Apple is saving the App economy, but not by “fixing” the AppStore

In March iMore wrote an interesting and controversial piece on indie apps, highlighting serious problems that affect the app economy. Particularly the issue of over-saturation and the practical value that apps provide to a casual smartphone user:

“I love, love, love my indie apps. They dominate my Home screens. But how many of them have my family even heard of? How many have my non-tech enthusiast friends? How many have yours?” — Rene Ritchie

These are quite hard to hear and admit by developers, making platform owners the usual scapegoats. Since my livelihood depends on apps, this is an important issue to me. I believe with the latest WWDC announcements and iOS10, things may start changing for the better.

Blame Game

Here’s a simplified view of the App world: developers craft beautiful and useful apps, while AppStores promote and sell those apps to the users. Developers put a lot effort of into making high quality products that users will love. The apps sell, but often not well enough for the developer to break-even on the investment. Since the developers are trying their best, and the target market is large enough, surely everything should be fine. Yet something is definitely broken and if it’s not the developers’ fault, then it must be… AppStore. This is a wrong assumption. Of course it’s always possible to come up with a new AppStore feature that may improve things. It’s easy to visualise just how much better everything would be, if only Apple introduced “x” (trials, upgrades, take a pick).

With iOS10 it’s becoming very clear to me that this thinking is misguided, because it’s focusing on the wrong problem:

  • how can we reach more users and sell more through the AppStore?

While the real challenge that needs addressing is:

  • how do we reach more users when they actually need our apps at the time they need it?

The app should be available directly in the context and at the time of what the user is doing.

Bringing the apps to the users

Users don’t spend a lot of time in the AppStore, but they do spend a lot of time in iMessage. In iOS10 Apple has taken universal links and iMessage to the next level. The WWDC demo might’ve been a little quirky, but the new iMessage allows you to integrate your app via the iMessage extension. This is a huge deal for developers, because it allows apps to provide richer experiences within iMessage and not just for users who already have downloaded your app — a fantastic opportunity for new downloads.

Another interesting thing is the mini-AppStore within iMessage. Its purpose is not just to sell stickers, but to download your actual app, which means it can act as a gateway to other features and paid services that your app offers. Hopefully this will turn into a trend and we’ll see more mini-AppStores throughout iOS e.g. within Siri or Maps.

WWDC 2016 Keynote — iMessage demo showing deep app integration

NSUserActivity — the robots.txt for iOS apps

One of the oldest arguments against native apps was the discoverability issue and the fact that most people relied on Google for most of their searches. Thanks to last year’s Spotlight integration via NSUserActivity, this is finally changing. Apps are slowly becoming just as discoverable as the web. Search and linking are not exclusive to web pages anymore.

Not only apps are catching up with the web, but thanks to continuity, they can go beyond that. Apps installing automatically on tvOS when downloading on iOS is also great for feature discoverability, new opportunities for continuity, and a perfect example of what web pages are not capable of. If you utilise in-app purchases for allowing access to some of these features, this means additional revenue streams.

Besides search, iOS will leverage NSUserActivity to keep your app more visible throughout the system thanks to “Proactive Suggestions”. Apple has also started crowdsourcing deep link popularity to surface even more relevant content. If you’re an app developer, having a closer look at NSUserActivity is a must.

Introducing Search APIs — WWDC 2015 —

The ball is back in our court

This is exciting. It’s up to developers now to leverage all the new ways your app can seep throughout iOS, even when it’s not installed yet. Opportunities in iOS10 are really exciting and new AppStore features will be helpful as well. The app ecosystem is maturing nicely and with a constantly growing number of iPhones and iPads out there, things are actually looking better than ever. It may have taken iOS years to get here, but I’m increasingly optimistic about the app economy and looking forward to more integrated app experiences.

Growing number of iOS app extensions in Xcode 8

More information in the iOS 10 Release Notes.

Let me know what you think on twitter @stawecki