Can Phil Schiller fix the Apple App Store?

The new shopkeeper of the App Store.
The new shopkeeper of the App Store.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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Tim Cook just handed the keys to the Apple App Store to senior VP Phil Schiller. Will Schiller bring order and intelligibility to Apple’s app jungle?

First, an apology: As advertised at the end of last week’s “Let’s Outlaw Math“ note, I planned to make Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, Apple’s iPad Pro, and MacBook the subject of this week’s romp. For reasons soon to become apparent, toaster-fridges will have to wait.

While running last-minute errands before our Christmas family trip to Paris, I chanced upon Tim Cook in a Palo Alto clothing store. After a happy salutation, I hopped on my Apple App Store hobbyhorse and mumbled that while the Store is an immensely valuable asset, its aisles are poorly tended and in need of curation… and offered my services as curator.

Cook has heard my mumblings before: I had said pretty much the same thing three years ago during a chance encounter at the crowded check-in line for the All Things Digital conference. Katie Cotton, Apple’s PR czarina at the time, hovered by and gave me her patented look, encouraging me to keep my harangue hopeful suggestions short.

(In both cases, my offer to take matters into my own hands was made in jest. I know I got an interesting job after haranguing a previous Apple CEO. And look at what happened. I like my independence too much.)

A few days later, Apple’s CEO reshuffled his leadership team. The headlines concentrated on the promotion of Jeff Williams to the COO post, and rightly so: COO is a crucially important position within Apple, and supply chain guru Williams, a well-respected 16-year Apple veteran, is liked and admired by those he serves (meaning his so-called “subordinates”).

A more surprising move, but no less welcome, is senior VP Phil Schiller’s new assignment as App Store shopkeeper. Ministration of third-party iOSwatchOStvOS and OS X apps had been transferred from Eddy Cue’s portfolio into Schiller’s expanded bailiwick.

In retrospect, I’m amused that Tim Cook was kibitzed about the failings of the App Store just days before the announcement. Cook didn’t appoint Schiller because the App Store worked too well and made developers and customers too happy.

The App Store’s history and mixed reviews are well-known. Building on the iTunes infrastructure, the “iPhone App Store,” as it was then known, created a new genre of online software distribution that achieved epoch-making success, more than 100 billion downloads as of this writing.

But it hasn’t been en entirely glorious run. Apple developers have incessantly complained about the Store’s ills, from the capricious enforcement of opaque rules and pricing, to missing promotional features such as trial periods and returns, and on to unreliable user reviews and ratings. Recently, Mac developers’ complaints have grown louder, with some slamming the App Store’s door and going back to the open market.

(A word of clarification: while iOS developers have no practical alternative to App Store distribution, OS X applications can be distributed via the Mac App Store or independently. The Mac App Store, which started in 2011, was supposed to bring OS X apps into compliance with stricter iOS-like security rules, often referred to as “sandboxing.”)

Perhaps even more damning, users are confused by the impenetrable jungle of applications. Apple’s barebones navigation and evaluation tools aren’t fit for the task of making the best of more than 1.4 million apps. Regular Monday Note readers readers will recall that I suggested an App Store version of Michelin’s Red Guide to help its customers find their way through the apps jungle. I tried again a few months later with an “Open Letter To Tim Cook“ [edits and emphasis mine]:

[…] the App Store isn’t being mined in the best interests of Apple’s customers and developers, nor, in the end, in the interests of the company itself.

The App Store [is] a gold mine […] buried in an impenetrable jungle.

Instead of continuing with this complaint, I’ll offer a suggestion: Let humans curate the App Store.

Instead of using algorithms to sort and promote the apps that you permit on your shelves, why not assign a small group of adepts to create and shepherd an App Store Guide, with sections such as Productivity, Photography, Education, and so on. Within each section, this team of respected but unnamed (and so “ungiftable”) critics will review the best-in-class apps. Moreover, they’ll offer seasoned opinions on must-have features, UI aesthetics, and tips and tricks. A weekly newsletter [and blog] will identify notable new titles, respond to counter-opinions, perhaps present a developer profile, footnote the occasional errata and mea culpa…

The result will be a more intelligible App Store that makes iOS users [and developers] happier.

Taking a direct hand in editing the App Store Guide’s reviews, categories, and rankings would expose Apple to the kommentariat’s usual charges of excessive control and self-dealing, but real customers would sense the alignment of Apple’s incentives with their own interests. Through patient, serious, and trustworthy human curation, the App Store would become a Clean And Well-Lighted Place in which astute navigation, reliable commentary, and pertinent recommendations will result in higher customer satisfaction and, in turn, higher device revenue.

That said, I have no idea what Phil Schiller’s expanded responsibilities will bring us, nor do we know when we can expect a change—only in myths can the Augean Stables be cleaned in a day—but I join the crowd of Apple developers and customers who wish him success.

Postscript: This Monday morning in Paris, I’ll watch Tim Cook, Jony Ive, and Angela Ahrendts on 60 Minutes on my iPad. These appearences are testimony to Apple’s new PR activism. It’s one thing to “ignore the noise” as Cook likes to say, to not take the bait at every turn of events, to keep a tight lid on projects; it’s something else to let others tell your story for you. Over the past eighteen months or so, Apple execs have been more willing to step to center stage and do the telling themselves.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.