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After App Stores

How should consumers learn about and decide what software to buy?

You saw that Apple Arcade will allow you to have access to lots of games for a monthly subscription, correct? No more in-app purchases. Just a bunch of games you can play.

Soon after that, Google announced Google Play Pass–which is not just games but apps too. As a Pixel owner I jumped on it and now I have Stardew Valley, Cut the Rope with unlimited magnets, and Weather Kitty, which shows me the weather, but with a picture of a cat.

The app stores are sometimes fun, but unusable. Apple has hired every editor and artist they can find to make things look fancy, but it’s still a lot of angry Viking faces and checklist apps when you hit the App Store. Google, well. They should be ashamed of what they allow on the platform. Did we really need a game where you help Elsa from Frozen…give birth?

Anyway. The App Store clearly made billions of dollars spread all around, but in the end, the app stores are kind of unusable, and the Internet is filled with the complaints of independent creators who can’t compete. The web doesn’t help. When you search for “top paid Android games,” you get hit from the other side: All the content is advertised-up to the gills. You can ask your friends, but that’s exhausting. And thus one of the things I loved the most in the world, shopping for software, is ruined.

So now: Subscriptions. Curated bundles of apps! Everyone loves curated bundles. But as Apple Arcade and Play Pass grow in significance (and at their scale they’ll get tens of millions of users), the pressure will now be on for app makers to get inside the subscription bundle. Which will of course give more market power to the people who created the subscription services. This is why it’s so great to be a giant tech platform: You get to charge everyone for making a big mess, and then to charge everyone to clean it up.

The Internet is going to want to throw more subscriptions at me, which is fine. I get my games and my shirts via subscription. But what I want is…reviews. By which I mean good, objective reviews, written in paragraphs, with conclusions, by people with adult sensibilities. Yes, you see a lot of good reviews on places like The Verge. There’s a lot of reviews of hardware and benchmarks. But lord do I miss old-fashioned, comparative, cranky reviews and software criticism. Magazines like PCWorld or MacWorld or Computer Shopper. I want to read about SaaS products and apps, reviewed by slightly surly people. I would read this every day. Given how much software matters in my daily life, I’d pay, and I’d read the ads, too. Don’t tell me about 100 note-taking apps. Tell me about one, in depth, that matters, and where it works and doesn’t. Say good things and bad things.

I think from the point of view of Apple, it’s smarter to just keep hiring great editors, writers, and artists, and have them create content that guides people to apps inside the App Store. It’s much more effective than having to buy ads in the places where reviews are published, and no one can say anything bad about you, too.

If there were more good, independent reviews, I’d buy more software. 

Paul Ford is the CEO of Postlight. Send him an email: [email protected].

Story published on Dec 4, 2019.