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Troubles In Apptopia

At the tail-end of 2008, I wrote a blog post called “Apptopia!,” about how much fun I was having downloading and using applications for my iPod Touch. The post drew a good response, and we talked briefly here about making it a regular feature. But then the new year started, I got busy, and I found myself spending less time keeping track of what new apps were available, let alone giving them a spin. In fact, I have the general impression that the bloom is off the rose to some extent when it comes to the iPhone and iPod Touch and wonderful things they can do. There’s more of a settling-in phase now, as people return to using those devices as primarily intended: to make calls, listen to music, surf the web, check e-mail, keep up with social networking, and play the occasional game. After all, once you’ve shown everyone you know how you can make your iPhone fart, how much more use can you really get out of that application?

I wouldn’t call this new feeling “disenchantment,” since the iPhone and iPod Touch are still cool, useful devices. I’d call it “reduction in enchantment,” and I’d chalk it up to three things:

1. Waning Interest

Earlier this year, a study showed that most free apps that iPhone and iPod Touch users download go unused after the first 24 hours, and are deleted within a month. And the 99-cent apps don’t fare much better. I can relate to this. Because I try to keep as much room for music on my iPod Touch as I can, I routinely purge apps that I’m not really using much; and as a result I’ve gotten so attuned to how, why and when I use my iPod that I can usually tell within a day which apps I’m likely to return to. I used to download nearly every game that reviewers were raving about, but now I’ve reduced my game-load to something like 30: mostly classic card games and puzzles with a lot of replay value, perfect for killing 15 minutes while waiting for a movie or watching my kids on the playground.

If a new game comes along that’s right in my kitchen, I still download it, and play it for hours when I should be working. Meltdown was big time-suck for me earlier this year; and then Peggle. I’m currently wrapped up in Ragdoll Blaster. And I still keep an eye out for useful apps, too. I have Birdhouse to help me compose tweets offline, and OffMaps to help me download and store street maps—two apps that will come in handy next month when I’m at the Toronto International Film Festival. Soon Netflix is going to introduce an app with streaming video from their Watch Instantly service, and I’ll be all over that when it happens.

Still, if the App Store’s sales have remained strong (and they have), I'd be that's largely because people keep buying iPhones and iPods at a steady clip, and then immediately go looking for all those apps they've seen on the commercials. But after the initial gotta-download-everything-in-the-Top-50! impulse wears off, most iPod owners seem to settle into a more reasonable relationship with The App Store, going to it only when they need something, or when they hear about something; not as part of their daily routine. (Or at least that’s been my experience.)

2. The Glut

Last week Apple banned all applications from the company Perfect Acumen, which had released 943 apps over the course of its nine months in business. They were averaging five new applications a day, many of which were knockoffs of other people’s newsreaders and sexy photo apps. The developer was kicked out for copyright infringement, but the problem represented by Perfect Acumen remains: there are too many damn applications in the App Store, and a lot of overlap in functionality.

To some extent, that competition is good. Some developers have complained—and rightly so—when their apps have been rejected by Apple for being too much like a service that Apple itself provides. The latest victim of this caprice is Google Voice, a voicemail service that allows people to leave and receive messages at a much, much lower rate than they’d get using iPhone/AT&T voicemail. At last report, it looks like this dispute is going to be resolved in Google’s favor, after the FCC got involved. But not every developer has Google’s money to fight Apple if they get nixed, and if they’re offering a better product than Apple is, they should be allowed to compete in the same market, rather than having to set up a black market for iPhone jail-breakers.

At the same time, the sheer volume of applications available in The App Store is making it harder and harder for worthy new apps to stick out. If you go hunting for a specific kind of game, say—chess or golf or poker or what-have-you—you’re often faced with page after page of similar-looking apps, and not much in the way of real guidance to help you pick one. In the early months of The App Store, dedicated review sites would do round-ups of the best versions of Shanghai or Sudoku or tower defense games, but by and large those sites haven’t maintained their lists of bests and worsts. And the user comments at The App Store are either so boosterish or so petty that they’re not very useful.

When The App Store took off beyond everyone’s expectations, some new media columnists predicted it would revolutionize gaming, since gamers would no longer have to pick from the limited selection at their local brick-and-mortar retailer, nor would they have to pay 40 bucks for what they found there. The App Store has a potentially unlimited stock of a potentially unlimited number of games, all available for prices so low that consumers don’t feel burned if what they buy turns out to be kinda sucky.

