App discovery is broken. Can Product Hunt fix it?

With the launch of its new iOS app, Product Hunt is starting to look more and more like the App Store we always wanted

It is said that app discovery is broken. We have gone from a highly searchable, discoverable web dominated by Google Search to a few walled gardens. In the case of iOS, a single list portal has played the role of kingmaker since the 3rd party apps came to the platform in 2008. I think Benedict Evans nails it when he likens our current state of affairs to the pre-Google Yahoo directory where it was “every website on the internet.” Simply put, how can we minimize the epidemic of app store rot that Apple’s neglect of the App Store has caused?

Surely — with 1.2 million apps on the App Store — Apple’s ‘featured’ page and the leaderboards by category are not the most useful way to browse, search, and discover new apps. Apple recently shrunk the App Store’s top 250 to 150, further narrowing the aperture through which new apps could squeeze into the limelight. It is unsurprising that these top lists are dominated by incumbents like Facebook and Foursquare, no matter how rocky their constellation app launches have been. I’ve seen various data points on the disparity by income between the top 0.1% of apps and the rest, but really any way you slice it you keep coming back with Pareto’s Law. However, the result is not that new apps cannot be discovered (see here for the contrarian view that it isn’t broken). It’s that good ones could be discovered much more easily. That imbalance is healthy so long as the “elevator” that brings challengers up to duke it out with incumbents is healthy too.

I’m sure most of you who follow tech saw the news of Product Hunt’s raise and iOS app. Everyone who loves products is excited about Product Hunt for what it is already, but I’m also jazzed about them looking ahead. The web is littered with posts by founding teams glowing over their Product Hunt debut and how it attracted tons of high-quality early adopters. These early adopters are key to helping validate the concept, providing feedback, and spreading products that they love (check this deck out for more on this). They are treated almost as rules of thumb or shortcuts by their friends to the best new apps and products, and so reaching and engaging with them is proving to be crucial. Apps are being disovered on Product Hunt (or as a derivative of being discovered on PH) everyday — even without app discovery being an explicit focus.

I don’t know what percentage of products on Product Hunt are apps, but I would guess that its a pretty healthy one. With that in mind, lets take a look at the new PH app:

The new Product Hunt iOS app

Its elegance goes without saying. What I can’t shake is the feeling that this should really be the foundation of where I get my apps in the future. This could be a simple, curated discovery model with the deep install links and everything. We’ve seen plenty of “top free apps of the day” or other half-assed shots taken at app curation, search and discovery, but all have either failed miserably or faced legal action from the likes of Apple. I think some offspring of what Product Hunt currently has here is a better way to do it.

With the rise of anthropology over algorithim and the elevation of the app to pop culture icon status, I think Product Hunt could play a very interesting role. Currently, the non-reviewer users of Product Hunt are themselves also the “early adopter crowd,” but that may not always be the case. I believe this iOS app hints at an eventual wider audience for Product Hunt in the mainstream. A future where everyday people (ok fine — milennials) follow star product experts in the valley for new products the same way they follow reporters for news or their favorite fitness & diet expert for exercise tips. Why shouldn’t we find apps the same way we find stories on Reddit? The app business is likely to remain winner-take-all as always, but that does not mean we should resign ourselves to such a flat experience as the App Store. And despite the misleading articles being passed around lately about how the “average smartphone user downloads 0 apps,” this experience of discovery is becoming more and more important as apps truly become mass media.