App quality

Marco Arment ended his polemic against the poor quality of the software in the App Stores “top” lists with this:

Developers will optimize for whatever factor is being rewarded. The “top” list simply rewards developers for getting as many people as possible to buy or download the app once. There’s no reason to optimize for longer-term satisfaction or higher engagement after purchase.

It’s a lot like the Android market. Nobody — not Google, not the manufacturers, and certainly not the carriers — gives a shit if you hate your Android phone or put that cheap tablet in a drawer after a month. They’re optimizing for “top” lists, so they compete on price, flashiness, and huge retail incentives, usually at the expense of quality and long-term satisfaction.

Apple refuses to play that game in hardware. Why are they content to let it dominate their software ecosystem?

The answer comes in two parts. First, despite the control it has over the App Store and the policing it does of the apps in it, Apple doesn’t feel as responsible for, say, Pet Rescue Saga1 as it does for the iPad mini. Just as important, it believes the great bulk of its customers feel the same way. This belief has been borne out by experience. iPhone sales haven’t dropped in mass protest over Trucker Parking 3D2 any more than iPod sales dropped over Hot August Night.3

Second, for the first time in forever, Apple actually has a great bulk of customers to think about. Apple sells 50 or 60 million iOS devices every quarter.4 There’s no way that many people have good taste. I’ll bet 90% of them use Windows boxes, which means they’ve been trained to expect their electronics to be cheaply made and work poorly. These customers don’t notice that Zynga’s apps are clumsy pieces of shit—for God’s sake, they think Facebook is cool.

If crappy apps make these people happy, who is Apple to tell them they’re wrong? Apple sets an example with its own system software and apps; but it can’t, and shouldn’t, force all apps to meet that standard. I’m sure Jony Ive cringes whenever he sees his beautiful, understated iPhone 5 in a garish case, but what can he do? That particular iPhone belongs to someone else, and the owner has the right to merge his or her taste with the designer’s.

It’s the same with software. I wouldn’t shed a tear if Apple dumped its “top” lists from the App Store, but I don’t think they’re ruining iOS. The customers who use those lists are obviously happy with the results. Apple controls enough of the iOS experience; I don’t like the idea of it putting its thumb on the scale by directly promoting its idea of “great software” on the front page of the App Store.

The great thing about the iOS app ecosystem is that there are apps for all tastes. Fortunately, there’s a network of bloggers and reviewers whose tastes generally match up with mine and who steer me toward apps I’m usually happy with. Would I rather the developers of those apps make more money than the developers of What’s the Phrase? Sure, but in a world where Justin Bieber outsells Sharon Jones, I just don’t think that’s likely to happen.

  1. Yes, that’s an affiliate link, but please don’t install it. 

  2. No, really. Don’t even think about it. 

  3. When people expound on the wisdom of the crowd, I recall that Neil Diamond was actually—not ironically—popular in the 70s. 

  4. Hey, look at me! I’m like Asymco!