Under the Radar

Under the Radar 19: Improving the App Store, Part 1


  welcome to under the radar a show about

  independent iOS app development I'm

  Marco Arment

  and I'm David Smith under the radar is

  never longer than 30 minutes so let's

  get started so today we're going to

  unpack some of the things that we think

  might make the App Store better and if

  you were a listener to developing

  perspective the show I did before this

  one you might know that I look about a

  year ago I did a long long series

  actually two years ago I did a long

  series about things that I thought could

  make the App Store better and we both

  kind of make it make our livings inside

  of the App Store and so as you would

  imagine we have a lot of concerns

  thoughts goals like things we'd like we

  think about in the abstract because it's

  a place we spend a lot of time both as a

  customer but also as a as a producer

  it's easy I think for us to look at the

  App Store and to just kind of like whine

  about it to look at and say oh I wish I

  did this I wish you did that like we all

  have some kind of like pet things that

  we think might make it better for

  whatever that you know better might mean

  to us but it's challenging it's

  difficult for unless perhaps to take the

  sort of like the step back and say you

  know the App Store is the way it is you

  know and whining about that isn't going

  to change it we can look at it we can

  learn from it and it's like our job as a

  developers is to understand how we can

  make a living inside of sort of it as as

  it exists and hope that Apple is doing

  things on their end to make it better

  but from the outside it seems like you

  know sometimes when I think of have the

  office or too much I start to get sad

  and I go and like I'm trying to be a

  good student of the App Store and

  understand like what's being successful

  what's working you know go to the

  top-grossing list which isn't

  necessarily the most constructive place

  because that's not really the kind of

  apps I'm making you know but I go there

  and I look at like them but the top mode

  the top grossing app we're at right now

  as a recording is clash Royale and I go

  to its IEP list and it's like what would

  you like to buy a fistful of gems a

  pouch of gems a bucket of gems a barrel

  of gem the mountain of gems or a

  wagonload of gems is that really what I

  thought you were Joe

  that is that is the list of the top

  in-app purchases in the top-grossing

  half right now and it's kind of sad too

  when I think about like I go to W

  you see every year and almost always

  they'll have like Apple will have a big

  slide that talks about how much money

  they've paid out to developers

  last year it was something like 14

  billion dollars or something and rather

  than that being like exciting and

  encouraging and being like yeah let's

  you know let's let's do this guy's it

  just kind of makes me sad because I look

  at that number and I just think well I

  guess that's a lot of wagons full of

  gems just not great yeah I mean look

  that that number you know outside of any

  information on the distribution of those

  stats like you know the median might be

  a little more interesting although

  honestly it we probably be pretty sad to

  just in the opposite direction but yeah

  I mean like when you have these these

  mega hit games that are bringing in

  hundreds of thousands of dollars a day

  or more that that's that's roughly what

  we're talking about here it's you could

  be bringing in millions of dollars a day

  from our perspective it's it's it's

  really easy to look at that and be like

  wow why am I even in the App Store if

  that's what succeeds but that's you know

  that's not a very productive way to look

  at it or encourage me to look at it I

  think a better way to look at it is we

  aren't even playing the same game as

  these people and the what we need to be

  concerned about is is there a game that

  we can play here like is there a spot

  for us in the App Store where we can

  succeed I think you know there's enough

  apps by smaller shops that aren't

  abusive games like this if there's

  enough apps that do succeed that the

  answer to that is is almost certainly

  yes there is a spot but that doesn't

  mean necessarily that it's easy to get

  into one of those spots although it

  might not necessarily need to be easy

  but that also doesn't mean that Apple's

  you know doing everything they can to

  make sure the rest of the store is

  healthy besides just that top grocery

  list and there's lots of areas I think

  for potential improvement that we're

  gonna talk about yeah and I think it's

  one thing everything that motivated I

  think this discussion I wanted to sort

  of talk about it now is that if the

  first time in a long time I feel like

  there's outward signs that the App Store

  is going to be changing this year and

  most significant of which is Phil

  Schiller is now taking responsibility

  for it which I mean I think Phil is

  awesome and that's really encouraging to

  me but even just the simple fact of

  there's a change in leadership there

  that there

  a change in responsibility like in my

  mind can only be better be good and I

  think I'm encouraged that even Phil is

  kind of publicly in a few random sort of

  tweets or things when people are

  bringing to his attention like there's

  weird issues in the AppStore like a

  private link in the show notes to a

  tweet someone sent to him showing a sort

  of like a featured area in the App Store

  for the puzzle games and it's just full

  chock-full of the 2048 clones and you

  kind of have the ne his response to that

  it's like that shouldn't happen we'll

  look into it

  thank you and the fact that he's that

  kind of thing is even happening at any

  level makes me encourage and so I think

  we wanted to do for the rest of the

  episode is to kind of think through what

  are some things that we would like to

  see done you know like we were if we

  were sitting down in a room with Phil

  and he was like you know as independent

  developers what could I do to make the

  App Store better for you like what would

  that be and think through what what that

  would actually be and things that we

  could think about that would make you

  know the App Store an objectively better

  place both as a customer or as a you

  know someone who makes their living in


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  relay event all right I think that one

