The iPhone App Store and Software Quality: A User’s Perspective

 | December 23, 2008 4:03 pm

Anyone who has used the iPod touch or iPhone has probably marveled at its beautiful interface and sleek design. The first time that I held one, I realized that it wasn't a question of "if" I would buy one, but "when" I would have the money. That was nearly six months ago and the shine has finally worn off. There is no doubt that my iPod touch is best the media player I've ever owned; but as I mentioned previously, that was only one reason I bought the iPod.

As a frustrated user, I thought I would share how I have arrived at my current love/hate relationship with the iPod Touch. I absolutely love the way which it syncs media with my Mac. I adore its ability to be used as a Universal remote and … I have an incredibly healthy frustration for how it does most other things. While some of this is Apple's fault, a lot of it is not. An observant person might comment, "It's been this way for months. Why rant about it now?"

The simple answer to this question can be answered by an appeal to who I am. I'm an engineer. Engineers study systems and try and fix things. The simple process of study, design, and implement is where some of the very best software comes from. It meets needs, makes money, and helps to simplify life. Given this background I find the current state of affairs on the iPhone particularly frustrating. Moreover, I am not the only one. The iPhone developer community is starting to talk about the problems and how to solve them. There is just one problem, many of the potential solutions smack of simplicity and don't target the underlying illness. As a user, I thought I would write a bit of a manifesto. In particular, I would really like to have two core questions answered. First: Why is there a wider variety of useful software on other (older) devices? Second: After nearly two years on the market and six months of having an open SDK, why is the iPhone still striving to meet its potential?

Not Living Up: Some of the Problems

The iPhone platform gets people excited because it demonstrates what a mobile platform should look like. The interface is beautiful, intuitive and dynamic. Apple thought about what how a mobile device should respond and then designed the experience from the ground up. For the first time in history we have a do-it-all mobile computer. It is both a fantastic toy and a powerful tool.

A Fantastic Toy

Michael Guillemot, the CEO of Gameloft summarized the potential of the iPhone as a gaming platform well:

As a gaming platform, iPhone is one of the top players and really blows classic handsets out of the water. For starters, its … gorgeous screen, touch features, 3D processor … , and accelerometer means that creating games for the device will be a completely new undertaking.

I can't help but agree. As titles such as SlotZ racer, Cro-Mag Ralley, and Crash Bandicoot demonstrate, the iPhone isn't a phone where you can play games; it's a gaming platform in its own right. The iPhone and iPod touch actually delivers on the promise of a completely connected mobile computer and gaming platform.

A Powerful Tool

The games only tell half the story, however. There are a number of hugely powerful applications that highlight just how valuable the iPhone can be. Applications such as Remote, BeejiveIM, and Stanza showcase the iPhone platform beautifully. They offer a great degree of functionality for a very reasonable price. There is just one problem, as good as these applications are, they are overshadowed by the huge number of poorly designed and implemented crapware that has appeared since the App Store launch.

The iPhone and iPod Touch deliver on the promise of a completely connected mobile computer and gaming platform. A true example of one device that does it all, and does it all well.

Toys Masquerading as Tools

Take a moment and compare the tools on the iPhone to other platforms. Despite an operating system that hasn't been updated in five years, Palm includes an onboard program that can edit Microsoft Office Documents. Where is the equivalent for iPhone? In addition there are electronic readers available that can be used for reference documents. They support hypertext links and cross references. Again, why can't iPhone do this? The best reader available, Stanza, chokes while loading a dictionary.

We then arrive at my most sensitive iPhone grievance: the built-in iPhone personal time management tools suck. Why in the world would you only implement sync for calendar events and contacts? Palm has supported calendar, events, contacts, and to-do items for over 10 years! The ActiveSync protocol which Apple licensed includes task sync as part of the specification. I can only believe that this oversight represents an active design choice by Apple! What's worse, there aren't any alternatives available. On Palm, Windows Mobile, or BlackBerry I can choose which time management tools I want.

