Has the App Store Jumped the Shark?

November 23rd, 2009

When I first read Apple’s press release that the unexpectedly famous App Store had 100,000 offerings, and that two billion files had been downloaded so far, I wondered how we got there in the first place.

{In case you’re wondering, the phrase “jump the shark” was first coined to describe TV shows whose best days were behind them.)

The iPhone first arrived in June 2007, but Apple had no SDK or retail store for iPhone apps. You were restricted to Web-based apps, in the fashion perhaps of Google’s forthcoming Chrome OS. After lackluster success and lots and lots of clamoring from developers, Apple created the App Store, and on the surface it has been a stellar success.

But it’s been a difficult ride, and some developers have been left on the sidelines as the freight train sped past. Indeed, a few of them are complaining about the tight controls and arbitrary rulings about which apps to accept and which to reject.

In a recent interview with BusinessWeek, Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide product marketing, Phil Schiller, seemed quite candid about why Apple put its policies in place, and the potential benefits to the end-user. Consider, for example, how an unstructured app environment would function in light of those recent iPhone malware outbreaks.

Now before you begin to fret over such matters, those security issues evidently impact only those who have opted to jailbreak their iPhones, and, when setting it up, do not change the default password. So if you do the first, make sure you pick a strong password you should be all right, although I think the whole concept of jailbreaking has now been brought into question. As the doctor said in that old joke, when told that it hurts when the patient does something, “don’t do that!”

However, it’s also true you probably need tighter controls over a smartphone ecosystem. I mean, on a regular personal computer, an Internet vandal may steal your passwords. On a phone, they’ll also record all your personal and business phone conversations. It’s bad enough that the GPS tells “them” where you are, so why make your phone even more vulnerable?

I can agree with Schiller that Apple is simply playing the role of dealer here, in the same way that a store in your neighborhood decides what inventory to carry, and what products to reject. In order to be accepted for the App Store, the product must actually work and not present or exploit a potential security lapse. With the iPhone’s Parental Controls feature, there is at least some level of protection against your kids getting explicit products, which allows Apple to open up the spigots somewhat for the rest of its audience.

The trouble arises because of those gray areas, where the fate of an application may rise or fall on someone’s judgment call that may have questionable merit. Originally, a developer had no way of knowing where they stood in the pecking order, to get an idea of how long it would take for the final verdict. Some developers have protested loudly, in public, about decisions they felt weren’t justified by the facts. You have probably read about them, and perhaps they have a solid case. The process ought to be more dependable.

On the other hand, Apple says they’re getting upwards of 10,000 new submissions every single week. Some are updates to existing products and others are brand new. With a workload like that, they are clearly going to make lots of mistakes, and perhaps developers should be more patient or try harder to work with Apple to overcome potential objections. But when your income is at stake, and even a few day’s delay means potential lost income, I can see why emotions might get frayed.

In any case, even ultimate acceptance doesn’t guarantee an app’s success, any more than a book that is published is assured of best seller status. Indeed, I’ve talked to a few developers who made a fortune on one title, but had follow-up titles fare badly. That’s the luck of the draw, and nothing is guaranteed.

Yes, I suppose some developers might look at the fairly open Android platform or perhaps the Windows Mobile Platform as possible alternativces because they’re disgusted with Apple’s way of doing things and their tight control over the iPhone platform. However, the grass isn’t always greener. The relative freedom of Android also means that there are different hardware designs, varying levels of support for operating system features and no guarantee that your app will work on a large number of the available devices. Talk of gambling.

With Microsoft, their latest developer program reportedly includes a service charge every single time you submit an app for approval. If it’s rejected for any reason, even for an insignificant change, you are forced to pay yet another fee to resubmit. To Microsoft, everything they do is a potential profit center.

The real issue with the App Store is that everything is really quite new, and Apple is clearly learning from its mistakes. Remember that they don’t make money from that venture unless the developer makes money, so they are forced by the circumstances to try to do things properly, and they might even get there one of these days.

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10 Responses to “Has the App Store Jumped the Shark?”

  1. dfs says:

    I certainly agree that Apple has a right to pick and choose what to sell in the Application Store, either because of objectionable contents or because an item of software is written in such a way that it fails to adhere to their programming guidelines. But where the Store gets stupid (and, if you will, “jumps the shark,” although I believe that phrase applies to the way that script-writers start cooking up wierd and improbable story-lines when they’ve run out of good ideas, as when they made The Fonz jump on the back of a shark near the end of the Happy Days run) is in subjecting upgrades of software they have already approved to the same time-consuming vetting process that they do new submissions. This makes it difficult for developers to do what we expect all good developers to do — get bug-fixes and improvements into the hands of users a. s. a. p.

  2. Dan Decekr says:

    Aww Gene, you missed the chance at a really good pun!

    “{In case you’re wondering, the phrase “jump the shark” was first coined to describe TV shows whose best days were behind them.)”

    Could read “… TV shows whose Happiest Days were behind them.” Since it was the “Fonzie jumps over the shark tank” episode of “Happy Days” that truly spawned the phrase. Critics felt that “Happy Days” took its turn towards decline after that moment.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  3. John says:

    Time will tell but I see this as growing pains, not a decline. Assuming Android keeps growing then some years down the line they will also have to deal with 100,000 apps and have to figure out what to do with apps that don’t work or apps that are secretly malicious or apps that secretly carry something like kiddy porn.