  of the biggest things I'd like to see I

  just want to see signs of motion signs

  that Apple believes that this isn't as

  good as it could be and is willing to

  take the steps to prioritize real change

  and experimentation and improvement in

  the App Store because the App Store is

  now just under 8 years old for being

  almost 8 it really has not changed very

  much from the way it was launched there

  have been small improvements here and

  there but almost unchanged the entire

  industry Apple included have we learned

  nothing since it started you know

  obviously we've learned something so I

  think it's it's upon Apple 2 to just

  show that like they're willing to make

  changes over time as we learn what works

  what doesn't what's healthy what's not

  and so far we've seen very little of

  that so that's what I my number-one hope

  is not any any one particular change but

  just I really hope that Apple just shows

  signs of not being complacent not

  thinking that what they have now is the

  inevitable end and as good as it can get

  I agree yeah and I think seeing and I

  said nej in some ways it's any change

  like there are certainly things that

  like pet things that I would like and

  we'll certainly talk about but just

  having a sense that the App Store is

  going somewhere and that I could explain

  if I if I look towards might like my own

  personal future of like should this be

  the place that I'm making my living if

  it seems like it's going getting worse

  and worse or at least you know sort of

  has plateaued at a not great level like

  that's not an encouraging thing to look

  forward to and to seek to kind of invest

  my time and

  in two versus something that seems like

  even if it's just a slow incremental

  process of getting better and better

  that would be great that would be

  encouraging like that would be in

  motivating and something that would be

  work you know make it feel more

  worthwhile to put all the you know sort

  of all the time and attention that I'm

  putting into the App Store currently

  yeah I mean that's because like I feel

  like where it is now is not in a very

  encouraging place for people like us

  you know right now like we can get by

  but it's hard and there's not a lot of

  headroom it doesn't feel like it's it's

  on its way up anymore it feels like it's

  on its way down but at least for people

  like us you know and it feels like we

  have fewer and fewer options over time

  of like how to make a decent living in

  the App Store

  a lot of this is just market forces at

  work here a lot of this is not within

  Apple's control to change by far the

  biggest problem in the App Store for for

  you know Indies to get by is just that

  there's a massive amount of relentless

  competition not only for exactly the

  same things that your apps do like you

  know I really support cast app there's

  already a whole bunch of podcast apps

  out there so that's problem number one

  problem number two anything I do in mine

  that that will be different or

  noteworthy other people will be able to

  do as well

  you know nothing I'm not like I don't

  have any kind of magical abilities that

  nobody else can duplicate you know it

  anybody can do the same things I do and

  if you have an app that is popular at

  all that will happen because number

  three there are absolutely to Hans of

  developers out there they all are trying

  to make the same living out of the same

  pie and the pie is growing but so is

  that pool developers and then finally

  number four there are lots of other

  things competing for everyone's

  attention all the time on their phones

  as well so even if your app does pretty

  well against other similar apps you're

  also competing with literally everything

  else they have available on their phone

  which is everything in the consumer web

  world right now basically he's so like

  you're competing with those top grossing

  games or like instead of listening to a

  podcast they could choose to go play a

  clash or whatever you know so you you

  are competing with all of those things

  because this this is the hot place to be

  the the level of competition is just


  and ruthless yeah I mean I think I would

  sir like before the show I went and took

  a look at just trying to put quantify

  just how big the AppStore is and how

  much it's continuing to even grow and

  honestly at the end of looking at all

  this I just had tremendous sympathy for

  the poor app reviewers because right now

  in the App Store I think they're defined

  a couple of conflicting numbers but the

  number is somewhere in the ballpark of

  around 2 million apps and it seems like

  there's they're being added to the store

  at roughly two thousand a day seems to

  be the best number I could get kind of

  looking around which means that during

  this show like during 30 minutes of this

  show something like 42 apps will have

  launched and that's just new app that's


