The Biggest Problem With Mobile Today

(This post being Apple/iOS focussed, but I believe Google Play suffers from similar issues too, although to a lesser degree)

Facebook released its new app today: Paper. It is iPhone-only for now  – clearly iPhone is the preferred platform for Facebook. Wanting to check it out, I went to the App Store. Here is what happened:

screenshots of app store search Searching for Facebook’s Paper app on the Appstore

I typed in “paper”. 2200 results. It isn’t feasible to swipe more than 5-6 times (okay, maybe 15 if you have a lot of patience). Disappointed, I typed in “paper facebook”: hopefully an extra clue will help the search engine. Nope. 130 results, but the first few are apps (mostly games) mentioning Facebook.

There is no way for an app publisher to make it easy for users to find their apps on their phones EVEN after a lot of publicity.

Few apps would launch with as much publicity as Facebook’s. They had a pre-launch press event, pre-launch marketing and preview campaigns and then launch-day marketing. So clearly Apple knew the high-profile app was releasing soon (even if their App Review team doesn’t talk to their App Store team!).

You can get many users into the funnel, but the end of the funnel lies in Apple’s bumbling hands.

The disappointment turned to frustration. I had to eventually find the regular Facebook app – which was easy because it has already been on top charts forever – tap on the Facebook publisher to get to a page with all of Facebook’s apps to get to the Paper app. I could have googled for it too – a tech news website covering the app was the first result, I later checked, with a direct link to the iTunes store.

Apple’s problem is Search.

Relevance is a hard problem made up of many different problems:

  1. Contextual: what does the App do or talk about in their description.
  2. Temporal and Topical: what is of interest NOW or related to other things of interest now.
  3. Quality: Is the app actually good. And there can be both intrinsic and extrinsic signals of quality.
  4. The Unknown: There is always an element of unknown that (good) search engines often address through UI – for example, by presenting a few different options to the user.

I think Apple is completely ignoring #2 and #4, and only partially addressing #1 and #3. Google for “App Store Optimization” and you will discover a thousand ways to fool Apple into believing your app is contextual for many different searches. To determine the quality of the app, Apple seems to be using only ratings. Ratings is, firstly, a lagging indicator and, secondly, growth-hackable by developers hungry for free downloads.

Apple is not a search or web services company, so I don’t see their search improving any time soon. They are also not a content company (not until now at least, since apps are a form of content) so have never faced this problem before. Sure, music is content, but (a) music discovery happens very differently, and (b) there is plenty of structured meta-data to make text searches for music an easier problem. Although this case was equivalent to, say, searching for Coldplay’s latest album on iTunes on the day of release.

Our problem is Apple.

Apple does not care much about developers. It has no reason to. They own the distribution for a huge portion of the premium market (you can argue that it is changing, and it may be, but this is what it is now). Anyone writing iOS apps is beholden to Apple.

Apple does cares about its users. Unfortunately, it believes that it (and only it) can tell users what is good and what is not (very Jobsian?). Therefore, users only need to use the Featured section of the App Store to know what to download. Of course, getting your app into the Featured section is possible with a lot of genuflecting to Apple. But Search is an afterthought. And, no third party can be allowed to have a say either.

This is a cultural problem that will be very hard for Apple to fix.

Google saved the web.

Yahoo’s directory wasn’t enough for a growing WWW. The bad search engines with ads hidden within organic search results weren’t making it websites any more discoverable. Then Google came along, and no one ever complains about their being too many websites, like they do of apps.

It will be interesting to see how the market forces play out.