But you know what brick-and-mortar retailers do that The App Store doesn’t? They get rid of stock that isn’t selling, or is out-of-date, or that their customers tell them isn’t worth keeping on the shelves. It can be frustrating when physical stores don’t have what you’re looking for, but if they do have it, it’s a lot easier to find without a lot of similar-looking junk surrounding it. At Apple, in a very real sense, it feels like no one’s minding the store. And speaking of which….

3. Legal Matters

Hardly a week passes without another story about some app developer having a project they worked on for months rejected out of hand by Apple, with no rational explanation given. Recently a dictionary app was rejected because it contained swear words; then it was allowed back in, but only for purchasers over the age of 17. Meanwhile, anyone under 17 can download a Twitter app and follow people who swear up a storm. (That’s okay, so long as those Tweeters don’t provide any definitions for the words they use.) Apps get rejected for marginally objectionable content, or for stepping on Apple’s business, or infringing on copyrights. A lot of those rejections are valid, and yet apps make it through the approval process every day that would seem to violate Apple’s policies. The Daily Show even did a piece about this last month, documenting the legal battle between “Pull My Finger” and the copycat app “iFart.”

The glut of apps I referred to above wouldn’t be nearly so annoying if I had a sense that Apple was running a wide-open market, letting everyone who meets their basic criteria hang out a shingle. But a growing army of disgruntled developers tells a different story. The website iLounge corralled some of the more fervent complaints in a recent post, in which some developers talked about abandoning The App Store altogether and trying to partner up with some of the new smartphones just entering the market.

To them I say: Good luck. Seriously. Strong competition from other companies is probably the only way Apple will be motivated to improve its service. But frankly I have my doubts. I recently bought a new cell phone—not an iPhone, because the plans on those are far too expensive for the hour or so a year I spend talking on cell phones—and when I looked into what kind of applications I could load onto the device, I quickly grew frustrated both with how hard-to-navigate this company’s version of an app store is, and how few worthwhile apps they had to offer. Nearly everything worth getting was overpriced, or sold on a subscription basis. Even their web browser is limited as to what sites it can access. If I want to check my e-mail on this thing, I need to subscribe to my new cell phone company’s service; forget about using my browser to go to Gmail or Google Reader.

Ultimately that’s my real source of ire with Apple, because as badly as they currently manage their App Store, it’s still way better than the competition at this point. (Again, in my experience; if you've found a better smartphone/app market, let me know.) All the pieces are in place for the iPhone and the iPod Touch to be just about perfect. Apps are cheap and easy to get, and the creativity of developers has spawned copious useful and/or entertaining items that few could’ve dreamed of a year ago. And yet the whole process is still mired in the kind of rights issues and nanny-stating and bureaucracy that has plagued nearly every incredible techno-media innovation of the past 50 years, from TV to home video to the internet to social networks like Napster (and even Twitter, increasingly).

I realize I probably write too many blog posts and Newswires about iPods and Kindles and Netflix and TiVo and eMusic and the like, but I can’t help it. The past decade has seen a real revolution in the way we receive and consume media, edging closer to the kind of “everything available at any time for a low, low price” model that I dreamed about when I was a kid. And yet we continue to get a sting of news stories about Amazon removing paid-for books from Kindles, or eMusic switching subscribers to less-generous plans, or a DVD release held up because of music clearances, or studios removing their DVDs from Redbox, or DVD copying software being banned, or Rupert Murdoch planning to move his on-line publications behind a pay wall. I understand that a lot of people have a justifiable interest in making a profit on the media they control, but some of the moves being made seem more driven by lawyers and accountants acting preemptively, rather than people thinking about what could be.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post called “The Freedom Of No Choice,” where I extolled the virtues of a limited library, and how it pushes consumers to look beyond the obvious and find some books, movies and music that they might otherwise miss. And I don’t think I was wrong, really. But I’d feel better if I thought that limited or scattershot choices were being offered by design, and not as the result of lines of ownership being too quickly and capriciously drawn.

I still love my iPod Touch; I still use it every day. And if The App Store closed down tomorrow, I confess that I've still got plenty on my device to keep me entertained for years. But for decades now Mac adherents have stuck with Apple because they make attractive, useful products that open doors to the modern world for people who are not so technologically inclined. And at this point in time, one of the strongest arms of their business isn't operating so smoothly. If Microsoft wanted to hit back at Apple for the "I'm A Mac; I'm A PC" ads, what's going on with The App Store would be a ripe target to hit. Or it would be, if any other company had an effective weapon of their own.