Friday, September 16, 2011

If the App Store is the new newsstand for publishers then Apple should get serious about cleaning up the mess

A few weeks back I called a publisher (a newspaper, I think) to ask a few questions about their new app. The person responsible was taken aback that I knew their app had been released into the App Store and that I already knew a lot about it. "I spend a lot of time in the App Store, as you can imagine," was my response to her surprise.
So, as someone who spends a lot of time looking for media apps inside the store I have a few a suggestions about how the store would serve me, and ultimately publishers, better:

Customization: More and more apps are building in the ability to customize the content and appearance of the app. But Apple's iTunes has few (if any) ways the user can customize the store. Sure, iTunes will allow you to custom the music player, but even here those choices are fleeting – that is, if I always want the track number to show up why is it that when I click on "Album List" it reverts to view options that includes "Rating" and "Plays" – I'm never, ever interested in the number of times I've played anything.

The App Store, on the other hand, offers no customization at all. The apps of the week, for instance, include whatever Apple wants to display. Fine, if this is a paid marketing opportunity for the developers, but it isn't, it's someone idea of what will interest me without my own input. Today, for instance, it lists to good apps – The New Yorker and Sporting News – but I already have those apps on my iPad, why promote apps I already have.

Socialize the App Store: Apple launched Ping. Oh boy, Apple doesn't really do social media, does it? Why not allow users to create their own pages, just like Facebook or LinkedIn.

Take that New Yorker app: there is a negative review by an App Store user. Currently the App Store allows me to click on their name to see all their reviews. This is really good and I use it often to see if the reviews are legit. (All zero star reviews, or all five star reviews, is certainly a sign that someone is up to no good.)

But where why not allow more? Again, this should be a customizable option. I'd love to create a Talking New Media page inside the App Store, for instance. I'd write more, and more thoughtful, reviews inside the App Store and hopefully certain reviewers would end up being a kind of "Good Housekeeping Seal" for new apps.

Careful with the Newsstand: I know a lot of publishers who are really leery of the new Newsstand that will be launched with iOS 5. What most don't understand is that the new Newsstand is really only about already existing subscriptions. Here is the official description from Apple:

Read all about it. All in one place. iOS 5 organizes your magazine and newspaper app subscriptions in Newsstand: a folder that lets you access your favorite publications quickly and easily. There’s also a new place on the App Store just for newspaper and magazine subscriptions. And you can get to it straight from Newsstand. New purchases go directly to your Newsstand folder. Then, as new issues become available, Newsstand automatically updates them in the background — complete with the latest covers. It’s kind of like having the paper delivered to your front door. Only better.
From a publishers perspective, Apple isn't creating a newsstand (a place where newspapers and magazines are stored), they are creating a bookshelf (a place where they are stored). The difference is huge because the number one concern publishers have about the App Store is the ability to get lost in it.

The other common misperception about the Newsstand is that they will show up in it. But if you are not selling subscriptions directly through the App Store, or if you are giving away your magazine, will you appear there? And what if I download a media app that offers free content, can I drag the icon for that app into the Newsstand? (I don't know the answer to that, maybe someone who is playing with the iOS beta can let us know.)

Make media apps easier to find: As any developer who has launched an app will tell you one of the tough decisions you have to make is picking a category for your app. TNM's app, for instance, is under News, which makes sense. But what about Hoodgrown, produced by TNM reader Chris English. His magazine app shows up under News, as well, but the music category, or lifestyle category could have worked, as well.

I can understand Apple's reluctance to allow for multiple categories, the huge number of apps appearing in more categories would make it harder to find apps, not easier. But part of the problem here is the issue of "secondary search" – a term I use to mean that there is no search by the description of the product.

Allowing for subcategories is one suggestion publishers have said to me, but subcategories doesn't really solve anything when the main categories are too all encompassing. For instance, if I am the publisher of Jazzwise and my app is under "Music" then I can pick "Jazz" as the subcategory. Great. But if I picked "News" then I would be stuck with the subcategories under "News", of which I better hope there is a "Music" subcategory.

Much of this would be solved if there were a very visible media liaison person working with media companies (I have been lobbying for this type of position at Apple for over a year, maybe I should send my resume in to Cupertino).

Of all the problems with the App Store, this might be the hardest to solve, and the one where bad decisions could make the situation worse. This may explain why Apple had been slow to change the basic design of the store.