It’s not about the numbers, it’s about quality

It’s one of my favorite tales about the technology industry.

In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News reported that truckloads of unknown material from an Atari warehouse in Texas were brought to New Mexico, destroyed, and buried in a landfill. It has been long speculated (along with the possible location of Jimmy Hoffa) that most of the contents were copies of the Atari game based on the movie E.T. that had gone unsold. To many, this event marks the death of the first generation of video game consoles and the beginning of a dark time in an industry that languished until Nintendo’s entry into the market a few years later.

What led to this unfortunate series of events? Simple. There was no quality control over the Atari 2600 ecosystem. Anyone could (and seemingly did) create content for a device that no one wanted, cared about or showed interest in. Franchises were licensed and games released with no hope of sales.

Which leads me to the discussion about the so-called numbers game of the current crop of mobile app stores. Sure, Apple leads the way with the largest collection of apps. Each day, though, it seems there’s a report about someone else passing a milestone of a thousand, ten thousand or a hundred thousand.

All this talk ignores one important point: Numbers, in the end, don’t matter—the quality and value of the apps do. It’s a lesson Atari taught the world, and many seem to have forgotten.

Curating isn’t just about quality, either. It’s about making sure that what’s appropriate to users is seen. About a year or so ago I went to the Android Market to search for the word “Jewish,” looking for a Jewish Calendar app. What I found was a number of Nazi and Hitler apps and themes. No matter your perspective on free speech, I think a search term related to religion should not bring back purposefully placed and hateful content designed to inflame.

To Google’s credit, they pulled the offensive material due to “a violation of Android content policy.” Google clearly forbids content in which there are “promotions of hate or incitement of violence, pornography, obscenity, nudity or sexual activity.” The key difference is that this type of material is far less likely to appear in Apple’s app store in the first place, as opposed to being removed post fact.

Is Apple perfect? No. Any curating process that involves human beings is going to be less than perfect by definition. Things that shouldn't be allowed will be, and things that should be permitted will be denied at first.

When the discussion of curation comes up, a lot of people like to throw around the First Amendment. But of course, the First Amendment is about the government stifling free speech. (Much to my parents’ chagrin, I’m not a lawyer, but even I know that much.) The App Store is privately owned. Apple can put whatever it wishes into the store, or remove what it wishes, and there’s no legal argument against it. Apple is no different than a religious school that chooses to teach creationism alongside evolution. You might not like those things, and of course, you have the right not to patronize those institutions or app stores… but that’s life.

It’s good to have content for a platform. A platform that lacks diverse and interesting content is doomed to fail. But even going to back to game consoles, in the post-Atari 2600 world most game platforms simply don’t let just anyone make games for their consoles. Third parties need to get their content approved. It was a way to make sure there wouldn’t be a glut of mediocrity killing the platform.

It’s unfortunate that some developers who have had apps approved had them removed, or had a hard time getting them approved. But Apple has shown a great deal of flexibility about the whole process since the App Store first launched. In the long run, the market will agree, and support Apple’s curation process… or it will find somewhere else to buy (and the Android market remains one of those places).

Personally, I’ll take the curated process and the knowledge that I’m not likely to be offended by the apps I download and use… and that they’ll deliver the quality and functionality I expect.

[Michael Gartenberg is an analyst and long-time Mac user who covers the world of the interconnected consumer for Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own.]

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