December 5, 2013 Last Updated 7:50 am

This is a big deal: Apple lets its App Store fall into disrepair

Newsstand categories show no publications, parts of the iBooks Store show few books

If one were to walk to a Barnes & Noble and found empty shelves and whole sections stocked only with the same book or magazine, over and over again, it would give one the impression that the store was either being mismanaged, or about to go out of business.

Apple-Newsstand-Category-lgBut Apple’s App Store, which is in just such a shape, gets little attention because few bother to complain about the disrepair, and the store is only a minor part of Apple’s business anyways. But for publishers, this is a big deal – a very big deal. One of digital publishers most important outlets – many would say, the most important – is falling apart.

Yesterday I noticed that one can no longer search for publications by category within the Newsstand. At first I thought it was simply a glitch and would be repaired soon. But after hours of the Newsstand being broken I called Apple to ask about the issue. As is usually the case, I never received a call back. The PR person in charge of both the developer and App Side of the press relations did not respond. (This is actually normal for Apple.)

What amazed me was that no one seems to think this is a big deal. The number one outlet for digital publications does not work – so what. But when the next numbers come out for magazines, and the level of digital circulation is revealed, there is sure to be articles about how digital still represents a small portion of overall circulation. Will anyone mention how badly run the Newsstand is? Or how one can not search effectively within the world’s largest digital retail outlet?

Broken categories are actually only a small problem compared to the bigger issues with Apple’s App Store. Take the iBooks Store, for instance. Within the Arts category is the subcategory of Photography. Clicking on this category reveals that Apple’s App Store team has decided to feature seven eBooks as “New”. That seems like an odd number since so many books are released in a given month. Underneath these “New” books is what Apple lists as “What’s Hot” – it is the same seven books. Underneath that is “All” – there are only four books shown (four of the seven that are above).

Apple-Photography-BooksIt’s this kind of total mismanagement of the store that drives publishers crazy – but for the lucky few who are promoted by Apple, life is good. Back inside the Newsstand, the front page of the store appears to show a lot of titles. Around 75 titles are seen at first glance when looking at the store on a desktop version of iTunes. Of those titles, all but a few are from major publishers, and all of the titles are promoted regularly.

It gets worse the closer you look. For instance, in the Business section of the App Store, Apple is currently promoting Business Magazines. That makes sense, but only 13 titles are listed under Business Magazines.

Of the 13 one finds the WSJ, Forbes, FORTUNE and Entrepreneur Magazine. The WSJ lists their own app as being categorized as News, but one can understand why Apple’s App Store team would promote it under Business. But what about the other magazines listed – WIRED, Newsweek, TIME, the NYT – none of these list their apps under business, and none are known as business magazines, so why are they here?

The decay of the App Store has been occurring over time. The first sign that there was trouble, at least for me, was obvious around the time the Google Play store was approaching the Apple App Store in app count. Maybe it was a coincidence, but since Google reached parity, Apple’s team has been letting obviously bogus apps into the store, especially the Newsstand. One developer, for instance, has three separate accounts and has been flooding the Newsstand with look-a-like digital magazines on bodybuilding and fitness. The digital magazine apps deliver one issue, sell annual subscriptions, but rarely deliver a second issue. The developer has been changing their name regularly – in fact, they just did it again. But the app descriptions always link back to the same broken down website.

Apple has been aware of this developer’s game for a long time, so why are the apps allowed to remain in the App Store? One has to conclude that Apple wants them there to boost their numbers.

The other move Apple made was when they eliminated the “All” area for most categories within the US App Store. Previously, every category would have an area at the bottom where “All” the apps could be found, broken out into Paid and Free. A click of this button would take you to a page where you could see all the apps in the category and sort them by Bestsellers and Release Date. This still exists in some of the categories and in is still common in some of the international stores. For instance, if I want to see all of the new Newsstand apps I can go into the Irish App Store, go into the Newsstand and sort the app by release date. This option allows me to find not only the newest apps, but also those recently updated.

But Apple eliminated this search option inside most of the US App Store. Now, Apple promotes a limited number of titles and makes it increasingly hard to find anything other than what it wants you to find. No doubt the idea is that while hundreds of new titles may be released in the course of a month, pushing hard for downloads of Vogue or the NYT will result in more sales. It is good business for Apple, and Condé Nast, but it calls into question the idea that launching your own title into the store makes good business sense.

The decline of the Apple App Store as a reliable place to sell newspapers, magazines and books seems like a big deal to me, not some bump in the road. For the past four years the assumption has been that iOS remains the first platform of choice for publishers. Conversations with digital publishing platform companies and publishers revealed that many still believe this is true, even if there are signs that Amazon is reaching parity.

But launching your app into the Apple App Store is becoming like throwing a small toy into one of those coin machine games one seems at stores and carnivals. The chance that your app will even be seen is a long shot, that the buyer can access it even more remote.

After almost four years of publishing Talking New Media, this site’s advice to publishers has changed from “develop for iOS first” to “develop for all platforms at the same time.” Apple has made a mess of their digital store and launching for multiple platforms isn’t just a good idea, it is essential if one is to have any chance of reaching readers.

  • Jeff 4 years ago

    Just noticed these issues in the Game section categories … I have several games to be released before Christmas and with the App Store broken, they will probably get very few downloads.

  • Jeff 4 years ago

    Do developers have any kind of re-course (like a class action suit)? Since we pay $99 per year to be part of the developer program, should we not all get equal treatment?

  • Richard Pawlowski 4 years ago

    This article is nonsense to me. Since Apple has opened iBooks up for all macs and not just for the iPhone and iPad, the sales of my book – for october – has increased dramatically. In other words don’t go the “app” route if you are an author or e-publisher. Go direct to the iBook store itself and pay clause attention to the content. Forget about competing in the app space.

    • D.B. Hebbard 4 years ago

      Yet your own website is touting the fact that you are selling your books through Amazon for the Kindle. I think that is the way to go, but the problem remains that find either an app or an eBook is becoming harder and hard within the Apple ecosystem as they let their store fall into disrepair.

      Another example would be in the iBooks Store look under “Business” then go to “Finance” – the entire section is missing any content at all. In fact, all the subcategories will return blank pages. The place is a mess.

      (But I do agree that adding iBooks for the Mac was a good move.)

  • mish 4 years ago

    my magazine is one of those affected, it is very hard to put all that work into something that is now getting very few downloads – this is my mag here

  • Ed Coburn 4 years ago

    Amazon sells publications. Apple sells hardware.