What’s the use of offering more than 500,000 wares if customers can’t find their way through the gigantic bazaar? I know, I already harped on about the lack of curation in Apple’s App Store, but that was 16 months ago...when the Store contained a “mere” 250,000 apps.

Since then, the iPhone has sold in ever larger numbers (we’ll soon see if the December quarter number crossed the 30 million units line, and by how much) and with more than 18 billion downloads, the App Store is an unmitigated success. If this is what “broken” looks like, why fix it? And how?

To answer the question, let’s take a trip back a hundred years to Clermont-Ferrand, home of Michelin. Known for its tires and tourists guides, Michelin is a very old company (incorporated in 1888), but they’ve always been at the forefront of their technology. Tires are complex products whose role in the safety, comfort, and economy of our driving experience lead Michelin engineers to joke that cars are peripheral to their lovingly engineered creations. (If you find yourself traveling through the center of France, treat yourself to a visit to L’Aventure Michelin, a really interesting museum that recounts the company’s many adventures, most of which are unknown, surprising, or forgotten.)

Edouard and André Michelin weren’t just good techies, they were astute businessmen and marketing geniuses. They seized on an obvious idea: If people take more road trips, we’ll sell more tires. And they shone in the execution that followed this intuition, they went far and well in their efforts to encourage and guide automobile travel. Michelin became famous for its world class roadmaps, for the Red Guides that grade hotels and restaurants, and Green Guides for regions, historic sites, and countries. The company also published literary Guides Bleus, forgoing culinary delights for a more cultural angle in their interpretation of locales. (I’ll skip their other marketing inventions, such as the Bibendum character and the iconic Michelin kilometer stones and road signs.)

Michelin had a staff of agents at the ready to devise an itinerary for your trip, all you had to do was write or call.

Did this “content”, as we would now call it, make money for Michelin? Possibly, but the revenue was negligible compared to the amount their tires generated. Michelin’s maps, guides, and services were created with one goal in mind, one mission: sell hardware. That’s where the real margins were, and still are.

Is Apple’s situation, it’s mission, all that different? Hardware revenue and margins are the sacred business model. Everything else, including the App Store, must support the ultimate goal. (For reference, the App Store generates less than 2% of Apple’s revenue, and much less than 2% of its profits.)

The scale of the App Store’s success, probably unforeseen by its creators, could lead management into complacency: Look at these numbers, ain’t they great? This is an incumbent’s attitude. And we know what happens to those.

But ask developers and, most important, users. For all its demonstrable success, the App Store feels broken. It’s too big and confusing, the app reviews are dry and the ratings are unreliable, search is primitive…

Label me naif, but I think Apple could do well by following the century-old Michelin model. It won’t take billions to implement, nor will it require the administration of the Apple Genii, just competent people and hard work. Here’s what a possible solution looks like:

Apple sets up a team in charge of publishing an App Store Guide. The editorial team writes opinionated (and presented as such) reviews of apps by category: Productivity, Games, Utilities, and the like. Published daily on a blog and accumulated in an on-line Guide, these reviews, one to two pages long, present the writer’s experience and opinion, culminating in a ranking in stars or numbers. It sounds simple, often the sign of a twisty road ahead...

Trouble starts quickly.

First obstacle: It’s already being done. True. How many iOS App Review Sites there are? According to this blog, the answer is…116! This is good news: Apple’s customers have an appetite for reviews, but which sites and reviewers can they trust? How do these reviewers make money? There’s no dispassionate, incorruptible Consumer Reports for apps.

Second, there’s Apple’s penchant for control. True, again -- but irrelevant. Going back to Michelin, their opinion of a restaurant might be controversial, but the company has no financial gain in the number of stars they assign. They sell tires, not meals. Similarly, Apple wants to move hardware, not generate App Store revenue by favoring one app over another.

Third, attempting to sift through 500,000 apps amounts to boiling the ocean. How can one even hope to ‘‘make a dent” in that universe? But that’s no reason to sit on one’s hands. Let’s say that after a year the Apple App Guide has featured “only” 2,500 reviews, an average of 50 reviews a week, ten a day. Is that bad compared to today’s mess?

Fourth, the expense. Let’s do a gross, back-of-the-envelope overestimation: 20 reviewers at $250K/year “fully loaded” with management overhead and office expenses included. This gets us to $5M/year. Apple is notoriously cautious, if not downright stingy with (most) expenses, but $5M would be lost in the income statement noise. And this miniscule investment would exert a healthy influence on the rest of the app review ecosystem, just as the Apple Store raised the game for its independent retailers.

Fifth, the people. Will readers trust the opinions of enlisted Apple employees, or will they insist on “independent” voices? An employee’s loyalty is to the company, and there could be grumblings that a staff of corporate reviewers would choose apps that, above all else, show off the platform and the Apple brand. On the other hand, independent contractors are just that: independent. As such, they’re much more susceptible to “external influences.” There are any number of gadget blogs that smell of greasy palms and astroturfing.

Apple possesses [five s’s in a nine-letter word!] a treasure of closely-guarded user data -- off-limits to a contractor -- that could prove very helpful in rating apps. It’s “simply” a matter of finding, hiring, training, and managing competent and honest curators.

Today, Apple already demonstrates a type of curation when it decides which apps get featured as New and Noteworthy, or Staff Favorites. They might as well go all the way and please their users with subjective, personal reviews. Encourage the kommentariat to cluck its disapproval, allow dinged developers to rage online. If presented as an honest, competent effort -- occasionally wrong but always with the Apple imprimatur -- the review process will be as respected as any other high-quality editorial effort.

I hope Apple’s success won’t blind it to the need to give app seekers more than today’s skimpy categories and unreliable user reviews. Who knows, if Amazon or Google were to wake to the opportunity, their moves could spur Apple into action.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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