It All Starts With Developers

At the launch of the SDK, this situation was largely tolerable and while some things have gotten better, many things have not. The overall outlook also hasn't improved. The App Store is slowly descending into madness and chaos, the only way for an app to be financially viable is to practically give it away, and this play's to Apple's advantage. The App Store thrives as a 99 cent wonderland. You go in looking for one thing and while there, buy four others. Apple receives 30 cents of every dollar spent, regardless of where or how. It is in Apple's best interest to stock the App Store with as many applications as possible. They always win, while the developers do not.

Consider the overall trend for a moment. In the four months covered by the graph, the overall price of the top Apps is steadily decreasing. In fact, it has almost dropped by half. While a superficial reading might suggest that this is a boon to consumers, when considered in context, it becomes obvious that the trend is anything but.

While many of the best things are free, software doesn't just spring into existence. Developers must make money, which is done by either charging a lot for a program or by offering deep discounts and making back the cost on volume. Unfortunately, in the App Store, the serious money is made by programs in the top 10 list. They are most visible, and as a result, receive the most traffic. They are also, the most inexpensive. Consider, as of this writing, the top non-game applications in the App Store are:

  1. iFart Mobile – Fart machine for all ages. "The ORIGINAL Digital Sound Machine and entertainment system which brings endless laughs and enjoyment to its users."
  2. iBeer. "Brew and drink beer on your iPhone!"
  3. Air-O-Matic – Pull my finger. Could this be more self explanatory?

Quite an impressive lineup: flatulence and drunken indulgence. Unfortunately, these applications don't bring anything of value to me as a user. Sure, they are entertaining, and while their costs is negligible; it artificially forces the price of other applications down as well. The steadily decreasing price trend has a rather unfortunate effect on the user mindset. If all of the applications are 99 cents, as these useless examples are, it becomes difficult to justify spending more. As a result, a self reinforcing process arises. Developer's discount their applications in an effort to land in one of the coveted top spots. Users justify paying the lower price and refuse to pay anything higher.

But What About Development Costs?

The sad reality, however, is that a good application requires a great deal of time before it is ready for widespread use. This requires money. Some of the best programs (like Facebook or Yahoo communicator) are backed by enormous corporations that can afford the upfront development costs. Others use a business model which allows for them to give the software away for free and make up the money through services or agreements with other retailers (Stanza appears to do this).

There is a third alternative, which might be called the permanent beta. In this camp are those who release half-baked software that doesn't isn't worth the 99 cents it cost to purchase it. Such a strategy assumes that any problems can be patched in later updates. I'll review just one example. In my search for a good contact manager, I've tried literally dozens of paid as well as free examples. My needs aren't very complicated. I want it to sync the tasks with either my computer, or a server. Yet, none of the examples I tried does this very well; these include very expensive programs like OmniFocus. I've spent a great deal of money, time and frustration trying to find a software program that meets a very simple need. I finally found a compromise in Things (though even it doesn't do sync very well). While I am sure that these programs have improved, I was so frustrated with them at first pass, I will never use them again. Further, I tell others to avoid them as well. This is partly done by giving the programs poor ratings and partly by writing "Avoid this at all cost" reviews.

Valuable Tools … and Toys

Developers who create things on the tools side of the iPhone platform might take some lessons from those who work on the toys side. There is a reason why nearly every best-selling application is a game. These top selling games are almost always well designed and thought out. In contrast, the tools rarely are. Further, most of the best selling games command a fair price (ten dollars or higher). This shows an important point: Users are willing to pay the cost if they believe they are getting value for their money.

Most of the tools, however, fail to provide this value. Consider the example of Classics, a reader app which can only be described as gorgeous. While the design and experience is breathtaking, the application merely repackages something that is available for free. Win for style, loss for substance. The same content can be downloaded from eBook sites in PDF format, which is often just as beautiful. A more impressive app would be one which can apply the same gorgeous style/typesetting to any e-book format. Judged by this bar, Classics falls woefully short. As a result, while I purchased and used Classics for a few days, the gimmick quickly wore off and I long since have returned to using Stanza. Sure, the developers got a few quick bucks, but haven't established a long-term revenue strategy. The program has since fallen from the top apps list and sales apparently have slowed as well.

