The Curious Story of iOS App Discovery

Looking back on two interesting (yet slightly confusing) years of iOS app discovery

With now over 1 million apps available for download on the Apple App Store, app discovery remains a tremendous challenge for developers and publishers, especially for those on a budget.

Over the past two years, much speculation has been surrounding Apple’s true stance on app discovery, especially in regard to third party players getting involved in one way or another. Opinions differ greatly, but it does appear that three main ideas stand out:

  • Other sources claim that the company is generally in favor of encouraging diversity in order to get to a viable solution – but that they do not want to relinquish their right to remove the apps they object to.
  • The third option is that there is not yet any clear strategy – a slightly unsatisfactory hypothesis, but which would nevertheless explain the unpredictability of the company’s actions with regards to this matter.

Our purpose is not to give a definite and irrevocable answer to that question, but rather to take a little stroll down memory lane, to look back at the past, consider the present, and – of course – offer our take on the future of App Discovery.

Let’s take a look at the landmark events of the past two years:

The timeline presented above paints a seemingly rather erratic picture.

Nevertheless, a few chronological events can be highlighted:

First, the acquisition of CHOMP, often taken to be one of the first signs of a new strategy being adopted. The main selling point of Chomp’s search engine was that it allowed users to search for apps based on their functionality, instead of just their name. At the time it looked like this purchase was part of a bigger plan to overhaul of the App Store’s search function.

We have yet to see any real effect come from this acquisition – but it does seem clear that the intention on Apple’s part was to improve discoverability in the App Store.

Next came the introduction of clause 2.25: speculation reached a peak, as developers and journalists wondered what to make of a rule which left a lot of room for interpretation.

Did it represent a blanket ban on all third party app discovery?

Not quite. The choice of wording – “in a manner similar to or confusing with the App Store” – actually seems to point at two particular types of app discovery solutions:

  • The app catalogs, which offer users a curated list of selected apps, in a manner “similar” to the App Store.
  • The so-called app boosters, apps which generally offer a daily curation of selected apps to a trusting user base, and use this to leverage paid downloads. For the most part, they don’t look anything like the App Store – but they could definitely be said to be “confusing” with it.

Looking at the two apps that most famously fell foul of 2.25 seems to confirm this idea:


The first app to suffer the consequences was AppShopper – the archetypal app catalog – which was removed just a few months after 2.25 was officially set up.

At the time, AppShopper announced that they were “working on a new version that they hoped would be approved by Apple”.

This new version turned out to be App Shopper Social, a revamped version of the previous app which puts special emphasis on apps recommended by friends in your social networks.


But the most notorious casualty is without much doubt AppGratis – pulled from the App Store a few days after its iPad app had been accepted, and a few months after their CEO Simon Dawlat stated that there was “more room than ever for third party players”.

Whatever the actual reason behind the ban was, the days that followed were again filled with speculation, with generally highly reliable Apple sources such as claiming ominously that this was “just the start of an App Store crackdown”.

This hypothesis was then somewhat weakened by the release of AppShopper Social and AppCurious. At the time, Riz Nwosu, founder of AppCurious, stated that he thought that “the hoopla about app discovery apps being booted was because they didn’t think of app discovery in a creative way”.

It should also be noted that many app discovery applications have not been updated for a substantial amount of time, which could mean that Apple is not letting the updates go through. For instance, Appoday: Free App Deal of the Day’s last update goes back to February 7, 2013 while its updates were previously much more regular (4 months maximum).

Other examples include:

App Discovery: Moving to iOS 7


The situation today

The big picture first, followed by more speculation

iOS 7 is now out and installed on a majority of iOS devices. On the one hand, the ranking system seems to have changed, giving more weight to qualitative factors such as retention, which could be a step towards easier and fairer discoverability. On the other hand, “Genius for apps” has been removed, again causing people to question Apple’s stance on third party app discovery.

android-apple-thumbWhere do we stand today?

Recent reports seem to cast some doubt on Google’s “closing of the monetization gap”. Although the search engine giant may yet have some distance to cover in the mobile race, the fact remains however that Apple needs to hold on to its position as the dominant mobile platform. This means, among others, keeping some popular applications exclusive (at least for some time), but it also means offering the users smart and practical ways of finding these applications.

We’ve already pointed to the growing similarities between the two big players, but this does not seem to be the case where app discovery is concerned: Google does not keep such a tight grip on the way users find apps for its platform, and so far hasn’t shown any intention of doing so.

In fact, the Play Store recently got a shiny new entry which could very well change the face of Android app discovery. It’s a mobile launcher produced by search engine Quixey, and you can read more about it in this excellent article – Quixey is, unsurprisingly, devoid of any iOS equivalent.

Despite a report by PocketGamer stating that Apple were extending 2.25 to “include apps that feature sharing and recommendation as discovery tools”, we have yet to see any definite effect on apps such as AppShopper Social or AppCurious (though it should be noted that neither app really took off in terms of user numbers).

This report has also been more recently called into question by the launch of AppXChange, ICS Mobile’s latest entry into the iOS app discovery landscape. This app puts most of the focus on recommendation and sharing, and wraps the whole thing up in a decidedly appealing and user-friendly presentation. Considering the last update of ICS Mobile’s application FreeAppADay was in February – and considering the dearth of recent updates for similar apps – it does seem that this release (which was already rumored in July) is a good example to follow.

App Discovery

Gazing into a very murky crystal ball

The future is laden with uncertainty

Anyone attempting a new foray into iOS app discovery should think very hard about what they’re going to offer, if they want to escape the lot of the others.

Simply firing out a catalog of selected apps, or another “app of the day” clone most likely won’t work. It might be accepted first time around – depending on which country is being targeted, and what Apple’s situation at home is – but it’s unlikely to be very sustainable.

Implementing social recommendation features does seem to work, especially if they are implemented in an imaginative and user-friendly way. But of course, if it turns out Apple genuinely does not want any third parties playing this game, then the only thing that will be likely to work is to offer something quite different – such as a newsfeed, or an application like Toucharcade with a strong emphasis on editorial content.

It’s too early to make any definite statement on the state or future of App Discovery on iOS. If we could zoom the above timeline out to encompass the next 4 to 5 years, the picture might be a lot clearer. It could contain an incredible in-house solution, allowing easy discoverability and removing any room for competition; or a similarly excellent solution, but created by a third party player such as AppShopper, Quixey, or ICS Mobile.

In the meantime, we can only speculate, and try to learn what lessons are to be learned from the events of the past two years.

Lessons which seem to boil down to two simple words: “innovate” and “diversify”.