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iTunes App Store: Improvement Necessary

Scorecard has been a relatively successful application. It's sold well and been well liked by customers. It's even cross-platform, with full license and data file compatibility between Windows and Mac OS X.

When the iTunes App Store was announced, it seemed only natural that we'd build an iPhone1 application to allow the geek golfers to enter their stats right on the golf course and sync them back to their computers.

Initially we delayed building this app because we held out hope that Apple would allow syncing over the wire. They didn't, and enough people began asking for the app that we finally built it. It requires syncing via WiFi - not a 100% solution - but good enough.

The Decision to Go Free
The iPhone application isn't a full-blown copy of the software. The application does a number of things which would simply be too difficult or even impossible to do on the phone, after all. But the iPhone application is almost as many lines of code as the desktop version - it wasn't created easily or quickly.

Given the amount of code, Brad and I debated whether to charge money for the app - likely $1.99 or, more likely, $0.99. In the end, we decided against charging for it at all. We figured it might act as advertising for the desktop version, and if not that, it would be a "nice bonus" for people.

Additionally, we were worried that people wouldn't realize it was a companion application, and then they'd complain about how they spent nearly a whole dollar on something that "doesn't work."

It turns out our fears were more than justified.

Can't You People READ?
If you look at Scorecard's listing in the iTunes App Store you'll see we've got a lovely 1½-star rating. We have a few 3-, 4-, and 5-star reviews2 from customers, but as of this writing, seven of the reviews give the application one star.

These reviews all come from people who, seemingly, can't read. The description for the application starts off by saying "Scorecard is an easy to use round entry companion to Scorecard for Mac and Windows…" Later in the description we wrote "REQUIRES the Mac or Windows client for syncing and course entry." Apple doesn't allow you to add to the "REQUIREMENTS:" section, or we'd have put notice there as well.

The 1-star reviewers3 act as if we're trying to trick them into spending $30. And worse yet, they lie about it. Sample comments include:

"…the creator failed to mention that you need to purchase the desktop software for $30 to be able to use this application." [This is wrong in two ways: we not only mention it (twice), but you don't have to purchase the software. iPhone Scorecard will sync with Desktop Scorecard in demo mode.]

"Free? You need to spend $30 and sync to a desktop for of to work. Not an iPhone app."

"Put some fine print in product details so we don't waste time on garbage" [Uhm, what do you think we did?]

Our Reaction
For the most part, Brad and I really don't care what the rating is. Our customers who use Scorecard (on Mac OS X or Windows) won't care what the rating is. They'll download the app - for free - and use it on their iPhone or iPod Touch. They're happy, and that's what matters.

But I'm still a bit miffed. A low rating pretty much nullifies any little "advertising" we might have gotten for the desktop version. Brad and I feel strongly that you don't want to actually view your stats on the iPhone4, but entering your on-course stats and syncing them back makes sense. A free app might enlighten a few people and steer them to the "iPhone/desktop" combo rather than some of the "golf stats just on your iPhone" type apps out there.

I'm also disappointed in people. Try as I might, I can't seem to get it through my head how utterly clueless the majority of people seem to be. Clueless to the point where they'd lie in a comment, disparaging a lot of hard work for a free application just because they can't be bothered to read "companion app" and "REQUIRES."

Thank $DEITY we didn't charge any money for the app - then the people who can't read would have been EXTRA upset. For $0.99, I doubt any more of them would have read the description.

The App Store's Failing
Brad and I really don't care much. It's disappointing that the world seems to have too many idiots, and it's disappointing we didn't somehow get some advertising, but like I said, our customers seem to be happy, and that's what matters.

However, this type of application demonstrates a hole in the iTunes App Store that hasn't been discussed much: the idea of a free application that's meant to pair with another. If we had our wish, we'd include the iPhone application as a free download from our site.

Alternatively, Apple would let us "hide" the application from users unless given a code or special link. We could provide that to every customer in their registration email or via a link on our website. In such a situation, it wouldn't matter if the app was "reviewable" at all in the App Store.

