In a few days Apple will send out a press release celebrating the approval of the App Store's 100,000th application. The news will be met with much celebration at Cupertino and pages of analysis from bloggers and tech sites. The rapid, unconstrained growth of the App Store is fine news for Apple shareholders and iPhone owners, but the message it carries for developers is not entirely pleasant. In a crowded ecosystem with 100,000 apps and counting, how do you separate your product from the herd?
This isn't just a problem for apps that have dozens of virtually identical competitors gobbling up their customers. Even if your app is truly unique it has better than even odds of being buried under a mountain of crap. When the cost of successfully pushing an app becomes greater than the small developer is able to bear, those independent (and innovative) small developers risk being pushed out of the business altogether.
Much of the App Store's initial growth was pushed by success stories of brilliant new apps created by tiny developers with virtually no funding. Everyone with even the slightest bit of programming acumen wanted to try their hand at making the next blockbuster app. This app rush lead to a lot of terrible, derivative apps, but it turned up just enough gold to keep the App Store's momentum going.
As the App Store ages things are bound to change. No platform can maintain that kind of growth and dynamism forever. Less clunky, buggy apps from fly-by-night developers is a good thing, but less innovation from genuinely clever start-ups is a bad thing. Is there some way to for us to get rid of one without losing the other?
The answer to that question just might be yes thanks to Chorus, an upcoming new app (currently in beta) from envIO networks that adds social networking to the app buying process as a way to target app advertising more precisely than ever before.
“Our approach is to take the current informal approach we use to find apps, and then try to find a systematic approach.” Manish Jha, president and CEO of envIO networks explained to me in an interview last Friday.
The “informal approach” Manish referred to is the way most of us first hear about everything from cool new apps to hilarious YouTube videos. We tend to trust our friends and family when they recommend something to us. Your brother isn't making any money when he turns you on to a hot new app, he just wants to show you something cool. Your best friend has no vested interest in turning that YouTube video of a talking cat into a viral sensation, he's just sharing something he found funny.
Thanks to the Internet, the average consumer is the savviest he's ever been. The instant we recognize that we're being advertised to we activate our 'Bullshit Radar'. We become suspicious of everything we hear, and that makes us a lot less likely to spend money. Advice from our friends and family, viral trends and Internet memes tends to bypass that radar though. If the person urging us to buy, download, or view a product has no obvious fiscal interest in doing so, we tend to trust them. “The number of people using Facebook and twitter, is exploding. We are creating a way for people to use these to show off new apps. You download a new app and like it, and your friends see what app and how you rated it.” explained Manish.
The Chorus team aren't taking their only leads from social networking sites. They've pulled a leaf out of Genius' book and created what they call the 'Social Genome'.
“Not all of our friends are of equal value to us, and not all of their opinions are of equal value to us. What the social genome does is figure out behind the scenes based on what you own and what you click on, what would be the most relevant new applications to advise you to buy. Sort of like genius, but based on our social relationships and interactions with friends.”
That feature will turn some people off, not everyone likes to know their behavior is analyzed. However, viral games on Facebook and Google's AdSense are proof that most people don't mind handing over the details of their life to a computer if it means marketing that exposes them to the products they actually want to buy. EnvIO hopes that people will feel the same way about their apps.
“The idea here is first, friends are the most trusted source. While you can apply a lot of algorithms, what we do is look at the social relationships. What you have bought and liked, what your friends follow, and based on a combination of that recommend apps to you.”
There are some solid ideas behind Chorus. The problem they're going to encounter is the same issue any new app faces; gaining an audience. A service like Chorus is only useful if there are a lot of folks using it. If you don't have any friends using the service, how can it help you?
The answer, according to Manish, is by providing users with an expert perspective on what apps are hot.
“We are also talking to app mavens, who are trusted sources. That way you can see what, not just your friends are doing, but what the buzz is. That way, if you don't have many friends the service is still of use.”
That's a nice feature to have, but there are already plenty of places consumers can go to read 'expert' opinions on the hot new apps. Most choose not to. In the end, Chorus is going to succeed or fail based on how quickly they can get clumps of friends to sign up and spread their service. That's why envIO is bringing their app to the iPhone first. It has a large enough base of users to make them a household name.
“...we are definitely going to create a cross platform service here. We just thought the iPhone was a good place to start.” explained Manish.
I asked him where he thought the future of the app market lay. If he thought Android or Symbian or another OS had a chance of outdoing the App Store. On that issue, Manish was strictly neutral. He did, however, have something to say about the future of browser-based applications.
“We're not taking any sides here. There is so much innovation going on in the industry that we certainly see a potential for browser-based applications to emerge dominant. If that happens, I think our value proposition is just as strong.”
Whoever the future app kingpins are and whether or not browser-based applications end up conquering the market, people will still choose what apps to buy based on the same criteria. We listen to our friends and, by and large, we use what they use.
Humans are a tribal species. When we find something cool, something that improves our life in some way, we have a natural instinct to share that with our friends and family. One of the most basic urges people have is the need to be connected to other people. No matter the product, services that cater to that need tend to do well.
“What we have already learned is that when you can see what your friends are buying, the number of downloads increases dramatically. When you can see what everyone else is purchasing, the amount you buy tends to cascade.”
It's too early to tell if Chorus will be able to take advantage of this phenomenon. The idea behind their service is good enough to create a hit. The rest is up to marketing, programming, and the ever-fickle whims of the app-buying public. If Chorus sounds interesting to you, it's available free for download here. You can also find demo videos of the app here and here. If you end up giving it a try let us know whether you love it or hate it in the comments.