  it doesn't let even updates like the

  poor people in app review I don't even

  know how that's like how to conceive of

  the workload that those poor people must

  have even you can't release apps that

  quickly even me I mean I'm famous for

  having lots of haves and I look at this

  and it's like how like the first thing

  that I think of that Apple needs to work

  on is understanding if they're going to

  do something about that early on in the

  App Store they used to always get up on

  stage and talk about they'd be you know

  we now we have a hundred thousand apps

  now we have five hundred thousand apps

  we have a million apps like as though

  having a big number were something

  desirous and in the early stages maybe

  it was to say like you know they really

  when they were first building out the

  App Store it was an important thing to

  have lots of apps and to cover all the

  different goals and things that people

  might want to do on their phones but my

  suspicion is at this point that all

  those say 2,000 new apps every day I

  can't imagine all of them or at least

  even the majority of them are really

  adding to the platform and making it

  better and stronger and puts a

  tremendous load I'm sure on the app

  review team and so it means that like

  you and I when we submit a bug fix

  updates say like you know we have

  something some problem in our half we

  submit it we have to wait at least a

  week to get it reviewed and out into the

  store and I can't imagine so I don't

  imagine some of that is coming from just

  the sheer volume of junk and like that's

  say 2000 is the right number it's like

  2008 apps are being new maps are being

  approved like how many what's the number

  of apps that are getting rejected it's

  just got it like there's got to be

  things that Apple can do on that end and

  I don't know if it's changing the review

  guidelines making it so that there's

  some kind of extra barriers to actually

  submitting apps to try and make it you

  know or being just sort of harsher

  in-app review and having higher

  standards understood from more editorial

  opinionated side to make it so that

  people get the answer so very quickly

  you would expect that if the process of

  just sort of putting sort of knock or

  not high-level apps into the App Store

  became unsuccessful after a while people

  would stop doing that it would be a

  waste of time and not really worth the

  effort or something but if that's so

  risky though like any anything they do

  to try to make subjective judgments I

  feel like is is just asking for trouble

  because I mean they already have a lot

  of these things now and they do often

  get crap for making a bad decision

  usually usually warranted anything they

  do to try to sell like okay well now

  your app doesn't have to just follow

  these rules it also has to be like

  worthy a little bit to some degree even

  if it's just a minor degree this has to

  be like worthy of being included in the

  store it has to have value to somebody

  and they already define that minimum

  functionality rule which is you know

  vague and that just refers to a level of

  functionality what if there was also a

  level of minimum quality again that

  there have been rules that are kind of

  eluded this and the guidelines since the

  beginning but they haven't really been

  enforced very much the problem though is

  that this isn't just like Phil Schiller

  making those decisions this is probably

  hundreds of employees in a preview

  whoo-hoo all have to be making the

  decisions constantly they're not gonna

  be able to kick every one of them up to

  a manager for approval so you're gonna

  have to have to come up with rules that

  can be consistently enforced with a with

  a large staff the more room for

  subjectivity there is the harder it is

  to achieve consistency and they already

  have issues with this anything they do

  to make the rules to basically raise the

  bar of their minimum quality standards

  they're gonna get so many more

  problematic rejections

  so much more bad press about problematic

  rejections and they're gonna have people

  like us complaining so it's it's a hard

  balance to strike I don't think they've

  struck the right balance yet you know

  certainly raising the bar is is


  oh sure yeah I mean and I look at that

  and it's like I don't and no Envy how

  they would make the decision but it

  seems like it's either you have to

  take the approach of like the Google

  Playstore like the bar is like is this

  basically functional and not malware

  kind of at least conceptually I mean I'm

  not a Google Play expert but the app

  review process there is much more

  streamlined and straightforward as it

  says best I understand it where you have

  very lowest low bars and you know you

  approach the sort of problem almost more

  on the like on the demand side rather

  than the supply side like you just let

