Purging the Back Catalog

Apple recently announced that they will begin requiring all new apps and app updates to support retina displays and include support for the iPhone 5. I’m really happy about this move. It forces developers to update their apps to look good on the modern crop of devices. This will improve the overall experience of customers in the App Store.

I do, however, wish that Apple would go farther with this and rather than just preventing further updates to old apps actually remove them from sale. On May 1st, when this policy goes into effect, it will have been 222 days since the iPhone 5 was introduced. Any app that hasn’t yet been updated to support its form factor starts to enter into the territory of abandonment. Indeed after that date they will be in a state of policy enforced abandonment.

There are a few reasons I can think of for why an app wouldn’t have added support for the iPhone 5. The most significant of which being that it requires you to drop support for iOS 4.2 and earlier. I believe that kind of thinking will ultimately hurt the Store and the user experience for most customers. Supporting older devices at the expense of enhancing the capabilities of newer ones leaves the marketplace in a position that isn’t driving forward with momentum.

The App Store currently has around 800k active apps listed. I suspect a significant number of these haven’t been updated in more than 12 months. An app that is listed for sale but is no longer under active development creates the possibility for bad user experience. It is like a grocery store that leaves expired produce on its shelves. The best situation for customers is a marketplace where whichever choice they make results in a great experience.

I say this as someone with a substantial back catalog of apps, many of which I no longer actively develop for. I pull apps from my portfolio when I feel they no longer provide a reasonable user experience on modern devices. That said, I have a financial interest in keeping them listed as long as possible which clouds my ability to be objective.

Only Apple can make policies and decisions for the greater good of the App Store. Individual developers will and probably should make decisions in their own best interest. That is how markets work. So the only way to improve the average quality of apps in the Store is for Apple to act.

I’ve heard calls for Apple to be more selective in the quality of apps they approve for the Store. Attempting to define quality by some subjective measure is rife for controversy. I think it would be incredibly difficult to impose a sane way to judge quality above the basic levels already in place with the App Store Review Guidelines.

Instead, I think Apple would be well served to adopt objective measures for quality or at least freshness to improve the overall quality of the Store. Adopting such a policy wouldn’t fundamentally change the situation for developers; every app they submit already has to be approved. All that this would do is apply some of those same required criteria to the app on an ongoing basis.

As mobile ecosystems mature and the average level of quality across the market is raised it is harder and harder for Apple to differentiate themselves on base user experience alone. I believe it would be best for Apple (and its developers) if they take strong steps towards encouraging and ensuring that they have the best possible app catalog. There would be some heartache along the way but the thing that has always impressed me most about Apple is their ability to make tough decisions when the customer experience is on the line.

David Smith