Microsoft and BlackBerry have been tripping over themselves to toss cash at developers and beef up their app stores in recent months, trying desperately to gain ground on the behemoth selection of iOS and Android.
But is the rush to fill app store shelves a good thing? Quantity doesn't equal quality, as evidenced by recent Apple and Google moves designed to keep their developers in check and clean up some of the less desirable apps in their respective shops.
Apple is the 800,000-pound gorilla in the mobile app world after unofficially breaking the 800,000-app barrier last month, while Google is nipping at Apple's heels with more than 700,000 apps available. Lagging far behind are BlackBerry and Microsoft.
All four suffer from problems related to the number apps available in their respective stores.
Quality vs. quantity
Tim Shepherd, a senior analyst at Canalys, believes app ecosystems will determine the winners or losers in the mobile realm, as he explained in a recent press release detailing the state of the overall app market. BlackBerry 10 recently passed 100,000 apps--up from 70,000 at launch in January--and Microsoft's Windows Phone app store has around 150,000 apps available.
Shepard feels each needs "to do more to make building apps for [their] platforms a priority for developers." However, Microsoft and BlackBerry's strategies to bulk up their stores in the app arms race seem better suited to filling their shelves with shovelware rather than building a sustainable app ecosystem with quality software.
Before BlackBerry 10 launched, RIM (as the company was known then) held "Port-a-thon" weekends that gave developers $100 for every Android app ported to the BB10 platform. To call it successful would be an understatement. Tens of thousands of apps were submitted, and a fifth of all BB10 apps available today are actually Android apps at their heart.
The initiative definitely gave BB10 a jump start, but was it the kind of jump start BlackBerry needs? The ported Android apps don't run anywhere as smoothly as native BB10 apps, and they don't take advantage of the operating system's built-in notification system. To put it simply, they're a second-class experience.
(To be fair, BlackBerry is also trying to lure big name developers with a $10,000 guarantee, but this has yet to bring more popular apps to the platform. Instagram and Netflix are still missing, for example.)
Microsoft followed in BlackBerry's footsteps recently, offering developers a $100 bounty for every new Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 app published by June 30, up to a total of $1,000 for each platform.
While cash might nudge developers to jump onto BlackBerry and Microsoft's platforms, it's unlikely that dangling a mere $100 would inspire quality app makers to make quality apps for BB10 or Windows Phone 8--especially in the case of BB10's Android ports. Instead, such a low bounty inspires slap-dash submissions or lazy, straight-up ports of slap-dash apps on already-established platforms.
App stores need full shelves, but an abundance of quantity brings its own issues, especially when it impacts quality. Just look at Apple and Google, who are currently struggling with issues stemming from the flood of offerings in their respective stores.
Cleaning up the mess
While Apple and Google might be in a tight race for app market supremacy, each company still have to make sure its store is kept tidy.
Apple vets every single app submitted to its store, and despite some blunders, the system largely works. Despite the high overall quality of App Store apps, however, the sheer quantity of them introduces some major issues. Sifting through 800,000 apps is nigh impossible, and it's also very difficult for noteworthy new apps to gain recognition by cracking the App Store's spotlight lists.
Those iOS headaches have inspired developers to develop workarounds.
In particular, an app named AppGratis helped highlight software that may have been lost in the depths of the App Store, and often sold apps from other developers for free or at a steep discount--which also helped those apps appear on the Apple-curated lists.
With around 10 million users worldwide, AppGratis was certainly popular, which suggests that iOS users want (1) free app promotions, and (2) a better way to discover apps. Apple recently yanked AppGratis from the App Store, however, citing a policy that prohibits the promotion of other apps from other developers.
Google, which doesn't check apps before they get published, has a more difficult task. Over the past year, the company has had to repeatedly remove malicious apps from the Google Play, and many of the Android apps available are of dubious quality--something that Google apparently wants to crack down on. TechCrunch reports that Google removed nearly 60,000(!) spammy apps from the store during February, the company's largest purge to date.
To put Google's clean-up operation in context, the number of apps wiped from the Play Store in February equaled more than half of the total amount of apps found in BlackBerry's store.
Apps make the difference
When it comes to operating systems, having a useful, thriving app ecosystem is just as important having good hardware. Witness the fallen HP TouchPad or Palm Pre if you think otherwise.
Or, as Canalys chief analyst Adam Daum explained in a recent press release: "Apps have had a huge impact on the way consumers use mobile devices, what they value, and what they expect from smart phones and tablets. They are now central to how consumers engage with content and connected services."
One marquee app trumps a legion of shovelware in pretty much every way, from its impact on OS brand awareness to the overall cleanliness of app store shelves to sheer usefulness.
Sure, BlackBerry and Microsoft need to gain ground on their well-entrenched competitors, but if they continue to incentivize the development of meh-level apps, they'll wind up suffering from all of Apple and Google's current quantity-related headaches with very few quality apps to show for their trouble.