The USS Quad Damage

App Stores are dumb

I think people talk about an app store as a "must have thing" for phones, but I've never been sold on it.

My attitude can be summed up with that silly beer drinking app. That’s pretty much the first Iphone app I saw, and it’s been par for the course ever since. I can’t actually think of a good and useful app from the app store that doesn’t just do what a phone already does. Let’s start with the Iphone, since it typifies my point completely.

I’d like to note that I’m not talking about tablets here. Not to mention the fact that I don’t understand what they’re for, I also see their use cases as being fairly different.

Firstly, games are by far the most popular (and profitable) thing on app stores. I feel like that’s true because we don’t have a different device to use when on the train. I think games kind of neatly fill that gap. However, this isn’t really a “use case”, or “killer app”. It’s entertainment or passing time, but I don’t really see it as adding systemically to what a phone really is.

Another popular “category” of apps is photo taking and management apps. These are actually quite decent, but single use. They also don’t offer anything substantially different to one another. Why use the Instagram app over the Flickr app? Because they’re owned by different companies, I suppose. Really, wouldn’t it be preferable to have an app that uploads to both and is a superior picture taking app? I’m going to say video taking and management apps like Youtube or Vine are in this category as well. I don’t really see how a phone simply couldn’t come with the best of these apps.

Finally, there’s “messaging” apps. That is, these apps replicate the functionality of a phone, but on a separate (usually proprietary) network to the phone network you’re on. This is basically a market workaround for the fact that phone companies are arseholes and just won’t give you what you want, and so are messaging companies who make the apps. This could all be nicely integrated by the backend but instead you personally have to know that some friends use Whatsapp, others use Facebook, and others prefer SMS.

And... that’s it? Well, there’s mapping apps, which tell you where you are, where other things are, and how to get to those other things. I think this is the closest thing that you get to a “killer app” on the phone. There’s also music streaming or playback apps. That’s undeniably useful. Health and fitness tracking apps, too, can be quite useful.

But I’m starting to struggle now. Even email and calendar apps aren’t as useful today as my palmpilot was several years ago. On top of that, it seems that most people stay with the one that the phone installs by default. The only other apps I can find are just rehashes of websites — things like ebay or amazon.

I think I used to see Android as different, because of its ability to have apps interconnect seamlessly. I thought “apps” could be used and connected together like LEGO. Of course, there’s no money in that. Apps today on Android are much like apps on the Iphone — small islands unto themselves, and around as useful.

I want to make it clear here that I’m not talking about apps, I’m talking about app stores. The question I keep running up against is: why? Clearly, an app store makes a lot of money for Apple, and it probably makes at least a little bit for Google, but what value does it add for a user? I don’t think it adds a lot. I think you hear a lot about how Android users don’t spend much and iOS users spend more and that has more to do with their spending money or whatever, but I don’t think most people can really address the core issue here: Why have an app store at all?

Really, if a phone came with the best apps for each of the categories I’ve mentioned, pre-installed, why would I need an app store? What could I possibly do that I couldn’t do without an app store? Because the thing is, I could do a lot more without an app store! I could have a fully integrated experience! If a single messaging app could handle Twitter, Skype, phones, video calls, Viber, Facebook, et cetera, wouldn’t that be great? At one point, Android was going for that with their “People” app (you can still see people’s most recent Facebook and Twitter updates in that app). The idea was that you could “plug in” different accounts and have a seamless experience across them all.

The same goes for emails and calendars. All I want is an integrated experience that matches what I could do 10 odd years ago. Also photos. Many newer phones come with specialised technology for their cameras, but they can’t go all out because they need to support legacy applications. However, if they could all just integrate with backend services like Flickr, Instagram, etc. then a phone manufacturer could tinker a lot more with their hardware. The same goes for sound and video apps, fitness apps, whatever! They should all really be a single app which plug into backend services. No need for an app store.

That dream is dead, but why aren’t companies like HTC aggessively pursuing this end goal? HTC already pre-bundles a bunch of great third party apps, and integrates them through blinkfeed. Find an external way to update those apps, and install new functionality, make first-party apps that are best in class, remove the app store, and finally regain control of your own destiny! Heck, work with telcos to actually collate and organise these services and actually provide something of value to consumers instead of shafting them!

In short, I don’t understand app stores. I don’t see their value for users, I don’t see them solving new problems, I don’t see the value for phone manufacturers, I don’t see the value for app creators, and I don’t know why they exist, except to enrich their platform owners. Instead, we should focus on good integration, seamless and frequent updates, strong applications, and a consistent interface.