A ridiculous race is going on in the world of Smartphones, with each competitor boasting about the number of available apps for his platform. With Apple talking of 200′000 apps and Android claiming 50′000 apps (similar to what Palm offered in earlier years, and probably similar to Symbian), a new platform such as Maemo 5 sometimes faces a difficult stand, with casual users coming from other platforms complaining about too few apps (only hundreds…)
After years of smartphone experience as user and developer, having my first app on Maemo reaching 100′000 downloads, programming a first iPhone enterprise app and spending a few evenings of App Store analysis, I believe it’s high time to debunk the app numbers craze: IMHO, a high number of apps reflects the shortcomings of a platform as much as its mass market success. This article mainly looks at the iPhone AppStore, however the Android situation is quite similar.
One in six apps in the iPhone AppStore is an eBook. “Jane Eyre” alone is available through over a hundred apps. How ridiculous is this? Taking an eBook and packing it into an app? 36′000 books as individual apps?
On Maemo, you have one or two good e-book readers, then you simply download whatever free e-book you want. Yes, no paid eBooks (no DRM) yet, but 30′000 eBooks alone from Project Gutenberg, downloadable through the default browser.
One in six apps is a Game. Some of them are absolutely fantastic, innovative and superior to the handheld game platforms such as the PSP or the DS. But many others are imitations, variant 283 of Tetris or Bejeweled. Or crude mini-games. And quite often, games come in 3 variants - a free, a lite and a full version.
On Maemo, the commercial games are mostly missing due to the ongoing Ovi store tragedy/mess. Angry Birds and Bounce save the day, and every possible emulator allows us to relive glorious games of the past, even using various external controllers. In addition, thanks to the in-built Flash player (take that, Steve :-) and the physical keyboard, you can play many Flash games in the browser or even download them for later offline play. Maemo would probably need just a dozen good 3D games to be up to par in the Gaming section.
The entertainment section (10% of all apps) is another show of the tragedy of the masses. Sorted by popularity, the winner is “Boobs & Thongs Lite”. What a glorious achievement. In fact, three of the top 20 apps are about boobs, another 3 about wallpapers. Plus light sabres, farts, jokes, beer and TV.
On Maemo, thanks to the fantastic browser and screen resolution plus the huge amount of codecs supported, you can simply get the real deal just like on the desktop. Whatever the kind of reference you’re looking for. Save any possible image by right-clicking and saving in the browser, review later on throught the Photo app. And simply use any possible image as wallpaper directly from there, too. And for all other reference lookup, just try the search widget “TouchSearch” and ad your own databases if Wikipedia, Google, IMDB etc. are not enough. And for emergencies, a light saber is available and a fart app is work in progress. Sigh.
Education has 7% of all apps, with a few fantastic items, but also lots of superficial content, similar to simple lookup lists or a number of pages packed in an app. PS: Another Boobie app in the Top 20!
On Maemo, we have a number of apps, most notably Stellarium. This alone rocks incredibly and shows the true potential of this platform. Flashcards, Graph calculators, periodic tables are there, too.
Going into the other 50% of apps and categories in the iPhone app store, the view is the same: a few individual gems, but mostly repackaging of existing content. Each RSS feed an app, each internet radio station an app, each reference list an app, each city map an app. Each document about whatever an app. And who needs 856 weather apps?
Desperately looking for an advantage in having this many apps, I remembered the online/offline dilemma. At least having an app installed should give me more offline freedom, or not? Unfortunately not - because many apps are indeed just frontends to existing content. And if not, every single content you would want is an individual app that you need to find and download separately. In fact, instead of googling and surfing to content, in a way Apple prefers you to search in the App Store and install the one app for just this content.
What are the reasons for this mess?
- Conceptually, to hide the shortcomings of the input methods, the shortcomings of the browser and the shortcomings of the display resolution.
- Commercially, the trendiness of the iPhone and it’s mass market appeal combined with a fierce competition and freeloading on existing content. Plus Apple’s strategy of consumer lock-in.
Where will it go? I’m persuaded that in a few years, 90% of the apps will be forgotten and long dead - it will begin the moment that the iPhone has a higher resolution display and and better browser and happen when Flash or HTML5 is available.
Luckily, with Maemo 5, we’re nearly there already. Less is more. Be free.