  anybody who wants to have an app be in

  the store if you do that you just need

  to build the store itself like the

  front-end into that such that users can

  very easily and quickly get away from

  things that aren't great and only and

  are driven towards things that are good

  because I think you could probably say

  like the best the ultimate goal of the

  app store like if you had to try and

  boil it down is that any time a customer

  downloads an app they're getting a good

  experience like that would be seeing a

  reasonable goal for what the app store

  is trying to do that a user says I have

  a need or I want to be amused or

  entertained or whatever it is and they

  go to the App Store now the things that

  they find there are going to give them a

  positive experience and you know there's

  a lot of things that the Apple could do

  for maybe on the editorial side to

  dramatically you know improve that

  structure where right now you know of

  the in the App Store app like there's

  the featured area the top charts area

  and the explore area the featured area

  they certainly I think they do a pretty

  good job like there are very rarely

  things in that first tab of the App

  Store that I look at and I see and that

  I'm like if someone downloaded that that

  they're gonna have a bad experience if

  the in the top charts area it's starts

  to get a lot more questionable and

  there's a little bit of like cell

  filtering of that that obviously people

  in order to get beyond one of those

  lists lots of people had to have they

  thought that your app was good but it

  starts to get more questionable and then

  you get into the Explorer tab like that

  poor third tab in the App Store app

  which has been three or four different

  things over the last eight years and

  just feels like it's always turning over

  and it never quite finds its way but you

  know like that's the place that you will

  start to very quickly kind of get into

  areas where it's the quality or at least

  the the robustness of those apps or it

  becomes more and more problematic as you

  go and say

  maybe if apical can't fix it on there

  like on the review side maybe it's just

  let's just focus on editorial its staff

  up dramatically really go through the

  app store and it's like if we think

  these apps aren't good like we're you

  know maybe it's like we just flag them

  as such and we say like you know this is

  a bee app and it's not going to show up

  into certain places or it's going to be

  very be prioritized and the way that

  people can find it but it's still there

  like I don't know is that better I hope

  they would do something like that behind

  the scenes though I figured they

  probably aren't but if they did it would

  probably not be wise for us to know

  about that because I think that would

  cause issues you know ultimately what we

  what we want Apple to do is to make it

  easier for apps like ours to to be

  successful and and to be found by people

  in the app store but it's worth

  challenging the assumption that our abs

  are better you know like it likes sure

  if you look at what's actually in the

  App Store and if you look at that top

  grossing list and you see what succeeds

  it's probably hard for Apple look at

  that and think they have to do anything

  differently than what they're doing now

  in in like content choosing or or or

  steering the rules in such a way to

  encourage or discourage different types

  of apps than what they're getting now

  because what they're doing now is

  working very well just not people like

  us but it's working very well for some

  people and it's working very well it by

  many metrics for apples customers in the

  way that people are downloading a bunch

  of apps they are playing these games and

  putting their coins in it does work for

  a lot of people now just not us so is

  that really a problem like do you think

  Apple sees it as a problem and do you

  think it actually is a problem it's a

  tough question it's really hard to

  separate obviously the my own personal

  views and business from like sort of

  just like the more objective if this was

  not what I did and I was just a you know

  someone who just went to the Apple store

  bought an iPhone and opened up the App

  Store like and it is definitely a trap

  and I think you're sort of pointing good

  right to point it out is of the in these

  types of discussions in our community

  that you can very easily slip into the

  very subjective just like indie apps are

  better kind of a mindset and you end up

  with like well it's like if there's not

  a vibrant independent community of app

  of app makers that some

  like the world is a sad and terrible

  place and you know and you could argue

  in some ways it's like you know smaller

  companies tend to take bigger risks and

  so more innovation happens or those

  types of kind of more justifications in

  some ways what I hope is that if Apple

