Quality, not quantity, is the real mobile app problem

Developers fret at their apps getting lost in crowded app stores, but ironically, most make their plight worse

Apple caused a bit of a stir this week. In an apparent change in its App Store policies, it has banned apps using social networking and other gamification techniques to promote other apps, websites, and content from within them. The Candy Crush game is the most notorious example of an app that uses its popularity to become a sales mechanism for other apps and content.

Apple wants apps and content to succeed on their own merits, not through aggressive house ads in popular titles. Developers say that with a more than a million apps in the iOS App Store, they need a way for users to find their other apps and the App Store is too crowded to accomplish that goal. The same goes for the smaller but still huge Google Play app store for Android.

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I understand the developers' dilemma: There is an overwhelming number of apps in the iOS App Store and Google Play store, and it's a struggle for potential buyers to find them. But in truth, not enough apps are available -- that is, not enough good apps.

Bad apps, unnceessary apps, and me-too apps fill the app stores. In-store mechanisms like user ratings, Apple or Google editor recommendations, and popularity indexes can help, but they tend to reinforce the same set of core apps -- nothing succeeds like success. Newcomer apps rarely rise to buyers' attention. It often takes an app store editor or a buzz-generating review at a magazine or website for a newcomer to break out of the app pack.

That's because, as I said, there are not too many apps, but too few good apps. Many amazing apps are available for iOS in all sorts of categories, from productivity to photography, but few new ones seem to reach that stature. In the Android world, there are fewer amazing apps to choose from and even fewer new compelling titles coming on board.

Instead, we get dozens of me-too apps. For example, how many email client apps basically replicate the native functions of iOS or Android and add a trivial feature like social-networking lookup? About a dozen, which is way too many. Multiply this me-too effect of marginal-improvement apps by all the app categories, and you can see why most go nowhere.

Of course, me-too apps are easier to create -- it's simply easier to copy than create. Often there's room for a couple apps that do essentially the same thing but differ on soft factors like user experience, which matter to people. But if a handful of such choices are already available, developers should move on to another idea rather than pile on with more of the same.

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