Luckily, that didn’t happen.
As consumers increasingly migrate to mobile apps and developers fight to have their apps discovered in the chaos of the marketplace, app-related search engines and stores have vastly improved their support for both constituencies.
Apple users have seen some improvement, but Android is the much bigger story of the year because of upgrades to the Android Market, the emergence of the Amazon Appstore for Android (which sells only Android apps) and upgrades to existing services like Appolicious and Appbrain.com.
Of these developments, the polishing of the Android Market Web site is the most meaningful. The version of the Android Market offered on mobile devices was fairly good, but the Web version was a shallow, amateurish sampler that inexplicably offered users no way to search for apps.
Considering the fact that Android is owned by Google, it was a shockingly poor performance.
Google started fixing that problem in February by introducing search on the Market Web site and populating the Market with a big assortment of categories for browsing.
As the year progressed, the Market added editors’ picks, trending apps and spruced up the graphics, to the point where the service bears a passing resemblance to the iTunes App Store.
More recently, Google took a page from Amazon’s playbook by virtually giving away apps that, in some cases, were among the more popular and expensive in the Market. But instead of making this a pure giveaway, the Market is selling 10 apps daily for 10 cents apiece, thereby requiring customers to enter their credit card information.
That’s a line many prospective app buyers refuse to cross, either because of the inconvenience or because of fear that their financial information may somehow be compromised. But for apps like SoundHound Infinity and Minecraft — Pocket Edition (both regularly $7) and SwiftKey X Keyboard (regularly $4), the sale price is quite an enticement.
Unfortunately, Google last week still showed signs that it was not ready to rival Apple or Amazon for retailing excellence. Several of the purchases I tried to make from the “10 Billion Downloads” promotional list failed, for instance, and by the time Android notified me, the promotional price had disappeared. A few days later, Android sent an apology to customers, along with free access to the apps customers had tried to purchase.
As a search engine, the Android Market is very good, and getting better. You can sort search results by relevance or popularity, and the site now judges relevance much more effectively. Earlier this year, people who searched apps created by Google often were confronted with a long list of apps that simply mentioned Google, but now the company’s own apps top the results.
Sample images from the apps, meanwhile, are enough to convey the gist of the app experience, and when you click through to an individual app description, Android makes good suggestions for similar apps that users have either bought or browsed.
Amazon pioneered that approach, and its Appstore, which is for Android only, honors the company’s reputation as a source of good recommendations.
But Amazon’s Appstore has a much more limited selection of roughly 22,000, compared with around 300,000 on the Android Market. That’s partly because, unlike Google, Amazon tests each Android app to be sure it meets the company’s standards for content quality and technological performance.
Often you won’t notice the Appstore’s limited selection, but there are occasional glaring omissions. Late last week, half the apps featured on the Android Market’s 10 Billion Downloads promotion were not available on Amazon, including hits like Minecraft and Endomondo Sports Tracker Pro.
When it comes to discovering new apps, Android users would do well to also try Appbrain.com, which compiles customer reviews and tracks apps that are attracting the most attention among users.
Last week, Appbrain’s users were clearly paying attention to the 10 Billion Downloads promotion, but other trending apps included Any.DO: To Do List / Task List, which is free.
Appolicious.com is similar to Appbrain in that it features user reviews and a search engine of its own, but Appolicious has more useful content, and it covers Apple as well as Android apps.
Appolicious is a search and recommendation service in which app suggestions are generated by staff and readers. The service, which is also behind Best Buy’s App Discovery Center (at apps.bestbuy.com), covers nearly 600,000 apps on Apple and roughly 200,000 on Android.
Users can search those by keyword or phrase, or browse an index that is divided into hundreds of subcategories. Task management apps, for instance, can be found in the productivity category, which itself is a subset of the business category.
Appolicious employs five editors and dozens of freelancers who review apps and offer category roundups, like the Best Shopping Apps of 2011. And the company said its service had attracted more than 100,000 members who write their own reviews and publish lists in categories that you’d struggle to find help with elsewhere, like “Top 3 Chinese Character Flashcard Apps for iPhone.”
It’s a great supplement to Apple’s App Store, which continues to do its best to keep pace with the avalanche of new apps arriving daily. Apple’s editorial staff turns out new category roundups every few weeks, but it’s difficult to find those features once they are removed from the front page.
If you type “skiing” into the App Store’s search box, for example, the results don’t even include the editorial team’s current compilation.
With all the improvement on the Android Market in 2011, maybe next year Apple can follow suit.
7 Wonders: Magical Mystery Tour ($3 on iPhone, $5 on iPad) is a new puzzle game set in mythological locations. StoryLines (free on Apple) offer a new twist on the traditional “telephone” storytelling game. Pat LaFrieda’s Big App for Meat ($7 on iPad) is a carnivore’s delight that includes videos on meat-carving technique, as well as games and shopping.