Jean-Louis Gassée posts open to letter to Tim Cook seeking better curation for the App Store

In this week’s Monday Note, Jean-Louis Gassée once again pressed his case for Apple to craft a humanly curated App Store experience, rather than one based purely on algorithms. This is not a new argument (Gassée has written about curation here and here), but the need for curation has become more and more obvious.

The App Store may be a gold mine, but it’s buried in an impenetrable jungle.

As always, the Monday Note is a terrific read and Gassée is the voice of a lifetime of experience. But this third quest for human curation might turn out to be the charm. The timing couldn’t be better. A big motivation behind Apple’s recent acquisition of Beats was to bring human curation to Apple’s music ecosystem. As the universe of available content becomes more complex, more splintered, the value of human curation increases at the same pace.

My favorite part of Gassée’s spiel:

Why do I care? Good question, I’m now 70 and could just sit in zazen and enjoy the show. And there’s a lot of show to enjoy: The tech industry is more exciting now than when I was a rookie at HP France in 1968. But in today’s app stores, the excitement fades — and I’m not just talking about Apple, Android’s Google Play is every bit as frustrating. I see poorly exploited gold mines where quantity obscures quality and the lack of human curation ruins the Joy of Apps. There are caves full of riches but, most of of the time, I can’t find a path to the mother lode.

The man can write.

  • What a load of bollocks. Why is it, in all of these “OMGAPPSTORECURATION” posts no one, not one single person ever seems to get around to asking the devs, you know the people behind the app why they’ll spend MONTHS on development and maybe, at most, a week/week and a half telling anyone about it?

    When did it become apple’s or google’s job to market for Marco or Gruber or any of the rest?

    It makes it very, very hard to take this endless fussing at apple et al seriously when the people doing the fussing are barely trying, if at all, to tell anyone but their friends and six bloggers about the work they’ve done.

    The App Store is a digital grocery store. It is not the job of my local Publix to tell me why I should buy Peter Pan peanut butter over Skippy or Jif, or whomever. It’s Publix’s job to have a decently usable peanut butter section. Once they do that, Publix’s job is done.

    The App Store could always be better, I mean, the categories as they exist are nigh-useless for my needs. But it is not, in any way, shape, or form Apple’s job to market non-apple apps, and that is what gasee and all the rest are talking about: marketing, advertising, and PR, the three things all these indie devs think is such a stupid waste of time until they don’t do it, and wonder why their genius, their glorious work that will push society forward isn’t being used by anyone.

    They’re all winking in the damned dark, and getting the response pone would expect from it.

    • Meaux

      When did it become their job? When they decided to take a 30% cut and make the store the only way to install software.

      If you don’t think a supermarket does curation, you’re kidding yourself. There’s a reason why the selection at Publix looks different than Whole Foods or even why the selection at a Publix in a wealthy neighborhood looks different than one in a poor neighborhood. That’s curation in a nutshell.

      • Sorry, while you are correct that a supermarket does curate the products they carry, they don’t curate in the same way that’s being discussed.

        Any retail store is going to modify what they carry based on what their customer base looks for. Higher end neighborhood, higher end products.

        However, the end caps or feature areas of a supermarket are all paid placements, i.e. pepsi is paying the supermarket to be featured on an end cap.

        What Gassée is advocating would be Apple having humans go through and create lists of App’s that are recommended for people to purchase instead of having Top Paid, Top Free apps, etc.

        This is no more fair to developers then the current system is. Yes, “Top” lists tend to self grow in that of course people will be more willing to buy an app on a “Top” list then not.

        But human curation is the matra of those in the “tech elite” who think they deserve a little bit more then someone else. “I’m an independent developer who’s friends with John Gruber, you need to feature my App on the home page!”

        In a human curated world, who should Apple pick as the best “tasks” orientated app? Clear, Todo, Wanderlust, Any.DO, tidiest, Errands, Planner Plus, Calendars 5, Organizer To-Do, Tassky, The Homework App, ATracker, Smartsheet, Super Note, Schedule Planner, Grocery Gadget, OneNote, SimplyUs, Cozi Family Organizer, Task PRO, Producteev, Taskify Lite, Hub, Mailbox, Trello, Timeful, PocketLife, Awesome Calendar Plus, Alarmed, gTasks, Days Until, or any of the over 500 other apps that come up when you search “Task”.

        I feel for the small independent developer who’s trying to build a business off of their fantastic Apps. I myself have built my own websites that I would hope would grow into huge businesses where I could enjoy the good life, being featured on Techcrunch and sleeping with a plethora of women Zuckerberg style.

        Alas, I found that I wasn’t able to find a way to market them successfully.

