Best free iPhone games

The multi-billion dollar balancing act

Where the App Store is, where competitors are, and what Apple could do to better the platform for developers, users, and themselves in iOS 6

As much as what Apple may or may not do with iOS 6 will dictate the iPhone and iPad user experience for the next year, what Apple does or does not do with the App Store will help determine the continued and future viability of the platform itself.

That's because iOS is only one part of Apple's incredibly successful mobile equation. The App Store -- the development kit, commerce engine, and digital goods that enable apps to be made, sold, and bought -- is another.

And arguably, despite it's unprecedented success, it's in ever greater need of Apple's attention.

That might sound hyperbolic. After all, iOS is the biggest, most profitable app ecosystem on the planet right now. But today's blockbuster ecosystem can be tomorrow's burial of ET cartridges in the desert.

Apple runs the App Store at just above break-even to fuel the high-margin sales of their hardware. They want and need a platform valuable enough to attract both developers and customers to their hardware. For that they need to balance affordability and availability for users with profitability and sustainability for developers. There are billions of dollars at stake, and that's not always an easy balancing act.

Developers will go where the money is and apps will follow successful trends. Apple, as owners of the platform, has a big rudder with which to influence, if not outright steer that movement.

Over the last year, many previously exclusive iOS apps like Instagram, Instapaper, and Flipboard have been ported over to Android. Freemium business models have addicted, annoyed, and alarmed consumers. Continued downward price pressure and a hit-driven market have made the software equivalent of full course meals riskier than snack food apps.

If the iPhone and iPad are no longer the only places to get the best titles first, let alone period, will that be a problem for Apple?

Looking back at the history of the App Store, and of competing app stores, might give us an indication. It might also give us some insight into which way Apple steers next.

Pre-iPhone

Apple didn't invent mobile software, of course. What they did is what they so often do -- take existing, niche technologies, bring together carefully curated aspects of them, and create a successful, mainstream implementation.

Before the iPhone and the App Store, getting mobile apps for smartphones was generally more involved and more expensive. There were many different web-based app fiefdoms that collected a hodgepodge of different freeware, shareware, and commercial apps, attached to a variety of check-out systems, with inconsistent and often annoying licensing schemes, and requiring manual installation.

And they were relatively expensive by today's standards.

  • Bejeweled 2 for PalmOS was $19.95. (Bejeweled for iOS is $0.99.)
  • BugMe! notes for PalmOS was $39.95. (BugMe for iOS is $1.99.)
  • IM+ for PalmOS was $39.95. (IM+ is free on iOS; IM+ Pro for iOS is $9.99.)

In short, mobile apps were an industry ripe for revolution.

iPhone OS 1.0

When the iPhone was introduced at Macworld 2007, it ran just over a dozen built-in apps. It didn't have or need multiple Home screens. The built-in apps barely filled the one Home screen it had.

That there was a visible gap in the grid -- an empty space where another app, and another row of apps, could fit -- seemed to suggest something more was coming.

Indeed, a YouTube app was added before launch, and an iTunes app would be added in the fall, and between the two there were the...

Web apps

At WWDC 2007 Steve Jobs announced a development platform -- Web 2.0 + AJAX, later known as HTML 5. He bullet-pointed that no SDK was required, and that web apps could look and function just like the built-in apps. They could even use URL strings to call phone numbers or launch emails.

Apple introduced multiple, editable Home screens, and asked developers to fill them with "sweet" web apps.

Reaction among those expecting native apps was mainly negative. John Gruber summed it up nicely:

If all you have to offer is a shit sandwich, just say it. Don’t tell us how lucky we are and that it’s going to taste delicious.

A lot of creativity ensued, including games, Twitter clients, todo lists, and more. But the lack of a real business model and other problems inherent in HTML 5 apps greatly limited their adoption and potential.

Apple only actively promoted web apps for a short period of time, but continues to trot them out occasionally as their "open" alternative platform.

Google has promoted the web app version of YouTube.com, for example, and many users prefer it over the Apple-built native iOS app. However, it's a free service.

As far are monetized web apps go, some magazine publishers, among others, have returned to web apps for iOS as their development and distribution model of choice. Subscription seems more solid a model than purchase for web apps.

We'll see if a Facebook or Amazon web app store can change that.

Jailbreak apps

The original iPhone was jailbroken less than a month after release, and a web based jailbreak became available in the fall of 2007. Jailbreak let unsigned code run on the iPhone, and that meant apps could be run outside of the ones Apple provided.

Real third party software was now possible.

Several games, including Nate True's Tap Tap Revolution, apps including the Iconfactory's Twitterrific, and even app stores like Nullriver's Installer.app soon became available via jailbreak.

iPhone OS 2.0

On October 17, 2007 Steve Jobs wrote an open letter on Apple.com's Hot News page, announcing an iPhone SDK and native apps would be coming in the spring of 2008.

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

At the iPhone OS 2.0 preview event in March of 2008, Apple introduced the first, official, Objective-C based iPhone SDK. They would allow 3rd-party apps, but would be carefully curating them.

Apps would have to be approved for the App Store, and aside from a very narrow ad-hoc distribution channel, no side-loading would be permitted.

Likewise, no code interpreters were permitted, so no Java, Flash, or similar runtimes could be used on iOS.

HTML 5 apps weren't removed, and Apple continues to offer just about the best HTML 5 app support in the mobile space, but their time in the spotlight was clearly over.

The App Store

Because Apple already had the vast iTunes checkout system, they had an incredible advantage when it came to rolling out a store -- they could handle billing in a wide range of places. The iTunes Store also meant they already had infrastructure to handle large-scale digital distribution. They supplied both, along with the marketing muscle of their storefront, free for free apps and for a 30% cut of paid app revenue.

While there was some controversy over the size of Apple's cut, developers like the Iconfactory's Craig Hockenberry saw the upside as well:

My first impression was that [the 30% cut] seemed a little high, but acceptable. You’re getting someone else to deal with the hassles of downloading, payment processing and, to some degree, promotion. There’s a lot of value in that. Look at what it costs to be on other plaforms, such as Xbox Live, and it seems fair.