  is happy with the majority of sort of

  successful businesses in the App Store

  or a lot of the money for the App Store

  whatever coming from those types of

  games and being or even just being game

  focused in general that the majority si

  gets its games and big companies like

  Thea in the top ten grossing apps there

  are other things that aren't games

  there's things like Spotify or like

  services like that big companies the

  reality may be it's like and like the

  hard thing to say to myself is maybe

  that's fine with Apple and they're

  totally cool with that and in some ways

  their actions thus far are ready to

  indicate that they are and there's the

  you know the introspection I'm saying

  like if that's the reality it's like am

  I just in the wrong place at this point

  it's like it's not something that I

  really want to make a change about I'm

  not saying like oh I want to get out of

  the App Store but it's like and I look

  at that I'm like maybe at some point I

  will have to though because it would

  just sort of not be economically viable

  to do what I do and that would make me

  sad but yeah like it's it's not up to me

  to decide what goes into the App Store

  or what apps should you know should the

  App Store be geared around making viable

  obviously I'd like for it to be more

  viable for me and I think you could make

  a reasonable argument that it's

  important to have some base level of the

  smaller developers like us kind of

  filling in cracks and pushing boundaries

  and when new things come out you know

  it's like well I've made my business in

  a lot of ways about watching Apple and

  how they push your new technology out in

  there and their phones or in the in iOS

  looking for new opportunities and as

  soon as I can jumping on those and being

  able to take advantage of being smaller

  and being able to make those kinds of

  decisions that maybe bigger companies


  and that seems like a good thing but

  it's certainly for my it's like it's

  very selfish and self-centred to say

  like if the App Store doesn't make my

  business model work then you know it's

  not good the way that the App Store

  bothers me now that with like what

  succeeds and what doesn't you know not

  only from from just like a you know an

  obvious like envy that those aren't my

  apps in the top

  grossing position but what bothers me

  that I think might be relevant here to

  Apple and to the users is that the the

  apps that succeed today I think make the

  iPhone look a bit like a cheap flea

  market it is not it is not like a high a

  high fashion or a high quality branding

  angle that we see now today with like

  all these you know basically like casino

  games that isn't there not this is not

  like a classy great experience for a lot

  of people and it doesn't it doesn't make

  Apple's products look good to know that

  most people are using them most of the

  time to like you know throw coins into

  and into a psychologically abusive game

  that their friends and family made them

  like obligated to play like I don't know

  it and you know obviously people you

  know it's a little bit snobby to me to

  say because like obviously a lot of

  people do enjoy these games and are

  perfectly fine with that and I and I

  don't want to diminish their enjoyment

  of those but do you think from Apple's

  point of view do you think that's really

  what they want the iPhone to to be in

  practice like do they do they care and

  does that really fit the way they want

  to brand this device I wouldn't think so

  like I mean this is the funny thing of

  you know I was in a fan of Apple before

  I was an Apple developer like I and the

  thing that I think is so it's like that

  a fundamental level when I try and think

  of the things that I associate with

  Apple and with you know sort of thick

  they're brand more generally is that

  there's a certain amount of trying to be

  more like it's more aspirational in the

  sense of they're trying to make it

  better they're not just trying to make

  like the they're not trying to just make

  a basic works is sufficient is fine

  phone like they're trying to make the

  best of anything and in most of the

  things that they do that whether or not

  they hit it or not is a whole other

  question but you know their goal their

  mission is to make the best and to have

  you know when you go into an Apple store

  that you always come out with a good

  experience like it's not they're not

  trying to be mediocre or sufficient

  they're always trying to be better and

  if you would apply that kind of mindset

  to the App Store you

  imagine you'd end up with a different

  app store you'd imagine if you know it's

  like if they're willing to take that

  risk of you know they don't make the

  hundreds of different very variations of

  the iPhone they try and make one that's

  really really good and is the best and

  in the same way it's like they rather

