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Is The App Store In Danger Of Becoming The Next iTunes?

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A large factor in the iPhone’s success has been the App Store, an easy marketplace for buyer and seller to come together for the sale of apps. From its original guise as a simple tool the App Store has grown and become more complex as it has become more crowded and the net result is that the App Store is now starting to be a serious obstruction to the distribution of apps.

First of all the obvious problem. As the number of apps available has grown so it has become more difficult for users to find new and useful tools. Search on the App Store is weak and Apple hasn’t really provided a proper remediation for this. Its next move, the introduction of ads to search results, promises to make things worse for everyone.

Then there is pricing. Publishers drove app pricing down in the early days of the App Store, in the race to build sales numbers. Effectively the average sale price of an app in the App Store is zero. Apple introduced the in-app purchase as a way for publishers to better monetise their efforts, but this seems to be of limited success. For the majority of users the compulsion to pay for extra resources or levels just isn’t there. For apps which do sell IAPs in volume the income stream is heavily dependent on a very few users who are heavily engaged.

So now publishers are trying to profit at both ends of the game, with apps that require an upfront purchase and IAPs becoming more common.

That pricing model has deterred several publishers from moving software from the Mac to iOS, primarily because the lack of both control and chargeable upgrades makes the whole development effort uneconomic.

That’s a problem if Apple is serious about making the iPad Pro a true PC competitor. Professional software requires professional levels of customer support and engagement.

Apple’s fix is to provide a subscription plan which will allow an ongoing financial relationship between customer and developer. Maybe. Apple’s definition of ‘Content’ and ‘Services’ as app categories that can utilise the new pricing structure seems weak. Will developers know in advance that their apps will meet Apple’s entry requirements for subscriptions or are they at risk of putting development efforts into apps that Apple then rejects for not conforming to its subscription vision?

Apple hardly has a good record on app approvals, or changing the game whenever it sees fit.

How can this be fixed? Well the first thing Apple probably needs to look at is the mess that is iTunes on Mac and PC. Even the most ardent Apple fan can’t defend this barely navigable piece of bloatware. Ensuring the lessons of iTunes are learnt will help the App Store become a better tool.

That means separating out services into appropriate locations. Professional software needs a professional app store, with quite different pricing structures, the ability to provide trial versions of software and paid upgrades. There should be no free software in this version of the Store.

IAPs should be an ‘either-or’ scenario. Apps should be required to offer a paid, one-off purchase that unlocks all functionality, or be free but offer the ability to unlock content as an IAP. Not both. That prevents user frustration and also poor user experience. Two things that Apple should be able to guarantee as part of its very profitable stewardship of the app experience.

Finally search. This needs to get much, much better. The absence of an advanced search option on the iPhone is a mistake. Users should be able to very closely define what sort of app they are looking for right from the get go. Without this utility search results are painful.

It’s hard to see anything about the App Store as being anything but successful, after all both Apple and developers are raking it in to the tune of billions of dollars every year. Past success is no guarantee of future prosperity and if the App Store becomes a friction point in the buying process things could turn sour very quickly.

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