Brad and I even looked into the "enterprise" store solution - the one that lets large companies distribute software to their employees without exposing them to the world at large - but the fees made no sense to us and Apple would have rejected us anyway.

We even considered setting the price at $999 and giving out coupons to customers, but that's hardly ideal. You're limited in the number of coupons you can give out and it's just flat out corny/wrong. Besides, with our luck, 12 people would download it and demand refunds.

We've considered re-wording the description to make it blatantly clear that it's a companion app that requires the desktop app, but it's fairly clear now and that hasn't stopped enough people. People see "FREE," they download, they launch it and find they can't do anything, and then they delete and give it 1 star.

Ratings in General
A brief aside…

Apple could remove the "Rate when you delete an app" feature. If you delete an app it's because you disliked it. Duh. Does nothing to improve ratings in the App Store, and Apple would probably rather see higher ratings than lower ones just as much as developers would5. It'd be nice if Apple would remove reviews that contain lies, too, but that's a slippery slope and I can't blame them for not touching that. They should, however, revise their "sort by helpfulness" system. Currently, a review 14 out of 100 people found helpful is sorted above a review 13 of 13 people found helpful because 14 > 13. Never mind that 14% << 100%.

Whaddya Think?
Again, Brad and I don't really care that the rating for the app is low. It sucks, but there are about a hundred things that matter more to Brad and I regarding our software, and a million more regarding life in general.

I put off writing this post for weeks because it matters so little. In the end, I was convinced to spend the time because I think Apple could do more to better suit developers and customers with the App Store and iPhone apps in general.

Apple could solve or at least better the current situation in a number of ways.

Apple could allow software developers to distribute free iPhone applications themselves. The likelihood of this is so near nil your calculator lacks enough precision to display it properly. In other words, dream on.

Apple could list some iPhone applications as "Unavailable" and require a code to "unlock" the ability to download them. Software developers could generate the codes, unique for each customer or a single code for everyone. Apple would likely worry that they're being swindled. Companies could sell codes to the iPhone app themselves, cutting Apple from their 30% profit. It's a legitimate concern.6

Apple could allow developers to offer "hidden" applications accessible only directly via a URL. The app wouldn't show up in searches or otherwise appear on the store. Such an app wouldn't even need reviews, though at least those who find the URL would likely get there knowing that it's a "special case" app - a companion app or something else that's unique enough to warrant "hiding."

It likely wouldn't do much, but Apple could find a way to make it more obvious - even if they just let you change something in the "REQUIREMENTS" section - that the app is a companion app that ties into a desktop app.

I'm sure there are other solutions I've not even thought of.

Footnotes

  1. I'll use the term iPhone here, but of course I also mean the iPod Touch.
  2. Including one by me. I'm normally against developers reviewing their own software, but I was awfully upset at the number of 1-star reviews from people who flat out lied that I wanted to provide some sort of balance. I'd remove my review if I could.
  3. The ones who've posted comments, that is. Obviously the vast majority of our ratings have come when people delete the application from their iPhone. Who ever thought that was a good idea? Why would you delete an application you like? Those reviews are destined to be 1-star ratings.
  4. For several reasons. It's too small to see all the data. Entering course information - yardage, tees, handicaps, etc. is a pain on the iPhone's keyboard. iPhone can't export your rounds to HTML files.
  5. Well, more like (3/7)*100% as much as developers would, given the 30% cut of sales Apple gets.
  6. Perhaps Apple could charge the developer a small fee every time a one-time-use code is used in such a situation. That would cost us a little money - a free app does not - but Apple would still get money, and we'd get a metric as to how many customers are downloading the application.

8 Responses to "iTunes App Store: Improvement Necessary"

  1. I developed an app called Lexikon that simply provides a nice interface to an online Swedish-English dictionary for immigrants that the Swedish government does (it provides more usage ideas than just a dictionary definition, helpful to someone trying to learn it as a second language). Due to copyright I can't include any of the data with my application, but I can use their API. It was my first iPhone app and useful for learning the whole process by doing.

