WWDC 2017: An In Depth Look At the New App Store
Phill Farrugia
Phill Farrugia

WWDC 2017: An In Depth Look At the New App Store

Phill Farrugia, iOS Engineer

In July 2008, Apple introduced the world to the App Store. It opened with an initial offering of only 500 applications available to purchase, and it came despite resistance from key Apple executives at the time, with a very tightly bound app review and approval policy.

The original App Store user interface, June 2008

Nearly a decade later, the iOS App Store serves up more than 2.2 million apps and has transformed the way software is bought and distributed around the world. Over this time, it’s kept the same look and feel, opting only to make minor refinements to the same core experience. The industry of innovators building mobile applications on the App Store platform has continued to evolve and yet the App Store itself has struggled to keep up, falling short on supporting these developers to create and maintain sustainable businesses into the long term future.

This all changed last week, when SVP of Worldwide Marketing, Phil Schiller, introduced us to an entirely new iOS App Store at WWDC 2017.

“We’re going to do something we’ve never done before in the nine years of the App Store. We’re going to completely redesign it.”

Phil Schiller

This is the most significant re-think of the App Store since it was first launched in 2008, and it has the potential to re-invigorate the way mobile products are discovered, sold, and distributed to consumers worldwide.

Apps vs. Games

Schiller touched on the most significant and visual changes to the App Store that consumers will notice: a new Today tab, Games tab, and Apps tab; as well as an increased focus on long form, in-depth content and curation over the shorter, more impulsive content we’ve been used to. Most notably, this update separates out games from all other apps, each with a dedicated Top Charts section.

These changes are well-warranted — if you open up the existing App Store app on an iOS device today, you’ll see games take up a disproportionate amount of real estate at the top of the charts. Typically, a very highly-rated productivity or utility based app that users love will be buried and hard to discover beneath a long list of popular games that attract a large number of downloads.

With the forthcoming new App Store, Apple is combatting the problem head on. Soon users will still be able to see all of the latest, exciting games to play, while getting a better peek into non-entertainment apps that are popular in the Apps tab.

Developers applauded this change during the keynote announcement, and believe this to be one of the most significant improvements made to the App Store experience since it launched. This will have a largely positive effect on anyone in the iOS space, and lift the visibility of Shopping, Productivity, Utility, Education, and so many other app categories available today.

The redesigned App Store user interface, June 2017

Ratings and Reviews

Schiller also reaffirmed many of the behind-the-scenes changes already being made: multiple TestFlight builds, responses to reviews, a new Reviews API, and significantly faster app review times. He even introduced an entirely new feature known as Phased Releases. This allows developers to perform a slow, targeted rollout of version updates to collect more immediate feedback before distributing a release to an entire user base.

Up until very recently, when an app received a poor star rating and bad review, there was little that the developers could do to provide support to the customer. Earlier this year, Apple opened up the ability for developers to provide responses to reviews, enabling an entirely new system for support dialogue. Schiller stated that they’ve seen almost 400,000 responses to reviews since launch and that there’s a trend of users going back and improving their review based on the response from the developer.

iTunes Connect will soon have a specific user role for Customer Service, so that a user can be dedicated specifically to providing his feedback to customers. They’ve also opened up a Reviews API to allow developers to prompt users for reviews in a more contextual way. Users will only receive the prompt at the most convenient times, and won’t be bombarded by prompts from several apps at the same time.

Currently, each time a new version is published to the App Store, all ratings and reviews are wiped from the product page. This means that developers are sometimes hesitant to push bug fixes in order to preserve their high rating. With the new App Store updates, developers will have the option to wipe their ratings and reviews if they wish or roll them over from a previous version.

Developers of all sizes are excited for the opportunity to address customer pain points directly and the improved customizations that help reach and retain a high rating.

An entirely new, interactive and first class Ratings and Reviews experience

Discoverability

For years, developers have lamented that the App Store no longer offers a viable way for apps to be discovered, and that larger, commercial products consistently take over the Top Charts. In many ways, the App Store has become a race to the bottom, and most of the apps that users see are one-hit wonders built to make money quickly with little intention to be supported over time.

With the new App Store redesign, the editorial team will be able to curate apps of genuinely higher quality and craftsmanship. Discovery is centered around a cards-based system, with cards for App of the Day, Major Update, Sneak Peak, Now Trending, Deep Dive, How To, and much more. Only 1-2 cards are visible on the screen at any time, and are part of a newsfeed-like interface, so the user can scroll down to see cards that were featured on previous days and stay up to date.

Search

Finding a specific app in the App Store has always been a frustrating experience. Searching for the exact name of an app returns results that prioritize bad clones and poorly rated apps higher than the official, highly popular equivalent. Apple has made attempts to refine and improve upon this experience, but with little success to date. Last year at WWDC 2016, Apple introduced Search Ads as a marketplace for developers to bid to be the top featured result in a search. Unfortunately, this created a system for larger companies with more funding to squeeze out smaller, independent developers.

A refined Search algorithm, enabling discovery of editorial content, IAPs, and Apps

This year, Apple has stated that they’ve heavily improved upon search, by enabling the indexing of In-App Purchases and Editorial Content as well as the apps themselves. Still, the improvements feel incremental, and search seemed to be omitted from most of the conversation surrounding the new App Store redesign.

Promotion

An entirely new webpage has been created that allows creators to contact the App Store team directly to suggest a new app, significant update, or great story idea for the App Store’s Today content. Apple continues to apply the same core principles to all of its curation, but are eager to do as much as they can to support interesting, exciting, and fresh products.

Final Thoughts

Companies publishing applications to the App Store should be excited and refreshed by the changes coming with iOS 11 later this fall. There are now more ways to be featured than ever, whether you’re a large company moving into the mobile space or a small startup looking to bring a new idea to life.

Apple’s decision to introduce a full-scale redesign of the core App Store experience stands testament to the fact that many of the pain points for developers stem from underlying problems that can’t be addressed with a band aid solution. Providing opportunity for all development teams, both large and small, requires a fundamental shift that will take time. We’re looking forward to continuing to explore the changes to the Apple ecosystem and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the new App Store.