Apple does the right thing with App Store reviews, at last

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In September, 2008 I advocated that Apple should clear App Store reviews produced by non-customers. It’s taken the company much longer than it should have, but it appears that Apple has finally done it. I, for one, am delighted to see this change occur.

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Let’s rewind a bit. When the App Store first launched last July, developers and users noticed one glaring shortcoming that seemed ripe for abuse: users could post a review of a product they’d never used, and assign a star rating that would affect the product’s average rating.

A carryover from the iTunes Store, this method makes sense for music, television and videos — there are other ways to get those products, so why should you restrict a user’s ability to offer an opinion on them? For example, I have an eMusic account — I’ve gotten plenty of music through eMusic that I could have gotten from the iTunes Store instead, and isn’t my opinion on that stuff valid?

But the App Store is a single-source provider of content for iPhones and iPod touch devices. So if you haven’t bought it there, there’s a very strong possibility that you haven’t actually used the product, and therefore probably aren’t qualified to offer an opinion on it or rate it.

Within days or weeks of the App Store launch, the problem was obvious: Customers who may have had a beef with the developer over some real or imagined problem—let’s say they thought the software was too expensive, or felt that it duplicated the functions of another program they liked better—could rate and opine to their heart’s content with impunity. Apple doesn’t arbitrate any of those disputes, and what’s more it handcuffs developers, who can’t go in and modify or adjust any of those comments or ratings, or try to resolve them.

This certainly isn’t an ideal situation. eBay, for example, the popular online auction and e-commerce site, lets customers rate their experience with vendors, and if they have a dispute, there’s a way for the customer to alert the vendor and an opportunity for the vendor to fix the problem before it becomes a red mark on their permanent record. And vendors on eBay generally work hard to make sure they’re well regarded — after all, someone with a less-than-sterling reputation isn’t likely to attract new customers.

Back to the App Store, late last September Apple finally responded to this problem by requiring customers to buy iPhone software before they review it.

It’s not a perfect system. Critics point out that dishonest developers can create “sockpuppet” accounts or use friends and family to artificially boost the ratings of their products. But the revised policy has definitely helped improve the signal to noise ratio in App Store reviews dramatically.

At the time the company instituted the policy, I advocated that Apple should have reset comments and ratings completely, discarding all the feedback and ratings potentially produced by non-users of the apps on the store. Sadly, Apple didn’t.

Now it appears that it has. It’s been five months since I made that comment, and in five months, a lot more comments have been left and many more ratings have been made, so the effect of removing that old chaff from the wheat probably won’t be as noticeable. But its effect is sure to be appreciated by iPhone app developers, who are now on more even ground with customers both real and potential than they were before.

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