The Mac App Store’s Biggest Problem

Apple yesterday launched their new App Store for the Macintosh platform. It’s obviously still in a very early form, and there’s been a lot of discussion about what it doesn’t address (e.g. uninstallation of apps, slicker app launching), but I’m sure Apple will be working to integrate these things into Mac OS X 10.7 (“Lion”) when it arrives.

I want to talk about something else.

Discovering Applications

This is my biggest disappointment with the App Store as-is, and the one area where I think Apple might be capable of delivering a really amazing experience.

I switched from Windows to Mac in 2004, and I remember spending a lot of time looking for Mac OS applications that were adequate substitutes for the ones I relied on under Windows. It went something like this:

And through all this, I ended up getting to know and then coming to love the Mac, and finding some insanely great software in the process.

I suspect that most people aren’t as invested in their computer as I am. Most people won’t take the time to explore and read and learn more. And while it would be fair to say that the OS X software ecosystem was rather less populous back then, I can imagine that even today many switchers struggle to find software that does what they need.

Let me introduce you to Jeff. He’s hypothetical.

Jeff has just bought a Mac after using a PC for many years. He edits a local newsletter using Microsoft Publisher, which isn’t available for the Mac. The newsletter is supported by business advertising so he occasionally has to recreate other people’s artwork & logos when they’re not good enough for print use, for which purpose he uses an ancient version of Adobe Illustrator.

Jeff needs comparable apps in order to get his newsletter done this month. Let’s search the Mac App Store for “Publisher” and see what happens.

Search Results for “publisher”. Did you mean publishing? Your search had no results. Try searching again.

Ok, maybe “publishing” like it suggests?

Search Results for “publishing”. 1-2 of 2. Catholic Calendar. Comic Life 2.

Hmm, no good. Let’s try “DTP”?

Search Results for “dtp”. 1-1 of 1. Mystery Agency.

Maybe there really aren’t any publishing & layout apps there. But what’s this in the Productivity category?

Screen shot: The Print Shop 2, a desktop publishing application.

Aha, that looks like a great app for making a newsletter! But how come we didn’t find it with those searches? Hmm.

OK, so how about something to replace that creaky old version of Illustrator?

Search results for “illustrator”. 1-4 of 4. Sketchbook Express. Sketchbook Pro. Omnigraffle Pro. Omnigraffle.

Great, now we’re getting somewhere. But what do we get if we search for “vector drawing”?

Search Results for “vector drawing”. 1-2 of 2. Sketch. VectorDesigner.

Oh, some completely different apps. How can we tell the differences between them?

Well, we could look at their categories:

  • Sketchbook Express & Sketchbook Pro: Graphics & Design
  • OmniGraffle Pro: Business (er…)
  • OmniGraffle, Sketch & VectorDesigner: Productivity (wha…?)

…so that really doesn’t help much? And without clicking into the details for each app, the only other information we have to go on is the price. Hmm again.

How people find applications

I believe people have one of three things in mind when they are looking for an application to use.

  • Suitability for a given task. For example: “I want to write a novel.” “I want to create a birthday card.”
  • Similarity to an existing application. Some applications set a paradigm to which all others are compared (e.g. Microsoft Word, Adobe Photoshop).
  • Inclusion of a specific feature or design pattern. Usually one that the person uses a lot, so it’s a big time-saver.

Given Jeff’s experience above, it looks like we can’t rely on any of these when searching for things on the Mac App Store. The categories are inconsistent, applications that follow a similar paradigm to others only show up when the developer specifies the right keywords, and unless the developer mentions a feature specifically or includes it in the screen shots of the interface, you won’t know if the application includes it. (Sure, you can go and trawl each developer’s web site, but then where’s the value in the App Store?)

The Mac App Store is new and things may yet improve, but the iOS App Store has been with us for some time and also suffers with this issue. Considering how polished Apple’s user experiences typically are, I’m surprised that the search hasn’t been overhauled already.

I know this isn’t an easy problem to solve, but web sites like AlternativeTo make me think that the answer may lie in the sphere of social search. Unfortunately, Apple are a hardware company and to date their experiments with social software haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire. It will be interesting to see how they choose to develop search for both their App Stores from here on.

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