But thinking through the situation a bit more, I realized that those things pale in comparison to the value of being associated with the Apple brand. Having their explicit stamp of approval and being included in the App Store will make any product more appealing to a customer. Buying directly from Apple means that your software won’t screw up their phone and that can be returned if it doesn’t live up to expectations. That, combined with the ease of a single click purchase, is going to drive a lot of sales. You’ll make up that 30% without even trying.

When the iPhone 3G launched in July of 2008, the App Store launched along with it -- and it was the only new icon on the iPhone OS 2.0 Home screen.

While the App Store launched with 500 apps, those apps were also quite limited. They couldn't run in the background or save state, so they has to relaunch from scratch any time they quit or crashed. Pricing was fixed, so paid upgrades, promotional freebies, and other traditional benefits of software marketing weren't available. Nor were time-based demos of any kind.

Apple also rejected many apps. Beyond the clearly identified restrictions against porn, malware, etc., duplicating functionality (such as making a 3rd party mail client or podcatcher), tethering apps, and all manner of nebulous rejections created uncertainty in the development community.

Developer Frasier Speirs, among others, expressed grave concern at the time:

Apple's current practice of rejecting certain applications at the final hurdle - submission to the App Store - is disastrous for investor confidence. Developers are investing time and resources in the App Store marketplace and, if developers aren't confident, they won't invest in it. If developers - and serious developers at that - don't invest, what's the point?

Despite the misgivings, however, there were 15,000 apps and half a million downloads by Macworld 2009 in January, and 50,000 apps and over a million downloads by WWDC 2009 in June.

Sure, there were "fart apps" and similar, now clichéd, novelties in there, but also some terrific apps as well.

The most fundamental change, however, was that Apple mainstreamed software the way they mainstreamed computers and smartphones. Guy English of Kicking Bear pantsed that particular quarterback:

The thing is these people don’t buy Applications, they download Apps. “Software” is dead, don’t bother putting that word on a sell sheet. Have you written “a program” recently? That’s nice, find a place in line behind all the other nerds but try not to step on the Coke-bottle glasses they tend to drop. “Oh … you’ve developed an application … is it something my doctor would know about”? People, lots and lots of people, people who have no idea what software even is, will download Apps like they’re snacking on potatoe chips. What’s my proof? Well, two million downloads of an App in a week supports that and I’d argue that a total of three billion Apps downloaded backs up my argument too.

Promo codes

In December of 2008, Apple created Promo Codes. Originally U.S. only, and not available for apps rated 17+, they allowed developers to gift up to 50 (and only 50) copies of their apps to reviewers, for contests, or for other forms of marketing.

Promo code ratings restrictions were dropped in July, 2009, and Promo codes gained international availability in December, 2010.

iPhone OS 3

At the second Apple iPhone OS preview event, held in March of 2009, the iPhone and all its apps, first and third party, got copy and paste, Spotlight search as an ersatz secondary app launcher, and access to the dock port.

Among 1000 other new and improved API, the previously announced push notification service was also re-introduced, which wasn't multitasking but would enable whole classes of apps to be more useful than previously possible.

Arguably, however, the most transformative new feature in iPhone OS 3.0 was in-app purchase (IAP).

In-app purchase

Downward price pressure hit the App Store almost immediately. $5 and $10 were common prices in 2008, but a race to the bottom quickly brought them down. Apple benefitted from cheap, commoditized software helping them sell premium iOS hardware.

App Cubby's David Barnard watched the trend:

In July 2009 the average price for games was $1.39 and all apps combined averaged $2.58. Today it’s $1.01 for games and $2.12 for all apps. Prices do tend to drop in a free market as competition, increased efficiency, economies of scale, and other factors come into play, but I still contend that Apple’s policies and the design of the App Store itself initiated and even accelerated the race to the bottom. It’s clear to me in hindsight that this was either Apple’s intent, or at least something they didn’t actively discourage. To Apple, apps are merely complements to their highly profitable hardware sales. And as Joel Spolsky posited, “All else being equal, demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease.”

However, Apple needs to earn enough revenue from their 30% cut to run the App Store at break-even levels or above, and developers need to find enough value in iOS as a platform to support it.

So, instead of going the traditional route and starting to offer upgrades, trials, etc. Apple introduced in-app purchases. Initially Apple enforced a policy of "free apps stay free", ostensibly to prevent customer confusion and bait-it-switch sales tactics. Eventually, however, in-app purchases were extended to all apps, paid and free alike. Likely, again, because Apple and developers need enough revenue to grow the platform, and too many free and cheap apps, with no ability to generate revenue, threaten that growth.

The idea was that developers could offer smaller amounts of initial content and then up-sell additional content, and users could enjoy lower upfront prices and buy only the features they wanted.

In-app purchases followed the same 30% agency model as the rest of Apple's App Store agreement. Thst made it financially impossible for apps like ebook readers to use it (30% to Apple and 70% to publishers left nothing for existing middlemen).

Rather than simply scale-ware, however, in-app purchases led to the creation of the freemium model. It turns out users had been conditioned not to want to pay even $1 for a game, but would gladly pay $99 to have a better looking Smurf-condo than their friends and social peers.

It changed the nature of the app store from one where developers created software they hoped would entice you into buying it as a one-time transaction, to one where freemium specialists purpose-built services intended to separate you from your money, and lots of it, over a longer period.

Not every app and not every developer, but enough to become noticeable, and noticeably annoying.

Graham Spencer, writing for MacStories, explored the phenomena:

If we could go back to day one of the App Store and compare the iOS landscape to what it is today we would find quite a striking difference. The market has matured and expanded substantially, to the point where it is close to a perfectly competitive market. This reality has meant that prices have fallen significantly to where most apps are now free or on the lowest pricing tier of $0.99. To make these kind of prices sustainable, a number of different pricing strategies have emerged – IAPs are playing a big part in the strategy for many developers, allowing them to discount the initial entry cost of the app and then make up for it in later IAPs. This is somewhat of a classic form of price discrimination, specifically a two-part tariff, allowing developers to charge different prices to different consumers and hopefully extract the maximum amount of surplus from the consumer and transfer it to the developer at a later stage through IAPs. To maximise the willingness of consumers to pay for these IAPs, another strategy sometimes comes into play — the idea of designing games to increase their addictiveness and thus make demand inelastic. Inelastic demand will mean consumers will be more willing to consume those IAPs.

