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Mobile App Stores: The Solution Is the Problem

- 2010.08.10 - Tip Jar

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Much of the reason for the continuing excitement about smartphones and tablets is due to the availability of free and inexpensive apps, small programs that let users customize their gadgets, adding games; travel, restaurant and movie guides; and even business tools.

Apple's App Store is the biggest source of apps. It lists more than 200,000 for the company's iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices. Google's Android Market is coming up fast, with some 70,000 apps for that growing smartphone platform.

A lack of apps - and a failure to get developers involved - helped doom Palm's otherwise promising WebOS platform,* leading to the company's purchase by HP.

While still in the lead in sales, the relative lack of apps for RIM's BlackBerry phones is a sign of that platform's stagnation.

Microsoft, with its Windows Phone 7 platform still unreleased, has promised a free phone to every Microsoft employee - perhaps to encourage the company's developers to build apps for it in their spare time.

I count 55 apps installed on my iPad.

The Problem with Apps

Still, there's a problem with apps.

With so many apps, if you're a developer, how do you let people know about your product? And if you're a person with a smartphone or tablet, how do you find the best apps to match your needs and desires?

Vancouverite Tim Bray is best-known as a creator of XML (extensible markup language) for standardizing data so that it can be shared between computers. He's worked with Digital Equipment, Sun Microsystems, Vancouver startup Antarctica Systems, and more. Currently, he's a "developer advocate" focusing on Android at Google.

Despite the Google job title, in his blog, he recently suggested that neither Android Market nor Apple's App Store (nor any one else) is doing a good job of helping users sort through the thousands of available apps.

Bray recognizes that it's not an easy task. He compares the onslaught of new apps coming to the stores to "a firehose", calling it "mind-boggling, overwhelming, terrifying" - but notes that as sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon once suggested (in another context), almost everything is crap.

He contrasts these app stores to online retailer Amazon.com. Expanding beyond books to sell music, video, garden tools, and more, Amazon stocks far more items than any of the app stores. Bray notes, however, that Amazon helps potential customers with detailed and expert reviews.

Amazon has an advantage, he recognizes, in that customers are often looking for brand names or products by specific artists or performers. High profile brands are almost completely missing from the app stores.

While both Apple's and Google's stores let users rate apps, the ratings tend to be less helpful than Amazon's. Too often, they're very high or very low without apparent reason. And Bray points out that there's a "first-mover advantage" to the first reasonably competent app in any particular category, making it hard for later competitors - even with better designed apps - to gain attention, reviews, or market share.

Apple's App Store has some advantages over its Google equivalent; users can browse Apple's listings on their Mac or Windows PC, while Android users have only slower (and perhaps expensive) browsing on the small screens of their phones. Further, each App Store entry gets its own web page, making them Google-searchable, unlike Android Market apps.

While Apple has taken some heat for controlling what gets listed in its store, that offers at least a minimal level of quality control compared with Google's more unsupervised market.

Two Resources

Bray recommends the Appsfire website, which promises to help users "discover and share the greatest apps," while a blog reader suggested MIMVI, a search engine for mobile apps, content, and products.

Bray suggests that these sites more reflect the extent of the problem than offer a solution.

The app phenomenon is still young. Apple's App Store opened in mid-2008. While Bray notes "it's a mess," he's hopeful a solution will arise. In the meantime, be aware that having tens of thousands (Android) or hundreds of thousands (Apple) of apps is less of an advantage if there's no easy way to find the handful that you really want. LEM

* See Tim Nash's Palm Prē: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Part 1 and Part 2, as well as Palm Prē: Cutting Off Business Customers for more on Palm's failure with the Prē and WebOS.

First published in Business in Vancouver, August 10 - 16, 2010, issue #1085.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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