        I didn’t go off and write a blog post complaining about how my web host failed to feature my sites, even though I was paying them monthly.

        These stories started because of the post about Unread (which I reiterate, I paid for and use daily, it’s great). The problem is, when that app was released, it got a huge amount of press, which is where I learned about it, yet it still essentially failed in the marketplace.

        Unread’s problem was it was an elegant solution in a market fully saturated with Good/Great RSS readers already. If I’m using Feedly, why would I pay to use another app over Feedly’s free iOS app or their nice web interface?

        Independent developers shouldn’t waste their time building another fucking ToDo or Weather or RSS Reader app.

        They should learn from Apple and find a market that doesn’t already have an elegant solution to it, where they could bring true market changing solutions to the real problems (Music players sucked before iPod, tablets were implemented wrong (and still are in MS case) before iPad).

        Then, after they’ve made their millions, they can take a vacation and rethink the whole weather app.

        • or…Podcast app….looking at Overcast, here.

        • JohnDoey

          Some supermarkets do curate that way. Trader Joe’s for example. Also, farmer’s markets are curated in that way, by only being open to local farmers, or organic farmers.

          And if you talk to supermarket customers, they have the same complaints that JLG has about App Store: the stores are too big and too filled with crap.

          The thing is: what am I paying a retailer for if I have to do a ton of research to shop at their store and get any kind of decent value and avoid unhealthy ingredients/malware?

          The people running the store have no reason to exist if they are not making editorial decisions. I need for them to pre-shop for me, to weed out the stuff that they wouldn’t feed to their own families. This is not the 1950’s, where one person in the household has shopping as a big part of their full-time job, and it’s not the 1990’s, where everybody has an I-T person to choose their software carefully. And given that I can turn to the Internet and mail order just about anything, if I am going to buy it from a store, that store needs to vouch for that product. They need to say, “if we carry it, you know it is already good.” That was always necessary, but it is especially necessary today when there are many products that exist only to rip you off.

          • it’s not the 1990’s, where everybody has an I-T person to choose their software carefully.

            do you work in enterprise? in every enterprise ive contracted for the past 14 years they definitely have IT people choosing software tools carefully. that doesnt address personal users, but im assuming your example is set in the workplace.

            as for retailers saying “if we carry it, you know it is already good” — i think that experience is the extreme minority of retail. the vast majority of retail does not work that way. hell, i dont even think you can return third-party products purchased at an Apple Store… or have they changed that?

        • abazigal

          I too paid for unread, and honestly, I found it horribly overrated. The author waxes a ton of lyrical about wanting to create a pure reading experience, yet I didn’t feel that when using the unread app. It felt slow, the ui didn’t feel all that intuitive, and ultimately, I still prefer reeder more.

          Maybe the creator of the unread app ought to reflect about why his app isn’t selling, rather than simply blaming the state of the iOS App Store. He got a ton of free advertising from, amongst other sites, Macstories, a site I rely on heavily for app recommendations. Other developers fare way better with less “preferential” treatment.

      • that analogy fails for several reasons. The biggest is that apple actually does rather a lot for that 30%:

        They handle the entire distribution costs. The dev doesn’t have to pay for storage, upload or download costs. Apple handles that. In fact, thanks to the caching server feature in OS X server, Apple made it easier for companies or entities with a lot of computers to install apps without having to redownload them each time, or figure out their own mechanisms for local distribution. That is a net plus for devs. How much effort do the devs have to put forth to take advantage of this?


        Apple handles the paperwork overhead for selling apps in multiple countries for you. That’s a real cost, and a lot of time if you ever try to do that yourself.

        So making it sound like devs get nothing in exchange for that 30% in terms of real benefits? Yeah, kind of misleading.

        Also the “it’s the only way to install apps” only applies to the iOS store, not the MAS.

        So yeah, Apple does a bit more for that cut than you imply. But nice try.

        And that still doesn’t answer the point that it is the DEV’S job to care the most about selling the app, not Apple’s or Google’s. If a dev doesn’t care about marketing their app, the thing the’ve spent all that time on, why should apple care MORE? Apple makes money from shit apps as much as “quality” apps, and “quality” has almost no objective meaning beyond “doesn’t crash or screw up your device”.

        So you can’t choose for “quality” in any real objective measure anyway. What you want apple to do is going to fail the first time they promote an app you think is shit. The first time that happens, you’ll be restarting this idiotic cycle of “APPLEMUSTDOMOREAAAHHHRGLEBARGLE!!”

        It’s bollocks. You want people to know about your work? Take some gods-bedamned time and even money and tell people about it. Do your own work before you demand Apple do it for you.

