Every time Tim Cook stands before an audience, the Apple CEO has a battalion of numbers at the ready to illustrate the breadth and depth of the App Store. Monday's Worldwide Developers Conference keynote was no exception: Cook told WWDC attendees that the App Store hosts more than 1.2 million apps, with total downloads now topping 75 billion.
There's a point Cook hopes to make with this numerical recitation: If you're looking for a particular kind of app to run on your mobile device, chances are you're going to find it in the App Store. So why even bother with those other mobile platforms and their less sizable app stores when iOS offers you everything you could possibly want? It's probably one of the biggest selling points of Apple's mobile platform.
It also happens to be one of iOS's growing headaches. As impressive as having 1.2 million of anything on hand is, finding something specific amid that kind of volume can pose a bit of a challenge. Put it this way: There are needles firmly ensconced in haystacks that have better luck at standing out than most of the offerings in Apple's App Store.
Apple likely recognizes that perusing the aisles of the App Store is becoming more of a pain point than a pleasure these days. Because while it spent Monday touting the merits of iOS 8, its forthcoming mobile OS update, Apple also took a moment to talk about some changes planned for how the App Store does business. The App Store alterations were framed as part of the new developer tools that will be available to app makers as part of iOS 8. But make no mistake: These are changes that are every bit as important to app-downloading schlubs like you and me.
First, let's quickly recap the central problem with App Store shopping sprees. And that is, unless you know the specific name of the app you're looking to download, the shopping experience can be frustratingly hit or miss. (And in some cases, even knowing the name isn't enough. Search for an app called Paper, say, and the App Store is ill-equipped to decide whether you mean the sketching app from FiftyThree or the news app from Facebook or any one of the number of similarly named apps looking to bask in the reflective glory of those two mobile offerings.) Searching with a general description of the kind of app you're looking for is unlikely to yield fruitful results. A search for "panoramic photos" in the App Store will produce a number of apps that promise to let you create panoramas from your mobile device, but the search results won't surface an app like PanoPerfect, which Apple thought enough of to recognize with an Apple Design Award. You could always turn to the Customers Also Bought section for a selection of related apps, but that assumes the wisdom of crowds has any better idea than you of what to download.
In short, you have a situation where it's increasingly hard to track down apps through anything other than trial and (mostly) error. And Apple has apparently decided enough's enough. "What we want to do is make the App Store even better," Cook said during Monday's WWDC keynote.
So how does Apple go about doing that? It starts with adding an Explore tab to the App Store, which Cook says will help users find what they're looking for. Cook didn't delve into specifics, but it looks like subcategories will figure prominently into any app discovery improvements. Perhaps in the App Store of the future, the Productivity section, say, makes it even easier to differentiate between note-taking apps, task managers, calendar tools, and whatever other mobile offerings out there promise to help you manage your life more efficiently. Apple also vows to add trending search features, which would theoretically work a lot like trending topics in Twitter, and a continuous scrolling feature to make the search process run more smoothly.
A welcome addition for bargain hunters will be app bundles. Developers will be able to combine multiple apps for a discounted price, which you and I will be able to buy with just one tap. (Again, Apple is stingy with the details, but a truly knock-out implementation of bundling would let multiple developers team up to offer complementary apps for a single download price.)
Apple is also promising more in the way of Try Before You Buy features. First, developers will be able to add video previews to their App Store entries, so you can get a quick look at an app in action. "Users can make certain that it's an app they want," Cook said. Apple also plans to incorporate the TestFlight beta service which will let app makers invite users to test out apps.
We've got some time before we find out what Apple promises and what the company actually delivers. Many of the iOS 8 changes Apple plans on implementing won't take effect until the fall. But if nothing else, this year's WWDC keynote seemed to suggest that while it's good to have an oversized app store, delivering some degree of order to the chaos is just as valuable a feature.