  than trying to have all the different

  you know it's like you go into an Apple

  store it doesn't feel like going into

  Walmart it's like the App Store is much

  more like going into Walmart or

  something like that

  or where you're yeah but it's that kind

  of a feeling right it's like you go in

  and you see a charger whatever it's you

  know some some iPhone accessory on the

  wall of an Apple store and you expect

  that that is going to be good Veit you

  know it meets a certain basic level of

  criteria and versus if you go into a you

  know the Walmart er you go into Amazon

  and you're presented with probably 10

  times the number of choices you have a

  much harder to you know decision and

  you're in a harder position to make that

  choice because they haven't curated it

  for you they haven't looked at it and

  said we think these are the best or

  these are the ones that you should try

  and I would hope if they did the same

  kind of mindset on to the App Store that

  you could end up with a better

  experience in a better place like

  overall and one that would fit I think

  students like the Apple brand better you

  know like the Google Play Store I think

  makes sense for Google like that sort of

  they're things like we you know we index

  all the information everywhere like

  they're sort of mindset around having

  the store that isn't strongly curated in

  the same way like it seems like that

  would be a better fit potentially but an

  Apple could potentially take the other

  to take the other extreme and say like

  you know what this is where we're gonna

  go and I think that would fit for them

  and you know ultimately obviously I

  would like that I think I would - I mean

  like I was getting on a plane recently

  and I wanted to download a whole bunch

  of like new good games and seeing what

  was actually successful in the top

  charts and and just trying just trying

  to find good games for myself to play on

  the plane like if nothing else the App

  Store should have tons of good games

  right but it honestly had a lot of

  trouble finding any that had any kind of

  depth whatsoever most of them are like

  you know really like stupid simple like

  shallow things that like you play it for

  10 seconds like oh that's all it is okay

  like it was actually really hard to find

  good stuff I I feel like I feel like we

  need better stuff in the App Store and

  we need Apple to

  to think about how they can how they can

  get better stuff in there how they can

  incentivize and sustain the development

  of better apps not just more apps yeah

  and I think there's some big problems

  here around like it's like the old what

  they caught the broken window problem

  mm-hmm you know where you have if you're

  in a neighborhood if you had a house

  that has you know has derelict and has

  some broken windows in it like it starts

  it has it has this different other thing

  it's like oh it starts to affect things

  that even aren't just that one house

  it's like if the bar and the expectation

  for going to the App Store isn't high

  enough it's gonna have knock-on effects

  to lots of other apps and other people

  like you end up with customers who have

  different have different expectations

  they'll look at the App Store and say I

  you know it's like you're more tense

  like things like I think about like

  their discussion last week or about

  pricing where it's harder in some ways

  to make a set into to convince someone

  to have a paid a friend app and to

  download it and in some of that I could

  imagine he's coming from a place of a

  there's a tremendous competition which

  is I've sort of always it's gonna have a

  downward pressure on pricing but also

  like if you don't have good expectations

  that what you're downloading is going to

  be good is going to be worth it because

  you've been burned before like that's

  going to discourage you from going in

  going ahead and downloading other apps

  and paying for them upfront and so you

  end up with you know more free apps and

  if your app is free then you have

  different like you enter this there's

  kind of vicious cycle because the amount

  of time that you're able you sort of

  sort of can justify putting into

  something if you expect to only be able

  to make money back from it you know

  either from consumable and a purchase or

  even just like if you're just putting it

  out with ads in it like you're sort of

  the value of each customer to you and

  for the the downside of having a

  customer have a bad experience like it

  just continues to shrink down in kind of

  this negative cycle exactly all right

  well we're out of time today I think

  we're gonna continue this discussion

  next week and with maybe some specific

  suggestions on like how Apple can really

  make the App Store better specific areas

  that might be worth experimenting with

  so thanks a lot for listening

  we will talk to you next week bye