is filled with junk apps made in, at most, ten minutes. The proliferation of iPhone success stories has given rise to an epidemic of hopeful developers taking shortcuts hoping to make a quick buck. These apps make up 98% of the App Store’s 50k apps. This creates needless clutter that makes it hard for the real apps that real developer spent real time and real money on to get noticed.

App Store Reviews: There are plenty of problems with the reviews on the store: they’re nearly always of terrible quality. There’s no way to contest or respond to an erroneous review. There’s not even a way to respond to a review saying there’s a problem with the app with a solution, or a “that’s coming in the next update—hang tight.”

Rate On Delete: Apple is artificially creating needless bad ratings by asking users to rate an app when they delete it, which quite obviously only creates 1-star ratings. For example: iLaugh Lite 1.0 had over a third of a million users, and many of them were happy and kept coming back to the application, I could see from the analytics. Yet, my rating was 2 stars, because a couple thousands (out of a quarter of a million) users didn’t like the app and deleted it and rated it 1 star. The hundreds of thousands of happy users, though, didn’t delete the app and therefore were not asked to rate the app. This creates artificially low ratings.

Search is broken. Either you’ve got to put a whole lot of keywords in your application name, which sucks for plenty of reasons, or you’ll fall behind the ones who do. Often, you just won’t show up in search that should totally return you first. Advanced search is useless and impractical.

Top Apps Charts: These charts have so much effect on whether an application gets noticed and downloaded that whether you show up on these charts can decide the fate of your application. Which also causes the next point. 

Ringtone ($0.99) Apps: As has been very well discussed by Craig Hockenberry on his furbo.org blog, app prices have become a race to $0.99. Since the charts are counted by downloads, no matter the price of the app, it means that a lower price which causes more downloads will make your app more likely to succeed.

Upgrades, Promotions, Variable Pricing: No way to offer paid upgrades, which is a HUGE problem. There’s still no way to give out copies of your app over the 50 promo codes limit, which only work in the US. You can’t do bundle promotions, discounts or anything of the sort either.

Customer Data: Your customer data is hidden. There’s no way you can promote another app by you or a paid 2.0 upgrade (since you’ll have to create a new app for that). There’s no way you can switch an app to another iTunes Connect account if it gets acquired, without losing all customers and not giving them any further updates. (Check out futuretap.com’s blog post.)

App Review:

Lack of Transparency: There is no communication between us and Apple. Apple doesn’t want communication. They specifically block communications. Emails to their support never get answered, and phone calls just tell us to email. Often, they reject apps on no grounds, or simply obscurely and vaguely referring to some TOS article that only partly applies to the situation, leaving you no way to communicate back and contest the decision.

Updates: Updates take ages to get approved. They sometimes get rejected while being only a bug-fix update to an app that got approved. (This has happened to me.) And even when they get approved, it takes forever, possibly leaving some critical bug or crash in your application and costing you tons of negative reviews and ratings. (Has also happened to me.) Garrett Murray posted a couple interesting articles on the topic.

Review Time: Apple often takes many weeks to review anything posted to them. Some of my reviews took up to three months. (No kidding!) This is just not viable. Period.

Arbitrary Rejections: There have been countless examples of arbitrary and unwarranted rejection. I have my very own. There have been countless more examples reported.

iTunes Connect: It is a piece of garbage. There is simply no other polite way to put it. It is painfully slow. It is awfully designed. For example, not too long ago I was editing the description for my application, iLaugh. I had opened iTunes Connect’s page for my application in one tab and in another tab I opened another of my application’s info for reference. When I was done, I submitted the changes and, to my horror, instead of updating the description as it should have it overwrote the info of the other application I had open in the other tab with what I had submitted in the first tab. This is just an example, but there are plenty more ways in which iTunes Connect constantly screws up. There’s no way to delete an application, or change an update’s version number. It also gave me erroneous sales reports a few days back. Overall, it easily wins as the worst web app I have ever used. Period.

If this list of complaints sounds oddly familiar, it should, because it’s surprisingly still relevant today. While Apple has made a few steps forward—for example, by getting rid of rate-on-delete—it has made an equal number of steps back. An example is the recent UDID fiasco.

But what’s even more scary, to me, than a mistake Apple might have made recently (such as its deprecation of UDIDs) is how relevant this old list of complaints remains. Remember, when I wrote this, the App Store was just one year old. I figured, they might just not have had time to get to these items, and that they’d improve as time went by. But, since then, they’ve had time to replay the entire life of the App Store thrice more, and for the most part, nothing has changed.

This indicates apathy. Apple just doesn’t care about its third-party developers. Their business, at the end of the day, is in selling hardware. They have no motivation to make it easy for developers to build a business on top of their platform. They don’t even care, it seems, about fostering innovation.

The App Store’s biggest flaw, at the end of the day, is that it is not a free market. It is not a meritocracy, and app success is slave to the whim of a corporate overlord that changes it mind without explanation more often than a 5 year old.

Disclaimer: this is my own opinion and in no way reflects my employer’s.