    I started out as free, but then decided to see what effects going to tier 1 would have. Downloads dropped significantly, but I think my downloads had exploded due to getting on the top 100 free reference apps. Earlier this week I upped to tier 2, just to see the effect. It's still too early to draw any conclusions, but so far I seem to be getting the same revenue.

    I have the same problem as you with illiterate users. All of my low scores are from people who neglected to see that it was to access the online dictionary. While I've changed to description to simplify it was painfully obvious for the longest time that I was doing this due to the copyright issues and there was no way around it. If users want offline content there are solutions, but they aren't as nice for learning how to use the words.

    Others have touched on this issue, it'd be nice if reviews also had dates and version numbers that they corresponded to, that way if someone had a problem that has been resolved/fixed then there has to be a way to show that their review no longer applies to the current version. A song never changes so its reviews are based on the same product, but an application can have multiple revisions easily.

    Personally my hopes are that those really interested in the application will continue to buy it (I know as someone trying to learn Swedish there isn't a ton out there and I'd even be willing to spend $5 easily on my application (it's the next step in my experiment, want to get a good trend of tier 2 pricing first)) and those that are impulsive or not bright enough to read the information provided might hold off on purchasing and thus being able to review.

    I'm definitely in a niche market compared to some other apps which has its pros and cons. I think you have some great ideas Erik. I think the biggest problems stem from the iTunes Music Store was built for selling identically priced items such as songs and they tried to shoe horn the App Store into the exact same system. I do think changes should be incremental and slow as a volatile marketplace would be worse in my opinion and I don't think there is one great solution for everyone, just a happy medium that people can work with.

  2. I wonder how long your post would be if you and Brad really DID care? 🙄

    1. Joe said on February 12, 2009:

      I wonder how long your post would be if you and Brad really DID care? 🙄

      Your comment probably doesn't warrant a response, but I'm tempting fate anyway…

      We don't care (much) about our app's rating. We'd care much more if reviews were limited to our customers. It'd be a much more legitimate source of feedback.

      We care about how the App Store can be improved, as both users and developers.

      We care about how people behave, because it shapes our software, our business, and our lives.

  3. apple could also remove the irrelevant/ignorant ratings. even if you don't care, it affects others. i don't think it's a stretch of the imagination to realize when someone has no idea what the application does and should not have purchased it in the first place. Which goes for the vast majority of one star reviews I see for apps that average 3-5 stars. 😐

    1. Jane said on February 12, 2009:

      apple could also remove the irrelevant/ignorant ratings.

      True, but as I said, that's a bit of a slippery slope. Who determines these things? And even if they're clear-cut, it's gotta take a lot of time.

      I'd rather they did away with rate-upon-delete. If you go by only the reviews with comments (many of which contain lies and/or "irrelevant/ignorant" pieces), the rating would be just above 3.

  4. WTF? On the UK store, there's a 1-star review that says:

    "Worst game ever!"

    They're joking, right? RIGHT?!

  5. I think the key error is making it a 'companion' app at all. The app store is SO popular that you likely would make more money from the iphone version alone than from the desktop app. That's just based on what i've read from Brad, for example, who moved to doing iphone full-time.

    I'd tend to feel the same way, were i a golfer. I'd want something standalone for my iphone.

    I'm an Android owner, though, and not a golfer. 😛 Need someone to port to Android?

    1. Ben said on February 13, 2009:

      The app store is SO popular that you likely would make more money from the iphone version alone than from the desktop app.

      Strongly disagree. Not only is the iPhone not suitable or flat out incapable of doing some of the things we require on the desktop, the market for $30 apps on the iPhone is virtually non-existent. Not to mention the sea of crappier apps in the category, which are priced lower and have soured the market's interest. Factor in Apple's 30% cut and, blammo, no way we'd even get close.

      Every iPhone user has a computer. That's our market. The market for "computer users" is still many, many times larger than the market for iPhone users.

      Ben said on February 13, 2009:

      That's just based on what i've read from Brad, for example, who moved to doing iphone full-time.

      Brad who? The Brad I work with hasn't "moved to doing iPhone full time" at all.

      Ben said on February 13, 2009:

      I'd tend to feel the same way, were i a golfer. I'd want something standalone for my iphone.


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