How Carriers Can Crack the App Discoverability Nut

Discoverability is a problem that has long plagued the world of mobile applications. The issue worsens with each new title added to Apple’s App World and Google’s (not-yet-as-massive) Android Market. A variety of “solutions” have come to market, including apps built to find other apps, like Chomp and Appolicious, and recommendation engines like Apple’s Genius. Ever-expanding app libraries, however, ensure the problem of discoverability will only grow worse before getting better.

With the App Store outside their realm, Apple’s carrier partners can’t really crack the discoverability nut. In the world of Android, however, the issue means an opportunity for network operators to connect their customers with the perfect apps — which opens the door to a space operators have lost their grip on since the emergence of the smartphone era.

Verizon Wireless, for instance, is opening its own branded app store; it will be available on Android phones by year’s end. Sprint is taking a different tack with its new ID, which packages apps and content based on themes that can be chosen and tweaked by consumers.

But as James recently noted, Verizon’s new store doesn’t bring much to the table; Sprint ID, meanwhile, is but a small step in the right direction. For operators to truly make app discovery an easier process — and maybe give Android an edge over Apple — they must also address four crucial challenges:

1) Stress quality over quantity. “There’s an app for that” was a great marketing slogan at one time; now there’s an overabundance of apps. Instead of addressing this surplus, carriers should distribute only the best and most innovative titles and let Android Market play the role of app warehouse. Quality is a very subjective thing, of course; putting a filter on apps is guaranteed to make some developers whine. But as I’ve argued before, an elite store of only top-notch apps would help consumers immensely and keep them returning — and generate increased app revenues for carriers.

2) Leverage  high-profile brands. The surest way to ease users into mobile data is to give them apps from brands they know and trust. This is why Sprint has the right idea in partnering with ESPN, Disney and others for Sprint ID. The growth of mobile data hinges largely on converting feature phone users into smartphone buyers. Once those consumers get comfortable using mobile data from familiar names, they’ll begin to explore offerings from lesser-known publishers. And if Sprint ID is marketed well, the idea of a “sports phone” or an “Oprah phone” could potentially poach smartphone users from other carriers.

3) Build a better recommendation engine. Such an offering would have to enable users to adjust their personal settings and must take into account things like download histories and suggestions from friends. Users who download sports apps, for instance, could be presented with a sports-themed casual game which they could recommend to like-minded friends. And like Apple’s Genius, the engine should provide recommendations only when prompted by a user.

4) Don’t load up the phone with crap users don’t want. Android’s open nature allows carriers and manufacturers to tweak the operating system as they see fit. That’s a double-edged sword, however. On the one hand, it presents an attractive, easy-to-use UI. But it also means operators can preload apps that can’t be uninstalled. Verizon’s Droid X, for instance, comes loaded with a Blockbuster app and a demo for “Need for Speed: Shift;” Sprint’s Evo comes with carrier-branded NASCAR and football apps. None of these offerings can be uninstalled by the average user, and are almost always inferior and typically cost more. I suppose it’s understandable that carriers are scrambling to find ways to monetize apps in an ecosystem where they’re increasingly losing their grip, but it’s the mobile equivalent of this guy from the film “Fargo” pushing TrueCoat. Don’t do it.

Related Research: Why Carriers Still Hold the Key to Handset Sales

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How can carriers best solve the app discoverability problem?
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Colin Gibbs

Colin Gibbs

Founder and Principal Peak Mobile Insights

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4 Comments Subscribers to comment
  1. Colin,

    Love your 4 points. I’d like to add some thoughts.

    1) You say, “Quality is a very subjective thing, of course; putting a filter on apps is guaranteed to make some developers whine. But as I’ve argued before, an elite store of only top-notch apps would help consumers immensely…” So true. This is why Apple users flock to the “Featured” section – because it has been ‘curated’ for them. But it is curated with no regard to the individual, it is like the store aisles at Safeway, featured for all. Much better would be something like the store aisles at – featured for the individual.

    But on this subject of a two-tier store, Carrier-featured and mass warehouse, the problem is usually that the carriers develop too much hubris in their ability to filter, and end up BLOCKING all the other apps. This is inane. ^^^The example offered first by DoCoMo in 1999 with iMode was: offer a iMode mall with preferred apps, and then offer a Wild West option, where nothing is blocked and no guarantees are offered. Why we have yet to copy this fantastically successful model in the Western world eludes me. It offers the benefits of the pop hit market, AND the long tail market. The perfect mix is the walled garden WITH the unlocked gate.^^^

    2) The Sprint ID idea reminds me (here I go again with more turn-of-the-century Asian innovations) of the segmentation strategy of SK Telecom in Korea when I worked for them in 2001. SK would sell a phone, then ask the user to choose one of 8 segments. A young woman, for example, might choose the Kara segment, and then her phone’s UI, default content, and default apps would reflect the content expected to delight Kara users. It was innovative back then, but not rocket science. In 2010, it has to count as “Duh?”.

    3) If you can get past the privacy implications, the carrier knows who your “real” friends are. They’re the people you call. The probability that you will like similar apps as the people you call is high. If they use a similar phone platform, this could be used to improve recommendations. This is a social network enhancement, look for my ex-clients EnvIO for this.

    4) “Don’t load up the phone with crap…” Amen to that, brotha. However, if you’re a carrier or handset vendor who just can’t help yourself (i.e. most), then at the very lease allow users to erase the bloatware. Most carriers put their bloat into ROM that requires rooting or jailbreaking to remove. Carriers: Do you really think everyone wants Blockbuster’s app on their phone? For those of us that don’t, is it really good branding for Blockbuster if, every time the user sees it, they are reminded how pissed off they are that Blockbuster interferes with their control of THEIR phone?

    This is like the feature app store concept above (walled garden with unlocked gate). OK, pre-load some apps, but allow users the final say about the apps on their phone.

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