App Store Maturity

Apple announced that they will be taking steps to improve the quality of apps available in the App Store:

We are implementing an ongoing process of evaluating apps, removing apps that no longer function as intended, don’t follow current review guidelines, or are outdated.

Developers have known since early in the App Store’s history that Apple may retroactively decide that a particular app no longer merits inclusion in the store. Because of the large number of apps in the store, it has widely been thought that such reconsideration would only occur when and if a new version of an app is submitted, and thus reviewed again. This announcement, however, hints at a much larger-scale procedure, that would potentially cull thousands of products from the store.

Several months ago, developers noticed that the average review time for apps had dropped dramatically. Instead of taking several days, sometimes a week, or more, it is now common for apps to be reviewed in only one or two days. Many wondered whether some technical breakthrough made it easier to blaze through reviews. For example, improved static analysis, an automated fuzz-testing suite, or some combination of these and other techniques could reduce the need for stringent human involvement in some aspects of the review process.

There are over 2 million apps in the App Store, and Apple has effectively announced that they are prepared to re-review all of them in the name of improving overall quality in the store. This hints strongly that there has been some systematic improvement to the review process. It boggles the mind to imagine that all 2 million of those apps were in fact reviewed by humans, but that happened over the course of almost 10 years. Whatever process Apple is gearing up to apply, they claim apps will start dropping from the store as early as September 7.

It’s interesting to me that Apple feels comfortable dropping a potentially massive number of apps from the store. They have never shied away from boasting about the impact of the App Store, often focusing on the sheer size of it. They make a point in every WWDC keynote to talk about the vast numbers of developers, apps, downloads, and yes, dollars flowing through the store. Yes, if they measured success purely by number of apps in the store, they would have made their review criteria much more lenient from the start. But if they cut the number of apps for sale by a significant degree, it will be the first time in the App Store era that I remember the company emphasizing “quality, not quantity.”

I see both the decision to ratchet up quality control, and the willingness to live with the consequences of smaller bragging numbers in the store, as signs of the App Store’s maturity. When Apple debuted the iOS App Store, one of its main challenges was in justifying the very idea of an app store. Every enthusiastic update on the number of apps or amount of revenue generated by them seemed almost paranoiacally intent on proving the concept of the App Store correct.

Apple’s willingness to now intentionally deflate those metrics strikes me as a sign of cool confidence. The App Store concept has been proven valid. It was proven valid years ago, but Apple’s famous paranoia may not have allowed the defensive posture to relax until now. I’m optimistic that this change is only the first of many, in which Apple will focus less on arguing that the idea of an App Store is good enough, and more on the possibility that such an App Store can be insanely great. Hey, a guy can dream, right?