In an alternate universe, Apple has announced the App Store Guide and Blog. Choice morsels from the PR material follow.

“We came to realize that a quarter million apps meant worse than nothing to Apple users”, said Apple’s CEO. “I get confused too! Reviews are often fake, lame, or downright incompetent. PR firms have been caught astroturfing reviews, publishers have resorted to flooding the App Store with shameful clones of successful applications. I won’t let one of Apple’s most important, most imitated innovations sink into anomie.”

[Remember, this is sci-fi.]

“So…Today we’re proud to introduce the Real App Store Guide, written and maintained by Apple experts. We’ll review new and existing iOS apps. We’ll tell you which ones we grok (and that grok us) and give you the straight dope on the offerings you shouldn’t touch, even if they’re free. In our Guide, you’ll find a series of paths: For the Traveler, the Gamer, the Music Lover, the Graphic Artist, the Oppressed Enterprise Windows User, Teachers, Parents, Doctors… The Guide will also feature a blog, a running commentary on the iOS App landscape with intelligent answers to cogent questions. And in keeping with our usual standards for decorum and IQ, the blog will be moderated…”

And so it is, the App Store is fully curated, at long last.

As always, this doesn’t please everyone…at least on the surface. In reality, the usual naysayers are thrilled: More pageviews! Ryan Tate jumps on the opportunity and frenetically fires at Steve Jobs’ inbox, trying to start another late night email séance. But this time the Emailer In Chief doesn’t bite.

Customers, on the other hand, like the Real App Store Guide. Users can finally find their way through the twisted and confusing maze of programs. They learn to adjust for a particular writer’s opinions, much as we’ve all learned to compensate for the biases of, say, movie reviewers. The blog gives civilians a forum where they can argue (politely) with the named authors of the reviews—there’s no anonymous corpospeak here.

App authors…some of them aren’t so keen on the idea. The ones that get tepid reviews are understandably furious and threaten lawsuits (in vain…their attorneys are told to re-read the App Store T&Cs). With a modicum of care with words, that’s what the Guide’s editors are for: Safe negative opinions.

Publicly, Apple is quick to claim that their first concern is customer satisfaction. In private, they tell disgruntled programmers to go back to work and code different. You want a better review? Create an original, compelling, bug-free app.

The authors that receive thumbs-up reviews smile on their way to the bank. A favorable mention in the Real App Store Guide is equivalent to the box-office numbers after a strong A.O. Scott review. It’s the music of the cash register when getting your first Michelin star.

Cosmic Order is restored.

Down to Earth

Back in the “real” universe—if the adjective applies to the Valley—the toxic waste of success is poisoning the App Store. Smartphone stores such as Handango and Tucows led the way, and there any number of followers now—the App Store genre is well established. In their tradition of mixing the ingredients better than anyone else, Apple has improved the lighting and streamlined the checkout. But the question remains: How do you find your way through the labyrinth of 250,000 apps? On whom do you rely to tell you what’s there, what’s good, what’s not, what fits your needs? Should you trust the user reviews? The polite Staff Favorites, the Top Charts?

The organization, the cognitive UI that worked well for a few hundred apps—or even a few thousand—buckles under the weight of today’s massive library. It’s a mysterious but universally recognized fact: At a certain point, more of the same becomes numbing and alienating, quantity begets nature. You can run ten servers, maybe a hundred, more or less the way you run one, and your mind’s eye can maintain a focused picture. But in today’s seriously big server farms—at Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft—the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands; in Google’s case, millions. The mind boggles. Different concepts, different tools are needed.

I mentioned the famous Guide Michelin, but what I’m really thinking about is the old Guide Gault Millau, often considered superior to the Michelin. What the Wikipedia article doesn’t explain is how the Gault Millau came about and why it was so revered. Henri Gault and Christian Millau were food writers for a Paris daily, the Parisien Libéré. These gents had impeccable taste and great pens. Where the Michelin strove for ostensible objectivity (a little too rigorously, in my opinion), Gault and Millau were not shy about their opinions. Readers devoured their columns and ran to the restaurants they recommended. Gault and Millau shook up the lazy and often arrogant sameness of traditional French cooking. They were largely responsible for the Nouvelle Cuisine movement that favored fresh ingredients, delicate sauces, shorter cooking times, graceful presentation—“Japanese-style” said both fans and detractors.

They assembled their reviews in a guide and, for about three decades, made a thriving business of their opinions. Henri Gault passed away ten years ago and, for a number of reasons (including the Net) the guide is no longer as prominent as it once was.

In short, I don’t want a Michelin. I want the Gault Millau of apps. And I want it from Apple.

One unnamed insider calls this a Third-Party Opportunity, a code phrase for We Don’t Care. Yes, there are useful sites such as 148Apps.biz and 148Apps, but their financial resources are insufficient. And we don’t want more Yelp-like (alleged) shenanigans. A Real App Store Guide isn’t an independently viable business proposition, it takes too many writers, editors, curators, bloggers, not to mention the clerks and cashiers and janitors. We may have Google, but libraries still have librarians who guide you through the stacks and offer advice.

The Apple App Store is one of the greatest game-changers of the past twenty years. Will Apple let it crumble under its own weight?

JLG@mondaynote.com

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