Cooking and the iOS App Store

I just finished some mesquite chicken topped with bacon and port cheese and a side of asparagus, but that’s not what this post is about. While I was very happy with my culinary creation and want to brag about it, the problems I’m having with Apple’s App Store for the iPad and iPhone are what’s really on my mind. Some of the fixes I see that need to be made would fall on Apple to implement, some on the developers themselves. Let’s see if I can avoid blurring the lines here and list the fixes I would put into place.

The “walled garden” is what Android fans and/or Apple haters refer to as Apple’s ecological model- everything is “locked down” and the App Store is the single authorized place to get apps unless your device is jailbroken. Personally, I see this as a benefit, because Apple ensures no malware gets on your device and there’s just one place to check as opposed to multiple Android app stores which may or may not have the app you’re looking for at the moment. But it’s not perfect.

The problem with the App Store isn’t the walled garden or being locked down, but in its effectiveness in communicating the app’s quality or behavior. Ratings done by any Joe Schmoe that cares to rate, whether or not they have the app or even a clue about rating something fairly. Written reviews are largely absent of information that’s actually useful, and the App Store only differentiates programs in to “free” or “paid”, without consideration of a $0.99 app’s inequalities to a premium program listing at $40. The App Store also doesn’t fully describe an app’s requirements.

The app’s requirements lead me back to why I opened with dinner discussion. I have three cookbook apps on my phone. Only one, Epicurious, is a “universal” app for both the iPhone and iPad (which I’ll touch upon more in the Developer Fixes section later), but only my old Betty Crocker cookbook (iPhone only, not updated for Retina display) has an actual database of recipes and will function without an internet connection. It’s a cookbook, for crying out loud! Online and social functions like commentary and trading recipes is all well and good, but creating a “book” that can’t be accessed without potentially using some of your mobile carrier’s data plan is just nonsensical. Epicurious and Cook’s Illustrated are both good apps that become useless when the internet access we take for granted is stripped away. And while some apps may disclose they require a data connection, it’s up to the developer to disclose in their product description, rather than something uniformly stated in the details.

Why does data access matter in the product details, and how will I tie that in with the App Store’s lack of a “Premium” section? I’m glad you asked! Did you know there are full-on professional apps like DishPointer? It may be niche, but it makes your iPhone a real tool that uses the compass, accelerometer and GPS to figure magnetic variation on the globe and actually point your dish at a satellite in space. It’s too bad it’s so hard to find among all the dollar garbage. When WolframAlpha first debuted on the App Store it was famously $50 in a world of 99-cent crap. Sure, some dollar apps are a good product, but WolframAlpha was an honest-to-goodness database of information and answers. Now it’s $2.99, but also nothing more than an iOS interface for the website and requires internet access to function. Why would I pay three dollars for what boils down to a website bookmark?!?! Another example, which will lead to my final gripe about the App Store itself, would be the plethora of GPS apps for a buck but are really nothing more than a new skin using the same data and tech as the built-in Google Maps, when a premium app like Navigon is a complete database of maps and will function as a true GPS even when your data connection is iffy on remote highways. Give me access to filter out the crap and get to premium apps that are worth my money, Apple.

Which leads to my last Apple-based recommendation for perfecting the store: Start eliminating some of the catalog. I know, I know… that’s free-market heresy. But shouldn’t a company that brags about how many more apps they have than Android, or how much better the apps are be able to claim that both statements are simultaneously true? The App Store may have more selection than Droid Marketplace, but who cares if you’re wading through garbage to get to the good stuff? Search the App Store for the wonderful game “Plants Vs. Zombies” and see the knock-offs that border on plagiarism like “Animals vs. Zombies” or “Zombies vs. Ninjas”. I understand it’s a free market, or that it’s Capitalism at work- that doesn’t change $1 plagiarizing knock offs being unethical or making the App Store an unpleasant shopping experience. Frankly, I refuse to browse the App Store anymore because of all the electronic detritus- I’ll wait until something stands out enough it gets recommended by a trustworthy source and then I’ll seek it out by name.

Finally, developers, here are two helpful hints: make your apps universal for the tablet and phone, and keep them updated.

Now, not every app would work as a universal- I love RunKeeper but nobody in their right mind would strap their iPad on like a backback before a run. In that case, phone-only for GPS and armband wearing makes sense. But why in the world does my bank have two separate apps depending on the device? Or for that matter, why are premium games like Plants vs. Zombies still separate editions? Every app that can be universal should be- because if somebody owns an iPad it’s pretty likely they own an iPhone or want to… Charge more if you must, I’ll pay. I’m compulsive enough about organization that I hate having duplicate apps in my iTunes account and don’t want to buy twice- and I’d wager many others are, as well.

And keep them updated. When screen resolutions changed to “Retina” on the iPhone 4, there was such a strange joy at watching my app’s icons go “HD”. When they languish, that tells me the app has been abandoned- and when I paid a lot for the app (GTA: Chinatown Wars, I’m looking at you) it tells me maybe I shouldn’t bother buying something from that developer in the future (cough, cough, Rockstar, cough)…

All that because Jetpack Joyride is universal and great, and my cookbooks are irritating…

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