I’ve been interested recently in Android Market; it, and its peers such as the Apple App Store and Ovi and (in a slightly different flavor) the Google Apps Marketplace are all recent arrivals, trying to do a new thing. And I don’t think any of them are doing it very well.
(While I work organizationally right next door to the Market people, at the moment I’m not really close to their internal architecture or long-range plans; I still have something of a black-box view.)
Right now the consensus seems to be that Apple’s is the best among the app-retailing alternatives. But none of them are actually very good. In terms of sorting the wheat from the chaff, and helping you find what you need, these services fall way short of what Amazon provides for media and what Google provides for the Web in general.
Quick example: I searched for “Vancouver Travel” on the App Store and got a pretty-uninspiring overview page with six iPhone apps (no indication of how they were chosen); clicking on “See All” yielded a horrid 78-app splodge, with no obvious organizing principle that I could see. Let’s be fair: the same search in Android Market yields exactly two results; so I’m not claiming the alternatives are better, I’m just saying that I’m seeing evidence of a hard problem that hasn’t been well-solved yet.
The Firehose · I sincerely believe that it’s hard. As I said, I’m not a Market insider yet, but I’ve spent some time looking at the raw firehose of incoming apps. It’s mind-boggling, overwhelming, terrifying.
The Market is growing furiously just at the moment, probably under the influence of the arrival of lots of interesting new devices. Just as with the Internet itself, Sturgeon’s Law applies: almost everything is crap.
Very high-volume crap. Coming, in most cases, from developers nobody’s heard of, so branding doesn’t help much. Likely, in most case, to sink without a trace, which is a real tragedy because there are nuggets of gold among all the dross, things that would enrich buyers’ lives and developers’ wallets if they could only get noticed.
I look at this torrent and try to think of how I’d go about making it more useful and yeah, I have ideas, but man, it’s tough, and I’m not expecting miracles any time soon.
Amazon’s Advantage · Even though Amazon is selling way more titles than any app retailer, the problem they’re solving is more tractable because there’s a whole ecosystem, which includes a big chunk of the world’s academic community, devoted to discovery and criticism of books and music and movies. It operates against a fixed background context, rich with powerful brands; examples include J.K. Rowling and Madonna and Johnny Depp. As we gaze across Amazon’s nearly-infinite virtual retail space, we’re all standing on a platform of largely-shared perceptions of what it is we’re looking at, and for.
The app ecosystem just doesn’t have that. It’s being made up as we go along. Such powerful brands as exist have been imported from other media: Marvel Comics, the BBC, eBay, Monopoly.
Can something as useful as Amazon be built without a vast substrate of cultural commonality? I hope so.
The Search Engine Advantage · Google and its competitors are astoundingly effective at taking a vaguely-worded request — for example vancouver travel — and returning results that are rich in structure and supporting apparatus, not to mention (in that example at least) highly relevant commercial pitches.
This works partly because the Web’s resources are richer in content and metadata than your typical online app listing. But even more important is the rich network of links that serve as grist for the search algorithms’ mill.
I suspect there’s a lot of potential there. Certainly, the retailers could do a better job of making their offerings first-class citizens of the Web by giving them easily-discoverable URIs and encouraging direct links. But anyone who thinks that any existing search engine’s core algorithms can be replicated cookie-cutter style for app retailing is in for a disappointment.
Here’s an interesting offering that crossed my radar the other day: appsfire: “Discover & share the greatest apps”. The fact that it exists is an indictment. I haven’t the vaguest notion whether this kind of approach will work, but I’m glad someone’s trying it.
It’s a Mess · None of the online stores are much like any others, which is a user-experience problem. There’s a huge first-mover advantage, because the first competent offering in any particular niche will get the big download counts and the masses of reviews, creating a positive-feedback loop that makes it really tough for latecomers.
And there is a painful, obvious lack of quality filters. I don’t believe for a moment that the front-end-loaded Apple App Store approval process is anything like the right answer, but as of now I don’t know what the right answer is.
It’s sure an interesting problem.