In response to concerns and controversies, especially those involving children making large in-app purchases without their parents' knowledge, Apple has since added a Settings switch to disable them, and switched to requiring a password for any in-app transaction, at any time.

Accessory API

With iPhone OS 3.0, Apple also crossed the chasm between their app and accessory ecosystems for the first time. With the SDK, developers could make apps that talked with peripherals over the 30-pin Dock connector, allowing the iPhone to become a powerful screen and interface for a new generation of gear.

While various medical, mechanical, and other marvels were shown off, very little shipped immediately. Over the years, however, healthcare products, scientific instruments, and other accessories have slowly trickled out.

Push notifications

Push notifications -- a service where Apple would collect and relay popup, badge, and sound alerts between a developer's server and the iPhone -- was originally announced for iPhone OS 2.1 but was subsequently delayed and announced again as part of iPhone OS 3.0.

While not providing traditional multitasking, they did allow a new class of apps to function for the first time on the iPhone. Everything from instant messaging and twitter clients to breaking news and even games took advantage of them.

Gifting apps

In March of 2010, Apple created a highly specialized form of iTunes Gift Card -- Gift this App. App gifting is national only (i.e. U.S. App Store users can only gift to other U.S. App Store users) but it did provide greater purchasing options.

Top Grossing apps list

In September of 2009, Apple added a Top Grossing apps list to the existing Top Free and Top Paid apps. The idea seems to have been to give a break to higher priced apps, which were pushed out of the Top Paid apps list by $0.99 games.

It worked at first, with higher priced turn-by-turn navigation apps, among others, dominating the new chart. Unfortunately, in-app purchases began to count, and freeium apps clogged up the system on the backs of $99 Smurfstuffs downloads.

So, the Top Grossing list is now essentially a Top Freemium list.

the iPad App Store

Best free apps for iPad

March 2010 saw Apple introduce a whole new class of iPhone OS device -- the iPad. It shipped with iPhone OS 3.2, a version the iPhone never received, and it caused Apple to bifurcate the App Store.

While the iPad could run iPhone apps in 1x or 2x "Classic" mode, the iPad could also run purpose-built tablet apps.

Developers could either make apps uniquely for the iPad, make separate apps for iPhone and iPad, or make universal apps that contain both iPhone and iPad interfaces and run on both.

Apple set the price of their own iWork for iPad apps at $10, and kept them that way. So far, iPad apps have typically retained higher price points than their iPhone equivalent.

Many developers, especially game developers, have chosen not to go with universal apps either. They see separate iPad versions as an important additional revenue source.

iOS 4

Originally introduced as iPhone OS 4.0 at the preview event in April 2010, Apple later renamed their mobile operating system to iOS 4 at WWDC 2010. It recognized the importance of the iPad to the platform, and the growing role of iOS beyond the iPhone in general.

Folders increased the raw number of apps that could be loaded onto any device at one time, Calendar access let developers hook into the event system, and iAd gave them an additional, Apple-owned option for monetizing free apps.

The biggest new feature, however, for users and developers alike, was multitasking... of a sort.

Background API

Rather then simply enabling full on background multitasking, the way desktop operating systems do, Apple looked at what functionality users wanted, and created specific APIs to enable it. Or at least some of it.

  • Background audio allowed music to keep streaming for apps like Pandora.
  • Voice over IP allowed incoming calls, and persistent calls for apps like Skype.
  • Background location allowed turn-by-turn for apps like TomTom.
  • Push notifications allowed server-side alerts as introduced previously.
  • Local notifications allowed 3rd party alarms, times, and reminded for apps like Todo.
  • Task completion allowed things like photos to keep uploading in apps like Facebook.
  • Fast app switching worked like cmd + tab (alt + tab) to more quickly jump between recent apps.

It was far from complete, however. For example, task completion meant internet connections would time out and get shut down after a certain period. That prevented apps like persistent SSH clients or RSS that updates in the background. Also, even though notifications could still come in for Twitter or IM apps, they couldn't actually download content until the app launched, making them functionally inferior to true background apps like Mail and SMS/Messages.

Marco Arment of Instapaper highlighted the root of the problem:

I’ve already received multiple emails from people who are excited for iOS 4’s multitasking because they can’t wait for this to finally stop being an issue, because they think Instapaper will be able to download articles periodically in the background.

It’s painful to respond, crushing their hopes, to tell them that the iOS multitasking system doesn’t allow me to do that.

By naming these features “multitasking”, Apple has set customers’ expectations to include what apps can do in a traditional computer multitasking environment.

It’s going to mislead people into expecting such behavior from apps, but we can’t actually deliver most of it.

Arment and others have since found a workaround, using the change-of-location API to wake up their apps and trigger a content refresh. But hacks are almost always less than ideal.

Still, background API were important for iOS, as Slacker radio told us at the time:

Right now 4 out of 5 of our mobile apps are on platforms that support multitasking and our listeners have let us know they enjoy being able to utilize their smartphone's functions while listening to their favorite music. We are elated that soon Slacker listeners using their iPhone will have this same capability.

Background support required developers to update their apps, and while it took some longer than others, it did result in many more, and more functional apps to hit the app store.

iAD

After letting Google scoop up AdMob out from under them, Apple purchased Quattro Wireless and turned it into iAd. Mobile advertising was another way for Apple to make money, and help developers make money, from free apps.

Produced in HTML 5, Apple took control of initial campaigns but later released an authoring tool, iAd Producer, as well.

There was some initial concern that Apple might prohibit other, third party networks following the launch of iAd, or restrict their ability to collect data to such an extent that they may as well be prohibited.

Ultimately, and much to everyone's relief, Apple chose to compete with iAd as a better experience for users, and a premium brand for advertisers. (Even going so far as to release an iAd Gallery app in the U.S. App Store.)

Initial ad buys started at $100,000,000 but dropped it to $500,000 in February of 2011, and dropped it again to $100,000 in February of 2012. At the same time, Apple also increased revenue sharing for developers from the initial 60% to 70%, bringing it in line with the agency model.

Despite concerns over fill rates and revenue over the years, not all iAd experiences have been negative. Recently developer David Smith noted an upswing.

