Solving the App Store Discovery Problem with App Playlists and Good Taste

It’s common knowledge that there are too many apps on the App Store, with no reliable way of discovering the good ones. It’s like panning for gold: piled on every hidden gem is a heap of worthless lumps.

Most of the attempts to solve the problem lean on shoddy software algorithms. They’re blunt tools at best, and games for crooks at worst. From “What’s Hot” to the top free/paid/grossing sections, the algorithm-based lists of apps have spawned a cottage industry of companies like TapJoy and AppGratis, which promise to pump up downloads in exchange for thousands of dollars from desperate developers. There’s also the “Genius” recommendation engine, which isn’t vulnerable to app marketing tricks, but in my experience it has never produced a recommendation that matched the quality of a recommendation from a friend with good taste.

Taste is the missing ingredient in App Store discovery thus far. People with good taste, whether in apps or otherwise, nourish their taste by continually looking for things that stretch the boundaries of what they know and like. I don’t know if I have good taste, but I try to. When a friend first played Tom Waits for me, I was still listening to godawful Dave Matthews Band and Korn. I hated Tom Waits. Eventually I learned how to love him. Tom Waits’ work is music about music. When my mind finally snapped into that higher register, my taste expanded. I learned a new way of listening.

Your taste in apps can grow in the same way, but no algorithm can take you there. Only the good taste of a friend can help. This is why the App Store needs “app playlists,” a list of all the apps currently installed on the iOS devices of anyone with an iTunes account — one playlist per account.

Consider the failure that was Ping. Ping’s failure is a lesson to learn, not a fate to repeat. Ping tried to be too many things, worst of all a new social network. It missed the crucial element that could have made it powerful: taste. As my brother pointed out to me, Ping should have been nothing more than a way to snoop through my friends’ album collections, with a buy button next to each one, and a “Buy All“ button at the top. We improve our taste by absorbing the tastes of people whom we admire.

App playlists should be rigorously simple: just a list of apps. Not all the apps ever downloaded, but the apps that a given user currently has installed on their device. The assumption is that if somebody has an app on their device, they probably like it. App playlists should be given top-level priority via their own tab in the App Store. When selected, that tab should contain two main screens: one for recent activity, and one for a list of all the people you follow. When viewing a playlist, you should be able to buy each app individually, or buy them all with a single tap of a “Buy All” button at the top of the screen. The playlist view should look just like the current “Purchased” screen in the Updates tab.

App playlists would succeed where other attempts have failed because they would be effortless. Even the most esoteric high-quality app is downloaded by the developer’s friends and Twitter followers. It would take no extra work for these “promoting” users to share their new discoveries. Simply downloading an app and keeping it would suffice.

There are a number of ways Apple could build the social graph behind this. They could do it the same way they built Game Center, whose popularity is the strongest counterargument to any Ping-hating naysayers. Alternatively, Apple could require linking to a third-party account like App.net or Twitter — App.net is especially poised to back this kind of service, with its powerful, open-ended API. However Apple builds the social graph, it should only be used to keep track of following status. There should be no comments, likes, reposts, or anything of that nature. The problem of App Store discovery is not due to a lack of social media coverage or bad algorithms. The real problem is a failure to empower people to share their good taste.

|  December 19 2013