While some developers have argued that iPhone applications shouldn't be desktop applications, I find this reasoning to be more than a slight avoidance of accountability on the part of developers. There is a major difference between seeking to be a desktop application and seeking to provide value. I am more than willing to pay for a useful application, but I resent paying for garbage. While it is indeed true that most application purchases are driven by "instant gratification," this is more a side effect of current affairs. If the App Store continues as the Crap Store, all purchases will suffer. In my case, I no longer browse the app store. Instead, I rely on reviews and the advice of others when purchasing any software. Others I know are taking starting to shop in a similar fashion.

A Solution

The take home message is clear. To justify a ten dollar tag, the program needs to provide ten dollars of value. A download, use once, and delete is not a win for any one. Unfortunately, the vast majority of my App Store purchases fall into this category. The solution starts with the developers and quality of the available software.

To charge more, developers need to release valuable software that actually meets a given need. I would like nothing more than to see software like DocumentsToGo, MobiPocket and others available for the platform. These are programs which I used daily on the Palm and I could easily justify their fifty or sixty dollar price tags. Over the ten years I used Palm, I upgrade multiple times. I simply don't see myself doing that with my current iPhone software. It is clear that the App Store needs work, I think the community is looking at the wrong problem. Let Apple worry about the App Store organization and let developers worry about their rather pathetic offerings. Developers can always have a direct influence on the quality of their wares.

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4 Responses to “The iPhone App Store and Software Quality: A User’s Perspective”

David wrote a comment on December 23, 2008

I agree with quite a few of your points, but not with your ultimate conclusions. There are a lot of developers, myself included, that are spending tons of time and money creating great apps, but it's just not as easy as it seems to swim upstream in the App Store. Here are a couple posts I've written about the situation:

http://appcubby.com/blog/files/app_store_pricing.html
http://appcubby.com/blog/files/financial_realities.html

And a post from James Thomson, developer of the amazing PCalc:

http://www.dragthing.com/blog/?p=30

RobertSOakes wrote a comment on December 24, 2008

@David, I just finished taking a look at your posts. Thank you for publishing the information, I found it very interesting. While I may have spoken a little (too) strongly about the overall low quality of apps in the App Store, that does not mean that there aren't valuable apps available. I think that Apps like Beejive, Stanza, Things, Pandora, and Epocrates Rx are fantastic and clearly showcase the power of the platform. I briefly looked at your own apps, and thought that they looked very well done. But as you note in your posts, they are geared toward niche markets.

It is important to note that even many of the quality Apps still have some shortcomings that seriously limit their usefulness. I think this is partly due to the youth of the platform, but I also think that the iPhone marketplace rewards premature release (the culture of the permanent beta alluded to in the post). In my own case, the lack of a Task Sync with anything other than the desktop version of OmniFocus made it all but unusable for me. This gave it a very short lifespan on my handhold. And I am not even considering the number of apps I purchased that turned out to be utter rubbish.

If I were to outline a solution to the problem (at least from the developer's standpoint), it would need to look dramatically different than the listings tweak described in the Tap Tap Tap blog. First, I would like to see limited free trials enabled by Apple. Second, I would like to see the categories restructured and for rankings to separate "tools" from "toys." Last, it would be nice to see both "staff" reviews as well as consumer reviews. This last feature might incorporate content from sights like Macworld, TUAW, the Apple Blog, among others. I think that each of these changes would reward the solid apps over crap apps.

I am also a sufficient realist to know that these changes will never happen. It is in Apple's best interest to require up front payment and generate massive buzz over a few throwaway applications. Big traffic and thousands of purchases mean more money for them. It also perpetuates the myth of "App Store = Easy Money." Whereas individual developers can't make it up on volume, Apple does not suffer from this same limitation. Anyway ... thanks for sharing your experience. It definitely makes for an interesting and illuminating read.

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