    I suspect that Apple did not expect to be dealing with 10,000 app submissions per week. They really do need to step up and hire more people to process applications faster and it would be good if they had a formal arbitration process where a developer with a rejected app could ask for a second review and get back a clear ruling.

    This is not unlike other sites that ask for public content. If you submit photos to iStockphoto.com the photographs are reviewed and either accepted or rejected. The rules are pretty clear but there is a certain amount of judgement involved. Photos can be rejected if the contrast is “too low” for example. One person’s “too low” is another’s pastel. They do have a process whereby a rejected photo can be submitted to a different reviewer for a second opinion.

    I think Apple’s larger problem is finding a better way to organize the app store and finding intelligent ways to help you navigate through the different apps. There are probably apps in existence I would buy if I knew about them. When there were only 500 or so apps I could scan the full list in an hour or so. Now it would take a lifetime as new apps are being added almost as fast as I can read about them.

    Probably they need to hire a librarian to setup something like the Dewey Decimal System that systematically organizes apps.

  4. DaveD says:

    The real issue with the App Store is that everything is really quite new, and Apple is clearly learning from its mistakes. Remember that they don’t make money from that venture unless the developer makes money, so they are forced by the circumstances to try to do things properly, and they might even get there one of these days.

    Um, no.

    (1) At what point can we discard this “really quite new” excuse.? Since the App Store came to be – July 2008 – 16 months have passed and Apple has made billions of dollars in profits. Have they made improvements? Sure. But I believe that if they *really* wanted to change things they would have by now.

    (2) I find it disingenuous to say that they don’t make money unless the developer does. Ignoring the obvious – that they make quite a bit on hardware sales – one can also make the opposite point too… that they don’t *lose* any money from that venture.

    The App Store is great for Apple. It is the best lock-in device any public company has come up with in a generation. They have no reason to change what they are doing.

    The App Store is pretty great for consumers too. Not only is there “an app for that”, but it’s damn convenient to only have to go to one place to find it.

    But – the App Store is not that great of a thing for developers. At least those who wish to create native applications for the iPhone.

    • @DaveD, The App Store is a major reason why Apple sells lots of hardware. Even if their 30% cut is mostly eaten up by the costs of actually running the online operation, as you say, the “app for that” campaign has really taken hold, which is why Verizon’s competitive campaign refers to a “map for that” to demonstrate its alleged network superiority.

      I do not regard 16 months as a lot of time building something that never existed before. Yes, the App Store was based on iTunes, but the infrastructure that allows for direct purchases and updates on tens of millions of devices is something nobody has done before on such a vast scale. Also, imagine how much work is involved in evaluating 10,000 apps every single week! You can only automate that process just so much, and there has to be a lot of manual intervention involved. As soon as people get their hands into the process, mistakes are inevitably made. If growth continues at its present rate, Apple will be running behind the curve for quite some time, so improvements will continue to be gradual.

      Rest assured, if there was a major threat of a widespread abandonment by developers and customers, Apple would change things real fast, regardless of the cost. Despite a few highly-publicized cases involving developers who feel they were treated unfairly, there’s no danger of that right now.


  5. Jeff says:

    Actually, “jump the shark” means that the TV show resorts to doing ludicrous stunts to try to retain its audience. In particular, the Fonz jumping over a shark on a motorcycle.

    And thats something the App Store clearly hasn’t done – in fact, its the inertia of the current Store that everyone is complaining about, the fact that Apple won’t change it to suit the desires of the masses.

    Apple need to fix their catalog interface – it is laughable that you get exactly one search window onto the store, but thats what comes of trying to shoe-horn it all inside iTunes. Now, if they made it a two-step process purchase through your web browser (with an Amazon like interface that can have as many windows open as you like), then double-click to install into iTunes, they’d resolve all the complaints that developers make about ‘not being easy to find’.

    (Personally, I think they need to gut iTunes completely – push the syncing of music and apps across into iSync – make iTunes a ‘media manager’, not the dogs breakfast of mixed functions it currently is)

  6. Peter says:

    I’d like to point out that the phrase, “Jumped the Shark” has jumped the shark ever since the “Jump the Shark” website was taken over by TV Guide.

    The hip new term that the cool kids use is “nuked the fridge” in reference to “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls.”

    To me, the question is whether or not the iPhone will get new and notable applications that interest Apple’s customers or will those customers develop for Android or Pre or WinMo first. With 100,000 voices clamoring to be heard, it’ll be tough for a fresh voice to make itself heard. Perhaps it will be easier to be noticed and get attention on Android and then, eventually, bring your application to iPhone (like Bungie did–start on the Mac and get noticed).

    One of the things I find interesting is that Apple makes Mac OS X–the incredibly secure operating system used by tens of millions worldwide. But the iPhone OS–which is based on Mac OS X–is so incredibly insecure that Apple must act as a gatekeeper or else all of our personal information would be exposed to the world, our phones would become botnets, etc. etc. I don’t quite understand why Apple cannot make a secure phone platform which doesn’t require it’s intervention (especially since Google appears to have accomplished it).

  7. John says:

    For those who think that Apple should be responding faster, I’ll partly agree, but if you have worked in large companies you’d also recognize that 16 months is a very short time in business, even when things are understandable. In the case of the Apps store you have a new phenomenon. As the tide of apps has risen I’m sure they first responded by adding more people. When that wasn’t enough they had to start thinking more deeply about how to manage this. I’m sure that within the next year we’ll see big changes in the App store. This sounds like an eternity for teenagers, I know.

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