After a very bumpy start it has stabilized into a very solid platform that serves its intended goal of providing a native mechanism for making money in free apps. In fact, the performance of iAd has grown so solid over the past 6 months or so that I recently dropped all other advertising platforms from Audiobooks (previously I’ve integrated with MobClix, Admob, and Adsense).

Game Center

Introduced alongside the rest of iOS 4 at WWDC 2010, Game Center didn't ship until later in the fall. More Xbox Lite than Xbox Live, it did offer features such as invitations, matchmaking, achievements, and leader boards.

As with in-app purchases, ego gratification is a powerful motivator, and Game Center hoped to use socialization and gamification in combination with public recognition to do just that.

With iOS 5 it was expanded to include friend recommendations and sorting, game recommendation, and the ability to buy games right inside Game Center.

Volume purchase program

In August of 2010, Apple announced a volume purchasing program. It lets educational institutions make bulk purchases at a 50% discount.

The purchasing of these discounted applications is done with the use of vouchers which can be purchased via the Apple Store for Education in $100, $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 denominations. These very vouchers then can be distributed to the program facilitators to be redeemed within the App Store.

iOS 5

iOS 5 marked Apple's biggest gab between full operating systems previews to date. Rather than a spring even like in previous years, Apple didn't reveal any details of iOS 5 until WWDC 2011 in June. And rather than a summer release, general availability was held off until October of that year.

The biggest change was iCloud, Apple's next generation, cord-cutting digital hub that obsoleted MobileMe and made iOS PC-free.

Other large changes impacted developers to a far lesser extent than usual. As much as Notification Center made existing push notification apps less obtrusive, none of the 1500 new APIs provided for developers allowed access its new widget system, nor were any APIs provided for the iPhone 4S' flagship new feature, the still-in-beta Siri.

Officially added to the iOS 5 App Store and SDK, however, was the new version of subscriptions and the Newsstand folder to house them.

iCloud

Using iCloud, developers can store key values and documents on Apple's servers and have those key values and documents pushed back down to all of an iCloud users' devices, including iPhones, iPads, iPods, and Macs.

It allows for simple, syncing-like functionality between identical apps (i.e. Screens can sync your settings between iPhone, iPod, and iPad) on identical Apple IDs. It hasn't yet proven successful in syncing game states between devices, however (we still can't stop Angry Birds on iPhone and continue on iPad or Mac where we left off.)

Also, Mac support for Documents in the Cloud is waiting on the next version of OS X, Mountain Lion, due later this summer.

There's no cross-user support yet, so date can't be shared between family members or employees in the same company. There's also currently no file system, so services like Dropbox are often still used as well in many apps.

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Subscriptions and Newsstand

Apple originally announced App Store subscriptions in 2008 as part of the iPhone OS 3 event, but they never took off. At The Daily event in 2011 Apple introduced a new, updated version which was officially included in iOS 5 in June of the same year, along with Newsstand.

Newsstand was a special kind of folder that housed a special kind of app -- subscription periodicals like magazines and newspapers. Again, developers had to update to support Newsstand and its subscription features, but once they did:

  • The subscription app would download to Newsstand, not the general Home screen
  • The subscription app would "wake up" once a day to refresh content, if anything new was available.
  • The subscription app would show the latest cover or front page artwork, instead of the app artwork, to visually cue users to potentially new content.

Existing customers with existing subscriptions can typically log in to get their content. New customers without existing subscriptions can typically buy subscriptions via in-app purchase.

That's problematic for content brokers. Apple's 30% cut means that those already working on the 30/70 agency model can't afford to participate in subscriptions any more than they could the original in-app purchasing system -- 70% publisher + 30% Apple leaves 0% for companies like Amazon.

More controversially, Apple demands most-favorered pricing, so developers and publishers can't simply tack on an additional 30% and charge iOS users more, and won't allow any out-of-App Store linking.

Matt Drance of Apple Outsider summed up the hubbub:

The requirement that IAP content be offered “at the same price or less than it is offered outside the app,” combined with the 70/30 split, means developers must make less money off of iOS by definition. They can’t price their IAP content higher to offset the commission, nor can they price their own retail content lower.

If I am interpreting this correctly, I can’t bring myself to see it as reasonable. Not only do businesses have every right to price their products on the open market as they see fit, but I would actually be willing to pay a premium for all the aforementioned advantages provided by IAP. Why not let them experiment?

I also don’t see how it’s even remotely enforceable. Are Apple staffers seriously going to check every vendor website for sale prices on a regular basis?

I think a great deal of this drama could go away if Apple dropped section 11.13 while keeping section 11.14: Your prices on your store are your business; just don’t be a jerk and advertise the difference all over ours.

Apple likely knows if companies could charge more on iOS and link out to their cheaper web stores, many users would in fact buy through the cheaper web stores. (Look no further than real-world retailers and former Apple VP Ron Johnson's failed no-sales policy at JCPenney for an abject lesson in the psychology behind it.)

What's more, if taken to the extreme, companies could offer apps for free on the App Store, and then charge subscription fees for them on the web, and thereby do a complete end-run around Apple.

While getting Apple to pay for hosting and delivery while simultaneously denying Apple a cut of revenue is highly appealing to some, it's not appealing at all to Apple. It would make Apple's just-above-break-even App Store model turn into a money loser. And Apple doesn't lose money.

Worse still, from the point of view of traditional publishers, Apple requires users to opt-in before Apple would share their demographic information. While print magazines were nominally supported by their cover price and advertising, their main business was collected addresses and credit card information so they could market to their customers. (Ever wonder why your junk mail would spike after subscribing to a magazine?).

Overall subscriptions have been successful enough for some publishers to stick with them under the current terms, yet onerous enough for other publishers to switch strategies and go for HTML 5 distribution instead.

Google Play (née Android Market)

Google launched the Android Market several short months after Apple launched the App Store, and has recently renamed it the Google Play Store. There are several interesting aspects to it. However, since Android is a platform for platforms, and not a singular phenomenon, we'll keep this broad and not up front not all Android devices allow for all options at all times.

Substantially less curation

Google doesn't moderate for content on the Google Play Store. As long as an app works and isn't particularly and obviously illegal, it'll pretty much make it to the store.

