App stores have become the primary way to buy software for most of us. When they first became popular, however, they drew quite a bit of criticism. Now that we have the perspective of time, how have things changed? Have app stores made software better or worse? I think it's a little of both.
Before we get started, let's make sure we know what we're talking about. You'd have to be living under a rock to not know that an app store is a popular place to buy software for a given platform or platforms, and most are run by the creators of the operating system the software runs upon. That said, you might not be aware of every popular option or the ones I'm discussing in this post. So, here's a list:
- iTunes App Store
- Mac App Store
- Google Play Apps
- Microsoft Apps For Windows
- Windows Phone Store
These are not the only app stores, but they're the most popular. They operate in similar ways and share a lot of the conveniences and frustrations. While we could talk about console gaming platforms and smaller stores as well, these ones make up the majority of software purchases nowadays.
App Stores Decreased the Price of Software...
While third-party software barely existed on mobile platforms until Apple and Google rolled out their offerings, the desktop worked differently. Perhaps because mobile came first, cheap app prices naturally translated to our computers. Many costly software titles became notably cheaper, bringing them into the hands of more customers.
But that lower cost hurt developers. While a free, open-source model has created some great things, many popular titles require teams that don't come cheap. When revenue goes down because people simply decided to stop paying so much for software, it becomes difficult to maintain a well-paid team for the job. For example, the great Twitter (and later App.net) app Kiwi ran into this problem.
This was bad for developers who gave their software a fair price and could no longer ask as much. It did help lower the cost of excessively priced software packages, however, which needed to come down. While that's good, the price reductions in software really only served to hurt the developers who needed it. On top of that, most app stores take a significant cut of the revenue — generally 30% — so everyone selling their software in one loses out even more. Of course, the additional exposure has a chance to more than make up for that in new sales and can negate some of those effects.
...and the Quality
While a lot of existing software maintained its integrity despite reduced prices, not everything could. Some apps failed and others suffered from slower development cycles, but that didn't necessarily degrade the quality of software across the board. New, poorly-made apps entered the market in order to make a quick buck and caused a widespread problem.
App stores generally have no return policy (or a terrible one), while also providing no way to demo an app prior to purchase. Many apps now offer a free, "lite" version in order to give users a taste, but if not you have to pay up and hope for the best. Discerning between good and bad can be tough, even with ratings systems, so developers who create mediocre software can make a quick buck off of an app they quickly tossed together. They don't have to update or maintain the app, offer support, or do anything a normal "premium" developer would do. If problems persist, they can simply pull it and release a similar option under a new name. I've seen this happen frequently with social media tools.
Even without these lazy pseudo-scams, app stores still have a lot of software in them and most of it isn't great. That makes it harder to find a useful app, even with employees curating the content and blogs highlighting the best finds. I'm always on the lookout for new software because it's part of my job, and I sift through a lot of crap. While bad software had every right to exist prior to the emergence of app stores, it wasn't necessarily on an equal footing. Because developers can offer demos and trials through their own sites, and users could figure out what worked and what didn't more easily, poor quality apps couldn't make as much progress. Now they have a better chance.
The Age of Micro-Apps Began
A lot of bad apps are "micro apps", or software that has a singular, specific purpose. Not all of these apps are bad, of course. In fact, I love a lot of them. Before app stores, many developers would create these little guys for free because they added missing features to an operating system that they wanted. Everyone else got on board because they agreed. Development time often didn't justify charging, but app stores changed that.
Micro apps are common in app stores because people don't want to pay much for software. They will, however, pay a buck or two for something that works. That gave a lot of these free utilities away to make some money, which is ultimately a good thing because those developers deserve some compensation for their hard work. But just like larger software titles, many suck and can easily get away with charging $0.99 because most are willing to take a gamble if that's all it costs. Of course, you see this problem far more on mobile platforms and OS X, as Windows came a bit late to the game. The unfortunate side effect for Microsoft is fewer great software titles — and any software in general — released for its newer Windows 8 and Windows Phone platforms.
While it's nice to see more helpful little utilities, you'll find a less-appealing crap-to-quality ratio with these tools. Micro apps are great, but on an app store you have to make extra sure you're getting something useful for your money and not something useless.
App Stores Created DRM That Works
I never thought I'd argue that DRM could work, but every since Apple set the precedent with its email-based authentication I found I could live with copy protection. One of the biggest problems with DRM (digital rights management) is the inconvenience it forces upon those who pay for legal copies of the software. App Store DRM, however, seems practically non-existent. Once you've signed in on a computer or smartphone to allow use of an app, anything you buy just works.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some app stores put a limit on the number of installations and, if you don't deactivate your software when you change computers, you can eventually run up against that number. While fixing the problem often just requires a call or email to tech support, that can prevent you from using your software for a day or two — a time period too long if you have some urgent work to finish.
Generally speaking, however, these inconveniences are rare and easy enough to avoid. Most people aren't tech-savvy and won't even notice this extra layer of copy protection. It's hard to disapprove of a potential inconvenience when you basically can't tell it exists in the first place.
Purchases Become a Part of Your Permanent Record
When you buy an app, it's yours forever. You'll have this huge, unorganised list of purchases that spans the life of your account. I buy and download a lot of apps for testing purposes, but if you have even half of what I do you have an unwieldy number. This leaves you with a purchase history that's hard to put to any good use. On the plus side, however, you've got all (or, at least, most of) your apps recorded in once place.
This allows you to find everything your purchased and, theoretically, quickly download them onto a new computer. If your list gets quite long, however, you have to sort through a bunch of stuff you might not want to install and that doesn't really save you much time. If you download or buy several apps you think you'll like but then don't and end up deleting them, you still have to keep them on your record. Until app stores decide to let you manage your purchase history a little better or curate a selection of apps from it, you won't find it very useful for re-installations.
App Stores Still Make Upgrading Problematic
App stores look at updating as a free service for the consumer. That's great if you buy an app for $3, you get updates for life, and the developer can somehow live off of that meagre amount of money. Most can't, and so not every update can be free. Because paid upgrades aren't an option in most app stores, developers have to create an entirely new app to get more money and stop updating the old one. Furthermore, updates should cost less than a brand new version, but upgrade pricing can't be set on an app store because upgrades don't exist.
This situation sucks for both the consumer and the creator. The creator has to explain a more complicated upgrade situation to the consumer and the consumer might miss the update as a result. The creator also misses out on additional revenue while the consumer loses a discount. Why app stores haven't created the option to charge for an update seems completely counterintuitive. If developers can charge and make more money, the app stores can too. Consumers can then keep one single app instead of cluttering up their purchase history with multiple versions. But it's not possible right now, and that's pretty frustrating for everyone.
How App Stores Need to Improve
App stores offer a lot of convenience. Personally, I really like them. Quickly buying software and having it immediately without worrying about entering payment information is wonderfully convenient. That said, there are clearly a lot of problems which we've discussed in this post. Here's what app stores need to implement to really become great:
- Demos and trials, so software that costs more can easily justify its price.
- Better upgrades, so you can pay for new versions when the developer requires it and not pay full price for the same app again. (Of course, this needs to be presented in an easily understood way so consumers don't get confused about the new process.)
- Curated purchase histories, so you don't have to sort through a leaning tower of apps just to find something you bought a while ago or spend hours installing what you want on a new computer.
- Developer reviews, to help reduce the amount of bad app spam on the store. This way we can at least start to weed out the developers who contribute too much crap.
Unfortunately, because app stores create so much convenience and don't cause any major problems for consumers, we probably won't see much of an improvement in the near future. Nevertheless, we can keep hoping that this convenient way to find and buy software becomes truly awesome.