THE BLOG

The Weak Spot in Apple's Design

03/09/2013 16:05 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 16:05 BST

There are few experiences more enjoyably Zen-like than buying in one of Apple's cool white stores. From Singapore to Shepherds Bush the experience is sublimely efficient. The browsing shopper, secure in the knowledge that everything has been displayed in an aesthetically beguiling manner, can be confident that the best is on show and shown to its best advantage. It is what makes shopping with Apple so special.

The world knows where this obsession with aesthetic perfection comes from: it is the design-DNA from Apple's founder Steve Jobs. Maintained through Jonathan Ive's touch Jobs' guru-ghost still hovers over most of what Apple does, but I often wonder what his spirit would make of today's iTunes App Store. Its virtual space might not benefit from double height ceilings, cantilevered glass steps, stainless steel fixings, or seductive displays on peak-white tabletops, but it is still part of Apple's shopping experience and as such the consumer might expect it to adhere to Jobs' same stern disciplines of best-in-class display. It doesn't.

The App Store is almost willfully chaotic, more bran-tub than Braun. Whether the consumer cares about this is not known. Does it inhibit sales? It certainly doesn't make finding an app easy.

On the supply side Apple can be a bracing experience. It is a company rightfully protective of its astonishingly successful global brand and makes developers jump through technical and content hoops in order to get their apps accepted. This is as it should be. But at the point of acceptance there is a curious gap: a sudden lapse of rigour. It is an odd lapse because Apple spends millions refining the micron-measured details of its iPhones and iPads and then spends more millions on its world famous interfaces to produce exquisitely designed user experiences that reflect the Zen-like pleasure of browsing its flagship stores. Inexplicably it allows hundreds of thousands of aesthetically dubious and typographically inarticulate products to clutter its App Store and swamp its iTunes search engine. To companies and publishers investing thousands in creating intelligently designed immersive touch screen apps it is not an acceptable retail environment.

If the aesthetic logic that governs its stores in the real world was applied to the iTunes App Store then the clutter would be swept away, an efficient search engine would be employed and design and functionality would be reflected in the hierarchy of its display. This would reflect two classic Steve Jobs mantras. First, it would encourage better graphic and functional design for anything associated with Apple. Second, it would declutter the App Store to mirror Apple's customer experience elsewhere.

The emergent super-app business focused on Apple's brilliant iPad is less than five-years old and from the start Apple has used the relationship between itself and the top app builders to promote its iPad. Flattering as it is to the developers even this has tended to be a one-sided affair, with Apple using the visual excellence of the best apps to lift the image of its hardware above its competitors' offerings, yet never crediting the companies behind these excellent apps on its ads. The contradiction here is that Apple implicitly acknowledges on its poster and TV campaigns that intelligently designed apps give its iPad and iPhone a market advantage.

But as Apple's commercial position changes and other tablet makers eat its market share, the special relationship that Apple has had with the best app designers is in danger of melting away unless it takes their contribution to its market image more seriously. Once top developers start shifting their sights the result are likely to be a decline in the production of super-apps for iOS as they realize investment in good Apple-like design is no longer a viable business model. Steve Jobs would not approve.

For now there is no global alternative to Apple's unsatisfactory App Store. For the privilege of using it Apple taxes every app at 30% of its earnings, but instead of offering something special to the best it promotes an endlessly expanding inventory that, in effect, reduces each app to the same indiscriminate level with a flawed search engine that can only pinpoint an app if the potential buyer knows the app's title. It provides little numerical data on comparative sales, and has a rigid control over the download that prevents app designers selling iOS apps flexibly. The inevitable effect of this is to de-motivate the best designers while, by default, allowing creators of junk apps to benefit from the sheen that the best apps give Apple's hardware. It is a model that high-investment sales dependent super-app builders cannot live with.