Blinding Light and Deep Dark Evil: Apple's App Store After 5 Years
Apple's App Store created a world where it was not only possible but simpler than ever before to create apps that could radically improve people's lives. There's more to the App Store than rampant, frolicking goodness and light, though. There's darkness. In order to bring light to the world, Apple has to wield power -- the power to reject, to ignore, to make mistakes that exclude developers.
07/11/13 5:00 AM PT
The iTunes App Store is one of the most transformative Apple innovations ever, perhaps the most important to the world, and yet, despite its shiny bright flickering light of goodness, it's freakin' evil.
While Apple's PR machine has been sending out posters to members of the press celebrating the five years of Apple App Store history and giving away a handful of cool iOS apps to anyone who wants to download them, I've been reflecting on the 5th anniversary of the App Store, too.
In some ways, I'm blinded by the staggering numbers and pure joy certain apps have brought to my life.
For instance, there are 900,000 apps available that have been downloaded a staggering 50 billion times, which also resulted in US$10 billion being shared with developers, large and small, around the world. And, at least for consumers, the digital delivery of the App Store made it easier than ever to download software and install it on tiny little computers in their hand. Wirelessly.
These are astounding metrics of success. But is it cool? Sort of. It is the effects of these numbers that matter, though.
Bright Shining Beacon of App Light
By creating an ecosystem in which independent developers could think up great apps and then have a distribution network to a world of customers -- connected to the App Store with credit cards and a quick method of payment -- Apple created the framework that would foster creative and useful apps.
Suddenly finding your way around an unfamiliar city wasn't so daunting -- not only could you find your location on a map, you could get directions to a hotel, food or even a friend. Unsure about the weather? You could see virtual rain clouds as shown through weather maps and NOAA radar images. You could find barbecue tips and recipes, research medical problems, read books, visit the far reaches of the galaxy, and identify the stars seen from your backyard or rooftop.
Through apps, you could organize your tasks, take control of your life (sometimes), and share your precious moments in hundreds of ways -- video, stylized photos, social media. And you could tune out the rough times, the boring times, and play games like Angry Birds.
For consumers, the method of digital app delivery removed the issues of time and place, and set up a framework for which nearly all software is now delivered, providing a mass consciousness blueprint for downloading and installing software. No more need to drive to a brick-and-mortar store to buy an impossible-to-open package -- assuming you'd be lucky enough to find it in stock.
And no more license keys. Remember those huge long numbers you had to painstakingly type in to unlock your software?
Plus, Apple forced developers to opt out of the nonsense of licensing every single household computer and device. Now, because of the App Store, most of us consumers can simply buy an app once and load it onto our various personal and family Macs and iOS devices.
Apple's App Store created a world where it was not only possible, but much simpler than ever before, to create apps that could radically improve people's lives -- help them with diabetes management, encourage them to get fit in thousands of fun ways (like running from zombies), or even just prod them to connect with long lost friends. All through the imaginative power of apps delivered in a fiercely simple, consumer-friendly way.
Leveling the Playing Field
For the most part, Apple's App Store is a level playing field. Sure, developers can game the various systems in an attempt to attract downloads and attention, but Apple puts competing apps side-by-side -- or elevates really great apps that could come from single developers with zero budgets who created something really cool that deserves attention.
Think back five years -- not a lot of big companies were doing this sort of thing. In fact, if any of the other big companies had created an App Store on par with the magnitude of Apple's, I believe many of them would be selling premier app positions. Advertising slots. Favorable search results. Not Apple, though. I respect this -- a lot.
Meanwhile, there's more to the App Store than rampant, frolicking goodness and light. There's darkness, too.
The App Store as a Cesspool of Evil
In order to bring light to the world, Apple has to wield power. The power to reject apps, to ignore them, to make mistakes that exclude developers. To dictate what is good, to dictate what is acceptable (no porn or even stray nipples, but sometimes swimsuits and sometimes not). Apple's App Store and developer program is a bureaucracy at its best and worst -- a place where questions go to die, where answers are vague and maddening.
Apple's App Store is a place where your creative app sure as heck better have a way for all transactions to filter through it directly so that Apple can get it's 30 percent cut -- or face rejection. Skirt the rules? It might fly past the censors (approvers), but know this: It's not the letter of the law that matters with Apple, but the intent, and sometimes, it seems, the intent is impossible to understand. Capricious, evil, and sometimes even right.
Of course, the App Store and Apple's management of it isn't always evil in and of itself -- but its structure can be maddening. Viewing the App Store via iTunes is sometimes easy, often hard, often slow, and the search results usually turn up gobs of things you don't want. The App Store is connected to iTunes and as such, it's bloated and annoying.
Researching apps is hard; evaluating apps is hard; comparing apps is hard; and flagging them for further consideration is hard. For instance, I can open a dozen tabs in a Web browser but zero in the iTunes App Store. Your viewing is limited to a single tunnel of light at a time. Is this actually evil? No, just painful.
What is evil, though, is how fiercely this lens is protected by Apple so that apps and solutions that seek to cut through the clutter, to help people find new apps, are removed from the App Store itself. Half the time, when you find a page on the Web that describes an app, it automatically redirects you to iTunes in the App Store. Apple says, "Come look, but only look this way, through my tube."
The effect of this is where the evil seeps. Suddenly gaming Apple's ranking systems becomes far too important to the success of an app. Instead of old-school marketing investment, we see app developer companies going to great lengths to boost the position of their app in the App Store so that it can be downloaded freely so that the numbers can get high enough to retain a noticeable spot. This effort leads directly to low-cost apps, to free apps, and that leads to in-app purchases to find ways to get consumers to buy.
And that leads to apps with disingenuous ploys to trick consumers into making in-app purchases. Sometimes this is the placement of buy links, but it's also the creation of misinformation that sort of explains something that makes it unclear what a consumer is buying or how much it will cost.
There are games targeted at children that, instead of being $2.99 or $5.99, start out free with basically compelling content... surrounded by really cool content that costs ridiculous prices, like extra big cars for $29.99 in games targeted at children or teenagers who don't yet understand money.
It gets far worse. There are whole schools of development thought centered around the futzing of money -- if you can create an in-game monetary system of coins or gems or tokens, you can remove the connection to real-world dollars in the mind of a consumer, leading them to "buy" things via their constantly connected credit card and Apple ID that they normally wouldn't buy if they weren't being actively manipulated.
The schemes go farther than gems, though: Some game developers work angles of addiction, building habits and rewards, to keep you playing -- and paying. And some subtly change the rules on you -- for instance, creating a great game of skill that requires no in-app purchases to proceed, but then tweaking the game play so that the level of skill required to advance is so high that the only way to advance is to buy more tokens or inventory or hearts. The goal is to put you in a place of discomfort in order to get you to act the way they want -- kind of like training a horse, actually.
Then your skill doesn't matter. What matters is how many gems you can use to buy your way farther into the game. And what you earn? Well, those things can be taken away if you don't continue to win. Your children, by the way, are growing up using these candy-like games, being indoctrinated in how to play and spend.
If you haven't already seen this happen with yourself or your friends and family, read "The Top F2P Monetization Tricks" by Ramin Shokrizade at Gamasutra, which is a site dedicated to the art and business of making games. Depending on the kind of human you are, you'll either love this article or hate it. Either way, it's just a glimpse into app development tactics. Sort of makes your street corner drug dealer seem quaint.
There is pure app gaming evil out there, in your top 10 apps, in fact -- facilitated by the App Store and how it's set up to feed it.
Of course, if you refuse to engage with bad apps and devious developers, the App Store is pretty damn cool, too.