Three wishes for a better App Store

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I love the App Store. In the nearly five years since its launch, it has brought me apps and games of all kinds at a fraction of the price—and many more times the convenience—of anything that was available before it. As a developer, I found that the App Store opened up a truly egalitarian distribution channel: There's no need to fight for shelf space against deep-pocketed competitors, or to wrangle with the vagaries of setting up an online store of your own.

But times are changing, and, as the iOS and Mac App Stores approach 1 million apps combined, it seems as if some of the infrastructure that Apple has built around them is struggling to keep pace, with the result that buying apps is not as convenient as it once was. Of course, there is always room for improvement. In that spirit, here are three ways in which Apple could make some positive changes to its App Stores.

Better clients

In a sense, the App Store client apps are nothing short of phenomenal: They put hundreds of thousands of software products at your fingertips, eliminating the need to drive to a physical retail location, pull out your wallet, and wait in line for checkout every time you want to buy one.

Still, the client apps that people use to access the App Store on Macs and iOS devices are becoming a little long in the tooth, despite a major face-lift that coincided with the launch of iOS 6.

On my third-generation iPad, for example, the App Store app is painfully slow; it takes several seconds from the moment I tap its icon to the moment I can start doing anything, and the app sometimes freezes while I wait for a particular screen to render. Admittedly, things are a bit faster on my iPhone 5, but this is hardly the kind of experience that I have come to expect from an operating system that places so much emphasis on responsiveness and focus.

All too often, even on a fast Wi-Fi connection, this is what the App Store app looks like on my third-generation iPad for a seemingly endless amount of time.

Speed is less of a problem on the Mac, but navigating the desktop version of the App Store app is still frustrating. For example, the lack of a tabbed interface—a feature that would feel perfectly at home on OS X, where many other apps implement it—makes comparison-shopping among multiple products difficult to pull off.

With a single man now in charge of ensuring that all of the company’s software follows sound design principles, Apple has an opportunity to revise these apps and improve the way they interact with their users.

Better search

Of course, speed and UI issues wouldn’t be so problematic if getting to the right app were easy; unfortunately, Apple’s search functionality works well only when you already know exactly what you’re looking for, and is often tripped up by anything that isn’t strictly a keyword.

For example, searching for “password” correctly brings up a variety of credential-management apps, while searching for “apps for managing my passwords” returns no results. Considering the level of sophistication that Web search has attained in recent years, the ability to understand a query written in simple English seems like a must-have feature.

But things get even weirder: Recently I was looking for Black Pixel’s excellent Kaleidoscope app, and, because I couldn’t remember its name offhand, I searched for it using the query “diffs”—a fairly common term that developers use for a data format that describes the difference between two documents. The App Store didn’t return any results until I changed my query to “diff,” at which point Kaleidoscope came up first in the results. One could argue that diffs is a somewhat specialized term—and, in all fairness, the result screen included a 'Did you mean…' note that pointed me in the right direction—but Google has no trouble identifying a plural word and directing me to pages that contain its singular form. Had I not been persistent, the folks at Black Pixel would have been out a sale through no fault of their own.

Natural-language searches, which Google has long understood, simply don't work in the App Store.

Better curation

Given the sheer volume of apps on the App Stores, Apple’s role in curating them is becoming more and more important. The company’s notoriously tight grip on its distribution channels is often the source of much controversy, but there’s no denying that, by and large, it promotes all apps on an even field: In any given week, the latest release from a giant like, say, Electronic Arts could share the "Editor’s Pick" spot with an app written by an equally talented—but much more wallet-impaired—team of independent developers.

From a user’s perspective, though, Apple’s recommendations are, quite simply, too impersonal. The nature of a review is such that it is inevitably colored by its author’s personal background and preferences; knowing who writes an App Store recommendation, therefore, is an important part of deciding whether you are likely to agree with it.

Alas, there is no knowing who the mysterious “editors” of the App Store are, or how and why they make their weekly picks. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the App Store should take the place that rightfully belongs to trade publications (did it just get chilly in here all of a sudden?), but putting a human face on its editorial process would make it more relevant to everyone who uses it.

Along the same lines, the App Store’s discoverability could benefit from more social interaction; with so many apps to choose from, I greatly value the recommendations and ideas that I get from my friends and colleagues. But, short of specifically asking them for advice and opinions, I have no easy way to learn about the hidden gems they may have found.

Although Apple’s previous effort in this regard didn’t quite pan out, that doesn’t mean that the company should abandon its efforts altogether—particularly given that digging through social networks like Facebook or Twitter for app recommendations is not an easy task.

Here’s to a million more

The App Store remains one of my favorite Apple products of the past ten years. The service has breathed new life into the independent developer community, bringing it to the forefront of the largest revolution in computing since the 1970s, and has allowed millions of people to enjoy high-quality software at modest prices.

It stands to reason that Apple is hard at work improving the stores, and enhancing these three areas—client software, search, and discoverability—would go a long way toward preparing the company's online software retail presence for the next million apps, which may very well come even faster than the first.

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