Home > Uncategorized > App Discovery: Can, and Should We, Open Up the Walled Gardens?

App Discovery: Can, and Should We, Open Up the Walled Gardens?

In the last couple of years, we have transformed the way we consume software by placing the app at the center of the user experience. Whether we use mobile apps, add a browser plug-in, or download web platform extensions, we are essentially utilizing pieces of technology that can be accessed on multiple devices, on multiple platforms, and at any time.  Indeed, we have had an incredible amount of success in simplifying our personal and work lives by enabling interaction with apps that perform what we want to do. But with great change comes a slew of problems–the millions of pieces of software we call apps have created a headache on a functional and discovery level.

The functional problem now lies with the structure of the app ecosystem. We access apps through many different stores, platforms, and devices. For instance, the mobile app that you download exists in different versions depending on the OS. Currently, developers want to cater to the user experience–focusing on scaling their apps to the experience contingent on the platform strategically makes sense in the short run. Platforms are even trying to accommodate this: BB10’s new App Store accommodates developers building apps in whichever language they choose. From a portal’s perspective, this makes sense: allow developers to build in the language they feel most comfortable with will attract more users to build apps that can be found within their store.

Whether this strategy is valid in the long run is still subject to discussion, but the ramifications in the short term are clear. For now, app stores will cater to the current fractured ecosystem by maintaining the structure of the market place for apps. Aside from Facebook, which is the only global distribution channel, a universal app store that captures the whole ecosystem of apps, providing a catalogue of software that can live on all platforms, will not come to existence any time soon. As a direct result of the duopoly between iOS and Android, app discovery continues to be a problem .From the perspective of the end user, finding the right app is a nightmare–try scrolling through Apple or Google’s top ten lists and categories where only the top apps within each set is ever listed. This only captures the tip of the iceberg: there are hundred of thousands of apps that don’t make it into those top lists, and as a direct result, never get found. We have made it difficult for everyone to distribute and find apps.

Indeed, both consumers and developers suffer in this model. From the consumer side, we do not get enough options. It’s great that Pandora is the most popular app to listen to streaming music, but is there an other apps that performs a similar function, but can do it even better? It is in the eye of the beholder to decide that, and having the freedom to choose the app that best fits the way you envision broadens your horizons and your experience as a user. From the developer’s standpoint, getting discovered is difficult if not impossible: imagine building an app, but unable to market it because the channels are so congested. On top of that, passive browsing as it enabled now makes it difficult for a developer’s app to be found; they have to put in much effort to appear in one of the categories that only show of twenty top apps in a vertical where thousands exist. The bottleneck effect has dire effects on both consumers and developers.

The issue of discoverability, in conjunction with the fragmentation of the app ecosystem, reiterates that our access to functionality will continue to be reduced to the type of device and the sort of OS we have been given access to. Our app stores are in essence walled gardens: inwards looking, taking in consideration only its plot of land (the OS), controlled by an oligarchy of gatekeepers (Google, Apple, Microsoft, RIM).

From afar, the solution appears quite simple: in a world where people want to be able to do anything, from anywhere, at any time, breaking down the walls of the garden will restructure the broken app ecosystem and return power to users everywhere. Splintering the oligarchy of the gatekeepers and allowing for other major players to create their own portals will democratize the access of apps. The arrival of HTML5 will derail the current structure of the mobile world by allowing web apps to be a new standard (even though this may take a while, I’m optimistic). Ultimately, it could open up the ecosystem and enable other players to innovate. Just as a monopoly sees itself forced to lower prices and return surplus to users when competition enters the market, opening up the playing field to allow other players such as carriers, search engines, web platforms, handset manufacturers to create new paradigms for finding apps will balance an inefficient market place.

But this is easier said then done: how exactly do you break down the walls? By creating more app stores? That experience is already fragmented as it is, and adding another one convolutes the ecosystem further.  Even carriers, who are desperate to innovate at any level, seem to moving away from creating white-labeled app stores. We could argue that users need to be reeducated–they need to learn that there are other ways to discover apps. Dissenters would counter that providing an alternative experience is fruitless, as the app stores are here to stay. Regardless of the system’s architecture, they would say that users are comfortable with the current discovery experience even though it is flawed.

In the long run, innovation can dynamically change the user experience; change can happen either within the stronghold app stores, or outside of them. Improving the browsing experience, whether by ameliorating passive search or institutionalizing an active process, should be the end goal. Creating a new architecture to a system that finds apps (a toolbar? a pre-installed app? A widget?) is also another direction which could and probably should be investigated. In the end, we should not deprecate users. Within the last years we educated ourselves on how to access apps, so if app distributors tweak that experience by placing a tool within our field of vision (i.e. the real estate on a phone) that draws and captures our eye, we can be persuaded to hop onto another discovery model. Users will try out this new access tool as long as it is compelling and can easily be found.

Making it compelling enough is now up to us.

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