Of course, this leads to far greater degree of stolen IP, porn (and tragically, bad porn), malware, and other assorted crap.

System-level apps and root access

Since Android allows deeper system-level access than iOS, Android users can potentially buy classes of apps unavailable to iOS users, like replacement keyboards, themes, etc.

Again, this has also led to a glut of junky keyboard and skins and themes.

Google also has no problem with apps that require root access (think jailbreak apps).

Trials

If you buy an app on Android and hate it, you can delete it within 15 minutes and not be charged for your troubles.

You're only allowed one trial per app.

Alternate stores

Amazon has their own Appstore on Android, and users can shop there instead of Google play. Purchased apps are tied to Google accounts, so you don't lose them if you switch devices and the new one has a different store.

You do risk running into a company like Amazon, however, who exercises so much control they make Apple look easygoing. Everything you upload, including price, description, and app itself belongs to them.

BlackBerry App World

BlackBerry App World debuted in March of 2009. Prior to App World, BlackBerry apps could only be acquired and side-loaded from a variety of web stores, similar to how Treo and Windows Mobile apps were sold.

BlackBerry Playbook OS has moved closer to an App Store model, where side loading requires more advanced, geeky skills. Presumably BlackBerry 10 phones will be the same. Traditional BlackBerry phones can use either the old, multiple web-store model or the new one.

Multiple development environments and platform support

BlackBerry Playbook and presumably BlackBerry 10 phones give developers a plethora of choices when it comes to development. They can use HTML 5 WebWorks, Adobe AIR, and code natively.

In addition, the Playbook, and again presumably BlackBerry 10, can also run Android apps through an emulator. However, they do have to be submitted separately to BlackBerry App World.

Price Tiers

At launch, BlackBerry App World allowed for free apps, then began pricing tears at $2.99, incrementing at $1 up to $19.99, at $10 up to $99.99, at $50 up to $599.99, and at $100 up to $999.99.

The attempt to prevent cheap apps didn't last, however, and App World eventually added $0.99 as an option.

Carrier billing

RIM suffered greatly from the lack of a successful international checkout system like iTunes or Amazon (or even Google Checkout). However, RIM is increasingly offering carrier billing as an option. (As is Google.)

While far more fragmented than a platform-owned checkout system, it is at the same time more accessible to people in emerging markets who may not have easy access to credit cards, and for whom gift cards are far less convenient an option.

Windows Phone Marketplace

Microsoft's Marketplace initially launched in October of 2009 for Windows Mobile. It rebooted alongside Microsoft's next generation operating system, Windows Phone.

There's little unique about what the Marketplace does compared to other platforms, but it does do some of those things in different and arguably better ways.

Trial modes

Although Marketplace has experimented with return periods, they currently offer flexible, almost shareware-like options for developers. Apps can be feature limited or time limited for a trial period, or can offer things like ad removal in the full versions. (Though Microsoft does discourage timers and prefers feature limitations or ad additions in trial mode.)

Beta tests

Rather than UDIDs, like Apple's App Store Ad Hoc distribution method, Windows Phone Marketplace allows for a list of up to 100 Windows Live IDs to be registered. Beta testers can then download beta versions of the apps they're registered for from the Marketplace (which doesn't list them but does fulfill them).

Live IDs can be added, deleted, or changed at any time. New beta builds do have to be uploaded to Marketplace and pulled each time, however. They can't be pushed directly to devices.

webOS App Catalog

The webOS App Catalog launched in June of 2009. Like webOS itself, webOS apps are based on HTML 5, CSS, and JavaScript. Older apps could use the Mojo framework and newer apps, the Enyo framework. A native PDK (Plugin Developers Kit) was also made available primarily to enable high performance gaming.

Non-ejecting downloads, password free updates

In the iOS, when you download a new app, you're shoved out of the App Store, onto the Home screen, and shown spatially where the new app is downloading to. That's great a few times, especially to help new users get oriented and prevent them wondering where their apps are. After a few times, for experienced users, it's annoying. webOS doesn't do that.

Similarly, the App Store asks for your password a lot. Even when downloading updates to existing apps. Since there are no paid updates on iOS (see below), this also becomes annoying for users who value time and convenience over security.

Web distribution

The webOS App Catalog isn't the only way to get webOS apps. There are feeds for both official webOS apps, and for homebrew (jailbreak) apps.

Embedded videos

In addition to screen shots, the webOS App Catalog allows you to embed a YouTube videos so potential customers can see an app in action before they choose to download or buy.

iOS 6

The iOS App Store will soon be celebrating its fifth birthday. By any definition it's been an unprecedented success. 25 billion downloads. Over $4 billion paid to developers. Over $1.5 billion kept for Apple.

But that doesn't mean it's perfect.

Apple's a secretive company that's usually difficult to predict in advance yet somehow obvious in hindsight. That's because they usually do sensible, successful things.

By looking at everything that's occurred before, the competitive environment, and what Apple's, users', and developers' continued pain points are -- in that order -- we can guess what might be on the iOS 6 App Store agenda.

Apple might no do all these things. Indeed, Apple shouldn't do all of these things. But they should be considering them, and the problems they solve.

Better discoverability

Over half a million apps in the App Store makes finding the best app for any particular user at any particular time almost impossible. Apple has top lists, which can be gamed, and Genius recommendations, which break down on family accounts and don't address new needs.

Apple has reportedly bought Chomp for its recommendation engine, but it's unclear how and when that will be implemented into the App Store, and whether it will truly fix the problem.

Digital recommendation engines in general have had a really hard time properly anticipating the analog desires of humans.

On our iPhone & iPad Live podcast (see below), David Barnard of App Cubby suggested that there be an option to constrain App Store searches to apps that have been featured by Apple (an additional level of curation).

Of course, there's also the utopian solution, even if it is a significant engineering challenge.

"Siri, find me the best mileage tracker app."

Premium App Store or list

Downward price pressure and the race to the bottom have resulted in a bevy of free and cheap apps, and they've also taught users that apps should be free and ever cheaper.

Frequent sales on more expensive apps have trained users to wait for sales instead of buying at regular price.

