Degradation or Aspiration

The last few weeks have included another round of conversation and controversy about the App Store. A few weeks ago it was In-App Purchases and Paid Updates. Now it is “Rate my App” dialogs. The exact nuances of the current tempest-in-teacup aren’t as interesting to me as the underlying changes I’m starting to see in how developers view the App Store. These are what really worry me.

I want to believe that the App Store is a special place. I want for it to be the singularly best venue for customers to come and find innovative, well designed, quality software. Software that pushes the boundaries of what is possible and continually amazes and delights its customers. I want for there to be an aspirational pull upwards on my own development. I want to feel like I need to work extra hard to make sure my apps meet the high standards my customers have been trained to expect.

For that admittedly idealistic ambition to be a reality requires work. The natural tendency of things is to grow more and more degraded overtime, for entropy to slowly creep in and undermine even the best of intentions. It requires obvious, intentional leadership to stem the tide of mediocracy. Even more subtly, once you see this decline as inevitable you all but guarantee that reality.

I think the App Store is arriving at a place where Apple faces a pronounced decision point.

The App Store currently contains over a million apps, each of which has been reviewed by Apple at least once. Apple has spent a tremendous amount of time and energy to make the App Store what it is today. The road to get here hasn’t always been easy but I think Apple has done a commendable job to bring the Store thus far. The challenge they now face is that to continue to maintain high standards will require exponentially more and more effort.

The increasing diversity of the Store makes it ever more difficult to police. The size of the install base magnifies the implications of even small changes in policy. The volume of money flowing through the store means that interested parties are increasingly motivated to gain every advantage. If Apple wants to keep the App Store special, it will take difficult and deliberate effort.

The current “Rate-my-App” question serves as a useful example of this decision point. These dialogs sit in an awkward crossroads between reasonable marketing and shady, invasive practice. Their existence seems rooted in the growing challenges of discovery and sustainability for developers. It is easy to argue that they are in violation of the App Store Review Guidelines. They could be seen as an attempt to manipulate the reviews of your app, which is forbidden in the Review Guidelines. Beyond that they are a symptom of a more insidious problem: the growing felt need of developers to exploit any angle to be able to survive in the Store. What, if anything, Apple does is perhaps indicative of what we should expect the App Store to become.

The everyone-else-is-doing-it-so-I-need-to-as-well compulsion is hard to overcome. The only realistic way to fight it is to have a 3rd party hold you accountable. That is something only Apple can do. As much as having influential developers call for change is useful in establishing community standards, it is Apple that holds the real influence because they are the only ones who directly impact every developer. Otherwise, you just end up with honest developers being at a disadvantage, which further accelerates the problem.

That doesn’t mean that Apple has an easy job. I agree that it is incredibly difficult for Apple to police and enforce good taste and standards. It will require ever-growing effort and difficult choices to hold the line. It is impossible to expect them to be perfect in this; what worries me is the alternative. If they don’t continuously redouble their efforts to maintain standards then the Store will decay. Over time, customer confidence will fall and turning trust around will become ever more challenging.

I want the App Store experience to feel like shopping at a premium retail store and not a street market — I hope Apple does too.

David Smith