Opinion: Welcome to the App Store – the playground Apple doesn't want anyone else to play in

Opinion: Welcome to the App Store – the playground Apple doesn't want anyone else to play in
According to reports in the British press, the BBC is currently debating whether it'll play Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead when it takes a place in the UK's Top 40 charts this Sunday.

The song, taken from The Wizard of Oz, is being purchased by those 'celebrating' the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with the BBC apparently yet to decide whether it is in good taste to play it.

The debate comes a matter of weeks after 90s pop duo PJ & Duncan topped the charts with Lets Get Ready to Rumble – a single released almost 20 years previous that, at the time, only just managed to scrape into the top 10.

The reason? They'd performed it, somewhat comically, on their Saturday night entertainment show, and amused viewers had taken to iTunes to see if they could get it to #1.

In both cases, tracks were pushed up the charts not because of their musical worth. They hit the heights not because they're groundbreaking songs that won listeners over.

Neither song amassed success on merit. Rather, they shot up the rankings because of circumstance - because something happened that manipulated people's buying habits.

Of course, no-one is calling for either song to be struck from the charts. Though they're evidence of the system being 'gamed', neither the chart officiators nor even the BBC is clamouring for a rule change.

Why? Because no chart ever – whether music, or film, or even games – is truly clean.

The manipulation myth

It's important to state that outright because of the debate that's currently ensuing around the removal of AppGratis from the App Store.

Many of those standing up for Apple and its decision claim the move was justified because AppGratis - and similar platforms - damage the integrity of the App Store's rankings.

Indeed, when discussing the issue with a friend yesterday, the case was made that the App Store's rankings should be representative of games supported by a discerning userbase. They should, in short, be a true representation of what games are popular, from top to bottom.

Perhaps they should. However, the truth is that - even without the likes of AppGratis and AppShopper playing a role - they're not and never have been.

There's a good reason why, too.

Consumer need

With a reported 900,000 apps or more on the App Store, it'd be unrealistic to expect gamers to sift through every single title begging for their attention, downloading based only on merit any nothing else.

Discovery platforms, whatever their form, exist for consumers as much as developers, helping to highlight just a few key releases from the hundreds of thousands begging for their attention.

Apple, too, plays the discovery game. The apps it pushes forward on the App Store by and large rise up the rankings fairly quickly.

Yes, these are apps curated by Apple itself – and, given it's the firm's own marketplace, that's an entirely reasonable thing to do – but the existence of such promo tools makes a nonsense of the claim that, without third-party influence, the App Store rankings would be entirely 'clean'.

They wouldn't, and without these forms of discovery, it's likely large numbers of consumers would walk away from the App Store altogether, confused by its crowded nature.

Rank talk

So, if we accept that the rankings are open for manipulation – and, indeed, that manipulation of some form is arguably a requirement – then why has AppGratis been pulled?

The only conclusion I can draw (thanks, in part, to Apple's almost total silence on the issue) is AppGratis has to go because it's not a platform with Apple's name on it.

Apple launched the App Store almost five years ago and, despite immense competition from major players like Google, Microsoft and BlackBerry, has made it the world's first port of call for smartphone apps.

It's understandable, then, that it'd be reluctant to hand over any of the power it's amassed as a result.

As PocketGamer.biz editor-in-chief Jon Jordan pointed out at the start of this debacle, since launching in the US, AppGratis' star has been rising fast, currently accounting for a reported 4.6 percent of the US iPhone discovery market.

We've personally spoken to developers who have been wary of the power and success AppGratis now wields – unwilling to believe it could lift apps so far up the rankings at such pace and, interestingly, nervous of being associated with it for fear of rousing Apple's attention.

Just the start

Worryingly, however, the suggestion is, this is just the start.

I don't think anyone expects all forms of app promotion to be pulled or blocked in some form overnight. Rather, it appears discovery platforms are fine and dandy until they actually become successful. Then, it seems, Apple strikes.

I would hate to be a developer who, in a year or two's time, has to face up to a marketplace where the only routes in are either a stroke of luck, or cosying up to Apple. It'll increasingly become a store where only the elite make any money – if that isn't the case already – and where the chances of finding success become more and more remote.

Even if platforms such as AppGratis are guilty of 'manipulating' the App Store's rankings in a manner that demands action – and I think that's a very big if – without these third-party avenues, Apple's ecosystem will increasingly become a closed shop.

If nothing else, it's time for Apple to start communicating with these businesses to help them re-tool their approach to fit in with the company's vision.

The longer Apple stays silent and seemingly undermines them at will, then the more reluctant outsiders are going to be to invest in iOS in the years ahead.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.


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