It's gotten to the point where people who happily pay $5 for fussy caffeinated beverages that are gone in a few minutes balk at paying even $0.99 for a quality app that can solve a valuable problem for them, or simply provide them with hours of distraction (which would easily cost $2 to $15 for rental or theatrical Hollywood fare).

Some developers can make up for this on volume for some apps. Angry Birds is the classic example. Instead of upgrades, they spawn new versions. But not a lot of apps can pull this off, and not a lot of the time.

If developers can't make money off high quality, in-depth apps, they'll ultimately stop making high quality, in-depth apps. We'll get smaller, less ambitious apps that are also less risk.

Apple added a Top Grossing app list in 2009 to try and take some pressure off premium apps. Expensive GPS apps briefly enjoyed the spotlight. Then in-app purchases started counting and free-as-in-freemium games took over, and premium apps were shut out again.

Removing in-app purchases from the Top Grossing list could restore the original intent of the list. Adding a Premium list could do the same thing, though by increasing complexity.

A Premium App Store, where higher production, higher value apps could be showcase absent the deluge of free, freemium, and cheap apps, has been suggested for years. Whether simply new, added categories or a more clever new interface option, it could give Apple a more prestigious showcase for their platform, developers a chance to compete at a higher price point, and users the option for better apps.

Better usability

Booting a new user out of the App Store the first couple times they buy apps is helpful. It shows them, spatially, where they can find the new apps they bought. After a few times, especially for users who buy a lot of apps at once, it's annoying. Imagine being escorted out of a regular store every time you bought something, and having to come back just to buy another single, solitary item.

Bury a Setting in the App Store section that lets advanced users turn this off. Too many Settings are bad thing, but the App Store is important and the section isn't exactly over flowing to begin with.

(If a user is navigating around wildly, the system could intercept them and offer them help find what they're looking for, or take them to recent downloads or Spotlight. That's going to be the future of gesture-driven navigation and hint detection anyway.)

Likewise, asking for a password when no financial transaction is taking place -- for example, when you're updating an app under the current system -- is onerous. Have a Setting to turn that off.

App trials

As App Cubby's David Barnard has discussed several times, there's another problem that can typically occur for a user searching for a specific app.

  • User downloads a free app, isn't happy
  • User downloads cheap app, isn't happy
  • User downloads moderately priced app, is happy for a while, but ultimately needs more features.
  • User downloads premium app.

By that point, a user has spent significant time and money, perhaps even more than twice the price of the premium app. The free app has racked up downloads from an unsatisfied user. The cheaper apps have racked up downloads and made some money from an unsatisfied user. And the premium app has made only half the money the customer was willing to spend to get to a proper solution.

Trials can help solve this. Google's version seems clearer and more consistent than Microsoft's. Some might find it tough to really get into a feature-filled app, but it should be good enough to give anyone an idea about an apps functionality.

More importantly, it would help eliminate scam apps.

Some scam apps are copy-cats that duplicate as closely as possible the name and icon of popular games in order to confuse consumers and get them to buy a scam app instead of the real thing. This costs the consumer money for the scam app and developers money for the lost sale.

Others scam apps appear to be byte-for-byte copies, stolen whole-cloth and offered for sale side-by-side with the original. This still costs the developer money for the lost sale, and while consumers get a functioning app, it's likely not one with any support going forward.

Still other scam apps rip off the copyright of a popular brand (like Pokemon) for bogus apps that do nothing but cheat customers out of their money.

They all combine to damage confidence in the App Store, and harm the experience of the iOS platform.

Apple seems to be doing a better job finding and removing scam apps these days, but a simple, direct way to report abuse right in the App Store would be good.

Trials would be great.

Can you spot the copy cat and rip-off apps in the top chart?

Upgrade pricing

Upgrade pricing is a perennial favorite on iOS App Store improvement lists. Yet currently no mobile platform provides for this functionality. Not iOS. Not Android. Not BlackBerry. Not Windows Phone. Not webOS.

No one.

Apple knows which app's you've bought -- they can let you re-download them for free and alert you when new versions come out. Hints that Apple has considered upgrade pricing have been seen for years.

Yet Apple hasn't pulled the trigger, and so apps like Tweetie, Twitterrific, The Early Edition, Coda, and more have re-launched new versions as new apps, making absolutely no one happy.

Now, just because I paid to see Star Wars doesn't mean I should get to see Empire Strikes back for free, or half-price, yet software upgrades have been standard in the industry long enough to have created an expectation.

If developers don't mind them, and users appreciate them, upgrade pricing is a better solution than the status quo.

Marc Edwards of Bjango highlights why:

Not allowing upgrade pricing is something we can probably deal with, but not allowing support for older versions is a disaster. It creates a system where the likely outcome is for users to hate us at every major milestone of an app’s life, except the initial release. Milestones that should be joyous occasions. Milestones that occur after we’ve just spent months slaving over every single detail.

That’s not good for us, it’s not good for users and it’s not good for Apple.

Basically, developers can't leave an old version of an app in the store, because more people might find it and buy it instead of the new version. Then they'll feel ripped off.

Yet when developers remove the old version, they can no longer update it. If any bugs surface or services change (for example, third party APIs), tough luck.

Upgrade pricing fixes all of this.

It'll be interesting to see what Apple does when their high-end software, like Final Cut Pro X, get new versions on the Mac App Store. Will update pricing surface then?

App approvals and alternate distribution channels

Although unanticipated App Store rejections have become fewer, they still happen. While developers who skirt the edges of Apple's policies -- who work beneath the shadow of the giant's foot -- aren't sympathetic, the ones who build apps in good faith only to be denied entry into the store on questionable or impenetrable grounds certainly are.

This might make some developers, potentially some with brilliant ideas for transformative technologies, avoid the iOS platform. If they go to Android instead, the next great wave of apps could land on devices not made by Apple.

Apple could avoid this by simply approving more apps -- any that aren't malicious or illegal, or by providing an alternative method for distributing apps outside the App Store.

We've seen hints that Apple has considered, for example, an explicit category in the App Store. Steve Jobs famously considered Android a porn store (to which our friends from Android Central would add, not a very high quality one.)