      • wrong on two counts.

        1) brick & mortar also charges product-developers a margin — at least 30% goes to the markups of the your distributor first, then the retailer next. you as a goods manufacturer, in effect pay your distributor and retailer, when they sell the SKU at the MSRP. you do not see that piece in your pocket, they do. software is no different.

        2) the App Store is NOT the only way to install apps on your phone. you are certainly entitled to legally sideload apps. corps do this, and do some individuals. is the App Store more convenient? you bet. but not the only option.

      • JohnDoey

        No, the 30% is for developer tools, developer training, credit card processing, customer service, anti-malware certification, software installation, servers, bandwidth, and a bunch of other things that already cost developers more than 30% outside of App Store.

        When you recognize that Apple ends up taking only 1/30th of that 30% cut as a token profit — so that App Store does not lose money — it puts things in perspective.

        Marketing is not a new problem. But it is a problem that has not gotten any easier thanks to computers and the Internet. That is what is hard for developers and music/movie producers to get their heads around. Yes, you have YouTube and Twitter and the World Wide Web lowering the costs of getting your message out, but that is also true for everyone else who is marketing something. So the attention of users and the money of users and the time of users is still finite, and you still have to earn it just as much as you did 50 years ago.

    • 11thIndian

      I really miss AMB sometimes….

    • lucascott

      While you are correct that developers need to do their shares of work, it is true that all the iTunes stores could use some serious work in terms of metadata, etc. The App Store included

    • JohnDoey

      You make a very good point that developers and producers have to do a lot of marketing these days, and many do not want to face that reality and blame it on Apple.

      However, that does not fix what’s wrong with App Store.

      The App Store is a digital grocery store. It is not the job of my local Publix to tell me why I should buy Peter Pan peanut butter over Skippy or Jif, or whomever.

      Totally right again.

      But what you’re missing is that what people want from App Store and Mac App Store is for them to be digital Apple Stores, not digital grocery stores.

      When you walk into an Apple Store, all the crap from the Best Buy and the Microsoft Store has already been discarded for you by a personal shopper. You chance of getting ripped off by a low-value money-grubbing tech product (almost all of them) is dramatically reduced.

      Notice that Apple Store never bragged that it had the most products, or had products from the most developers/manufacturers. But App Store and Mac App Store have bragged about that.

      So what is needed is for most of the products in App Store and Mac App Store to be hidden from the user in a new Apple Store -like interface. Essentially, the Staff Picks section has to be expanded to be the entire store.

      I’ll give you an example of why. I was shopping at Mac App Store for a font editor because I made some fonts about 10 years ago and the tool I used to make them no longer exists, and I want to update the fonts slightly and render them in Open-Type format. I ended up finding Glyphs mini, which was perfect for my needs (a “casual font editor”) and also perfectly-priced. However, it took me about a half hour to find Glyphs mini, because I had to wade through hundreds of tiny apps that were essentially hobbyist project technology demos, and dozens of tiny apps that were essentially rip-off schemes, and a lot of apps that were font collections (interesting if that was what I was looking for, but it was not,) and these apps were all presented to me as peers of Glyphs mini, which is a true Mac-class app, with a complete workflow and tools for a specific class of task.

      So it would have been much better for me if, when I asked Mac App Store about font tools, it had limited its response to Glyphs mini and 5 other apps like it. And if there aren’t 5 other apps like it, then Apple should do something about that, like courting developers of font tools who aren’t in Mac App Store and getting them in there.

      And regarding grocery stores, the trend in grocery stores right now is to be more like Apple Stores also. I shop at a grocery store that only has 1 of every kind of product — 1 crunchy peanut butter, 1 smooth peanut butter, 1 apple butter, etc. — and it is the one that has the most value: the best combination of high quality and low cost. It’s like if your friend did weeks of research on groceries, bought the best of each product, and then you went shopping in their kitchen, picking what you want to eat, knowing the whole time that everything you choose has already been researched and investigated and found to be the best product. The store is much smaller, it takes much less time to shop, my grocery bill has gone down, the quality of my groceries has gone up, and it is a much, much better experience.

      So saying that App Store is like a typical grocery store and that is fine is wrong because Apple App Store should be more like Apple Store, and your typical grocery store should also be more like Apple Store.

  • Paul Chernoff

    While the App Store cannot replace the developer’s need to publicize their apps I wish for a better shopping experience. Good bookstores offer a better shopping experience. I want to be able to find something quickly if I know what I want (the App Store search often fails for me) and I like browsing. I think of curation in terms of categorizing and organizing the product. I dislike paid placements as we have in many stores as other commentors mentioned. If Apple offers staff recommendations and prominent placement, I would like this to be because they note that a product is especially good and not because money has changed hands.