Apple will, however, be releasing Gate Keeper for OS X with Mountain Lion. As I mentioned in the post on iOS 6: Higher hanging fruit, this doesn't seem a likely carryover to iOS:

With Gatekeeper in OS X Mountain Lion, users have a choice -- run only App Store apps, run App Store apps and non-App Store apps signed by identified developers, and run any app, no matter where it comes from. The App Store provides a lot of security -- it minimizes the chance for malware or other malicious software. It creates user trust. Non-App Store apps signed by identified developers is a good middle-ground, however. They don't need Apple approval but if any of them are found to be malicious, their certificate can be revoked.

Unfortunately, I don't think Apple would do this. It wouldn't really change the type of apps that are available -- for example, the system-level hacks of jailbreak -- and it would almost certainly lead to developers cutting Apple out of the 30% share of app sales Apple takes to maintain the App Store. Apple has shown they're not fond of end runs around the App Store for subscriptions, and they'd likely be even less so for paid apps.

Expanded volume discount program

While Apple provides a mechanism for educational institutions to buy apps in bulk, and at up to a 50% discount at the developer's discretion, no such program seems to exist beyond the Education Store (see above).

So, for example, if an enterprise wants to buy 1000 iPads and 1000 copies of Readdle's PDF Expert with it, there's no bulk purchasing and discount option for them the way there is for schools.

There are hints Apple is considering expanding the program, but so far only for Apple themselves:

Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, and Compressor 4 Commercial and Education Volume Licensing will be available soon via the Apple Online Store for quantities of 20 or more. After purchasing, customers will receive redemption codes they can use to download the applications from the Mac App Store.

Patent protection

It's been over a year now since iOS developers began being sued directly by patent trolls. Apple has reportedly come to their defense, but as the profile of the App Store continues to rise, so will the parasites rise with it.

That makes app development only more expensive and more of a potential risk.

Oracle is reportedly now suing to invalidate the patents of one of the biggest trolls. Godspeed.

This is also a tough problem to fix, however. One solution is for Apple (and other platform owners) to offer blanket protection against any technology that's made available to developers part of the SDK.

It wouldn't cover anything beyond the SDK, which would still leave lots of openings for trolls, but it would cut off some of their potential attack vectors.

Conclusion

For the App Store to be even more successful in the future, Apple needs users to think the best apps are on iOS and developers to think the best platform for making the best apps is iOS.

Making iOS 6 fantastic is important. But as good as the iPhone and iPad are, the moment after they're bought users are going to turn towards apps. And Apple knows that.

Apple is also atypically good at understanding their own weaknesses and addressing them. The App Store is so phenomenally successful, it hides a lot of potential vulnerabilities.

Hopefully Apple is aware of them and will be addressing them as in iOS 6, and into the future.

Podcast

If you'd rather watch than read, here you go. Georgia, Seth, Rene, and App Cubby's David Barnard discuss the state of the App Store, whether the iPhone and iPad's tremendous success hides serious problems, and what Apple can do to help customers, developers, and themselves in iOS 6.

Additional resources

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, The TV Show, Vector, ZEN & TECH, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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There are 30 comments. Add yours.

Taz says:

Good article rene enjoyed reading it and lol no over exaggeration of flaws of other platforms

arin.failing says:

Well written, Rene. Well written. Although, I must say, personally, an App Store revamp would be on the bottom of my wish list. I do, however, appreciate the point you make, and I hope Apple is listening [read: reading].

motionblurred says:

Felt like I was reading a Dilger article...

Ilovegeorgia says:

Read first part iOS will always get apps first because it is easier to develop for Ios devices because of hardware and the same form factor.

Chris says:

Very well written article Rene! I enjoyed every bit of it, personally i think that the trials idea is brilliant! May I ask what you are hoping for most in iOS 6 Rene? My top pick would be instant text reply. So tired of texting while trying to play my games. Thanks!

NetMage says:

I found the update quote more tha a bit disingenuous - Apple provides clear ways to support old versions - either release updates for free as the same App or release updates for multiple App versions. The fact that a developer or company doesn't like those options and chooses not to do either is their fault.

Dev says:

Those are hackt workarounds - perhaps Rene should have written "no good way. Take the ESPN Radio App, for example.
A couple of years ago, I bought this $3 app, and use it daily. The latest update adds new features, but, it appears even the features from the original app will be disabled (after a trial) unless I make an in-app purchase. There was no way to know this before downloading the "free" update, and no way through the App Store to downgrade. Granted, this is ESPN's decision more than Apple's, but the App Store bent towards one-single version of an App adds some needless friction.

Rene Ritchie says:

Let's say you replace Tweetie 1 with Tweetie 2.
If you want to continue to update Tweetie 1 for existing users, you have to leave it in the store. That means new users can stumble upon it and buy it. Then they'll feel cheated they didn't get the new version.
Remove the app so no one buys it by mistake, and you can't update it.
Marc's quote is entirely accurate.

Jimmy says:

I think your Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back example is a bit off. Those are two different movies. And an upgrade is an improvement. Seeing Star Wars and the new Star Wars and then the new new Star Wars would be a bit more accurate. Though I refused to see the 3D version. Lucas needs to move on. Even Roger Ebert agrees.

Karolisk says:

Started reading but after a few paragraphs I got bored... The only thing developers care for are users. iPhone will have more users even if we stay on iOS 5 for 2 more years. And that kind of users that are prepared to pay money for apps (unlike many android users). It is not going down. That's it.

iDonev says:

Something is amiss with the photo for iOS 1... The screen shows 3G connectivity which implies iPhone 3G/3GS and they shipped with iOS 2 & 3.

LozBlanko says:

What a superb article! Great work.

dublex says:

You, sir Rene, deserve a raise.

Dev says:

The notion that Apple could provide coverage to users of its SDK falls under the doctrine of patent exhaustion -- the owners of a patent can only collect on it once. The US Supreme Court has upheld this important principle, but it was weakened in a subsequent case, however, and Apple has specifically argued against patent exhaustion when it suits their purposes. It is not difficult to see any (every) Lodsys wannabe putting in similar language in their license agreements from now on.

dloveprod says:

Nice article, I remember how expensive apps were on my Dell Axim X3 running Windows Mobile. I think I bought 1 in all the years I had it. Surprisingly it still works almost 10 years later, doesn't support my current wifi box though. Can't wait til Monday.

Steve says:

A very well-written, well thought out article. I don't think the reason users are hesitant to buy more expensive (or premium) apps is necessarily the price, though. I'm more than willing to pay $5 or $10 for an app that meets my needs well. The problem is that, without any kind of trial or return policy, I have no way of knowing whether that app is going to meet my needs until after I've handed over my money.
In the case where there are multiple premium apps out there for a particular purpose (say task tracking, for example), if I've got to try four $10 apps to find the one that's best for me, that just cost me $40, not $10.
With a trial or refund system, I'll try all four apps, and happily give my $10 to the developer who has the product which best suits my needs.

tester24 says:

It never ceases to amaze me of the content Rene puts out. Very informative article. I always enjoy when I read an article that is not a total wash of fanboyism but has good points to be made on not only the platform for which the site is made for in this case Apple/IOS, but is also appreciative of other platforms which Apple/IOS could use to improve their interface.

crusty says:

Great article (needs a little proofreading love), but well done.

Damitol says:

Great article Rene. Some of that seems so long ago, yet it's only been a few years. Put me in the camp supporting (1) the Premium Store and (2) timed trials.
I'm all for free apps, sales and saving money, but if I'm looking for an app for a specific purpose, it would be great to filter out all of light duty (and crap) apps, find the best app for the job, AND pay the folks who developed them.
As far as trial periods, I think the Android timed model is brilliant. It's a win-win, in that I'm not stuck with junk, but just as importantly, I'm willing to try a $3, $5 or $10 app knowing I can delete it if it's not worth the money. Fifteen minutes is not a lot of time to make an informed decision to kill an app, but I think smart developers will design the interface to make sure I quickly see what makes their app worth the money.
I'm not stupid with my money, but I also don't mind spending a few bucks to get something that will meet my needs and provide me with real value for my money. Having a premuim store and the ability to try before I buy may mean I will buy fewer apps - but I will also be willing to spend more on those that I do buy.

SockRolid says:

YAGAR. Yet Another Great Article, Rene!
Re: "If the iPhone and iPad are no longer the only places to get the best titles first, let alone period, will that be a problem for Apple?"
I don't think it will be a problem. There is more than just a slight similarity to the iPod and its iTunes Music Store. No, iPod wasn't the only MP3 player out there, and no, there were few if any exclusive deals with artists or "iPod first" albums.
But over time, iTunes and its Store helped iPod dominate. Songs weren't exclusive to iPod, but the overall experience was vastly better than anyone else's. Now it's time for iCloud to add value to all Apple devices. iCloud is still in its infancy. Still just taking little baby steps. And Apple wants to make sure those steps are taken very carefully (compared to the MobileMe rollout.)
Re: ""Siri: Find me the best mileage tracker app" is a significant engineering challenge. but should be the future everyone is aiming for."
Exactly. I think we underestimate the importance of Siri. Add Genius-type affinity and purchase history intelligence to Siri and it would become a very powerful assistant for discovering titles in the App Store. As well as the iTunes Store (or whatever Apple will call it in the future.) In general, Siri could replace many typing-intensive tasks on iOS and OS X (and Apple TV) and speed up queries for all kinds of things.

mavsguy842 says:

Great article. This was a history lesson for me, an iOS non-user. I'm a BB user and have been holding on to my Bold 9650, specifically waiting for this fall to determine what my next smartphone OS will be (Android, BB10, iOS, Windows Phone). The OS/UI is a top priority for me, but app ecosystem is also important.

Me says:

The link to a video in the webos app store was great. I could view the video and see how the app was intended to be used.

bookimdanno says:

a good read. I think a revamped app store is long overdue.

mtv757 says:

i just wish they would get rid of the feature when you pick an app to download it will take you out of the app store and show your newly download app pop up and start downloading. That is the most annoying and useless feature i have ever seen in a smartphone. why cant you just show me the download progress from the app store and let me go about my business in the app store. as it is rigtht now if i have more than 25 apps showing and i pick one then i have to go back to the app catalog and start over. i hate that.

Glenn#IM says:

Very good article. When I bought the iPod Touch, the app store was brand new. You could find the premium app, because there was not that many. I totally agree with what you are saying. Unless you know the app name, you now get so many similar, it is hard to find the one you really wanted.
As far as upgrade pricing, I believe you should get free upgrades for bug fixes, and minor upgrades. 1.0 to 1.1, and so on, but if a developer rewrites the app 1.1 to 2.0, then a fair price should be asked. I will support a developer that makes an app that works on both the iPhone, and iPad. That may be bad, but I have both products, and now find myself looking for the plus sign.

Chris Dodds says:

I check in once every week or so to see what's new at imore.com (and previously tipb.com and theiphoneblog.com, etc) and this is as great a "take" and as informative an article as I've read. Great job. Thanks for all the continued new insight and I look forward to checking back in here for a long time. Thanks.

  • Doddsy in San Antonio
G-me says:

I can't help but feel that Apps are a whole new form of media. They just don't contain what movies and books and tangible games contain. Throughout my experience with the app store sometimes I get a gem, like Tweetbot, which I use every day; Other times I get a real dumper, like voice actions, which doesn't act like I would expect a more expensive app to act. I don't mind paying high dollar for an app, but I can't take the risk to pay $10 or $20 on a box wrapped in attractive paper filled with sparkly s***. Which brings the argument, invariably, to better curation by apple. But I wonder if that is really in their best interests? What if they wanted a larger percent of the profits for more in-depth curation? Would you take 30% or 40% instead of 70% so you could charge $6.99 in stead of $.99? It's all very complicated, and at the center of it all are great, hard-working coders, some scam artists, and apprehensive consumers, all trying to get what is best for themselves.. I don't think people really want free/freemium apps. I think most of us are just too anxious to dish out top dollar for a carappy app. At least that is how I feel. I'm a supporter of Tweetbot, Instapaper, and Camera+...and I would have paid twice as much for them if I had known how good they were before I bought them. Just my 2¥.

Erin Smith says:

CLIPCLOCK mobile app. is the best social hub with its new features. Lets discover and share the best video moments!!! Check it out... Here is the link: http://www.clipclock.com/download/4782