    • So, does Apple already do this? When I look at the App Store right now, there’s a Best of July, Indie Game Showcase, and Amazing Productivity App features.

      Are these human or algorithm curation? I don’t know and there’s nothing on the site to tell me either way.

      And what does one person’s opinion matter to me? That’s why website coverage and reviews are more important. Different opinions, hopefully, but honestly, who in the Indie Mac Press is going to give Marco Ament a bad review?

      One more point on marketing and self promotion. Take a look at the websites of these three apps: Unread, Overcast and Wunderlist.

      Two of them have horribly sparse websites that do nothing to promote their app (and are coincidentally writing stuff about how horrible the App Store is), one of them has a much more robust website that showcases their App so you can actually learn about it before downloading it.

  • are we certain this is apple’s problem, and not that of the devs? in my time in brick & mortar retail, i learned that simply releasing a product onto the shelves was not sufficient — we had to advertise and market it as well, on our dime. not the retailer’s.

    why are apps different? dont the most successful apps generate their own PR and word of mouth? does Best Buy or Walmart worry about how well somebody can “discover” SKUs in their software section? nope. moving units is your business. if your SKU fails to do it, they drop it.

    what am i missing?

  • Herding_sheep

    I certainly agree with whats been said here, that its not Apples job to cover marketing as well as distribution/retail for a developer. That being said, I do think its in Apples interests (and their stated goal) to make the user experience as pleasant as they possibly can.

    So think of this as enhancing the user experience, and not doing a developers job for them. I think users would appreciate a better App Store experience 10x more than the developers. Does Apple HAVE to do this? No. Just like they didn’t have to fight the record labels to offer songs individually on iTunes. Or fight the carriers to keep their hands off the iPhone experience. But they do it because they care first and foremost about the user experience of using an Apple product.

    I really see this as a benefit for users. And I imagine this is something thats been on Apples list for a while, they just haven’t figured out the recipe yet. But as soon as they do (and Beats is probably a big part of it), I’m sure we will see something along these lines from them.

    • except your examples are user-experience items (buying single tracks, carriers hands-off iphone), whereas this is a complaint from the devs perspective.

      how does publishing an app-review magazine (or whatever) help from the users’ experience? are users complaining now that they cant find any good apps? or is it devs complaining users cant find their apps?

      i think its the latter. that isnt a user experience shortcoming…

      • Herding_sheep

        No. I’m not even talking about from a developer perspective. You’ve never heard users ask for a better browsing and discoverability experience in the App Store? Because if you haven’t, you just haven’t been listening.

        People don’t go to the App Store knowing exactly what they want everytime they go in. Sometimes people just go to browse and discover something. I certainly do all the time. I can’t keep up with all the games getting released on iOS, and I tend to browse aimlessly several times a week.

        Improving the user experience in regards to discovering new content would be a huge win for users. Thats the whole idea behind Beats Music, and Apple already stated that was a huge influence behind their decision to buy Beats, was this feature in particular. Like I said, I’d put money on Apple already wanting to make this better in the App Store, they just haven’t figured out how yet. There’s a reason Apple made some significant enhancements to the App Store experience in iOS 8. Not because there’s nothing left to improve in the App Store. They even tried to address discoverability with some of the things they’re adding in iOS 8. There’s always things to improve.

        • i never, ever spend time cruising the App Store on my 3.5 – 4″ screen trying to discover new great apps. instead, i read about them via publications and news sources on a giant monitor. then i go into the store, search, download.

          i dont doubt that app-nerds do as you say, but id be willing to bet theyre power users like you, Marco, etc, and dont represent the majority of iOS users… anybody have a recent stat on the average number of apps installed? last time i heard it it was pretty low, really. lots of users like my family who just have a few things they use often, and thats it.

  • nizy

    The App Store does have human curation, and lots of it. Who do you think creates all those best of, pick of the week lists? The entire featured section is human curated.

    I remember a few years back when Apple hired Matt Casamassina, who was a highly respected journalist at IGN to head up curation of games at the App Store. See his Wikipedia here:

    You can make the case that Apple could do more, but Gassée doesn’t. He suggests there’s none and that all these come from algorithms. The truth is that Apple does way more human curation than Google, probably Microsoft too.

  • Jeffrey Nathan

    Who are these fools, with all the time in the world to comment on blog posts. Really! Get a life people!

  • Jeffrey Nathan

    Oops that a joke and wasn’t meant for this comment section…I actually like these comments. Jim please delete!