Apple have successfully cornered the nascent consumer market for mobile applications with an extremely successful blend of strategy and marketing (e.g. the “there’s an app for that” advertising campaign).
But while the App Store has been an unbridled consumer success for Apple, its suitability for the professional buyer is not without issue. We outline four challenges below and introduce a new service, apps.d4.org.uk, designed primarily to help health professionals find relevant and useful apps.
1. The choice can be bewildering – 20,000 apps are released each month
Software developers across the world are busy creating apps for sale to Apple customers through the App Store. This is potentially good news if you’re looking for a niche app, as there’s more chance it exists. But there is a downside to this explosion of choice – with 20,000 plus apps being released each month, finding the right app for you becomes harder and harder. [NB the 20,000+ new release each month are both new apps and new versions of existing apps.]
2. There’s no quality control of app content – yet.
Apple approve apps for the App Store provided they function as specified by the developer. But Apple make no warranties for the validity of the content contained within an app. So can a health professional be confident that a particular app is fit for purpose? Is an app for medical use subject to regulatory approval? The FDA are believed to actively monitor apps sold in the USA but the position in the UK is even less clear.
3. Classification is at best superficial – and at worst misleading
In some ways the mechanics of the Apple App Store further compound the problem. Apps can be categorised into 20 genres, although some carry multiple labels. At first inspection the most relevant categories for health professionals are “Medical” and “Health & Fitness” genres. But on closer inspection these categories contain a mish-mash of apps that range from novelty/entertainment purposes through to authoritative reference texts. Only in the App Store would you find Massage Skills Pro sharing the Medical best-seller list with the British National Formulary (BNF) and the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine (OHCM).
4. Anyone can write a review – but that’s also a problem
Another potential source of useful information on whether to buy an app or not are the reviews written about it. Anyone who buys an app can rate it between 1 and 5 and provide a short text commentary which are displayed on the App Store for potential buyers to read. Which is fine, apart from the fact that anyone can write a review. It is believed that top developers pay people to buy their app and write a favourable review to help drive up purchases. If you are a health professional, can you trust an anonymous review not knowing whether the individual is a qualified medical practitioner, a lay person or an imposter?
5. But perhaps the biggest challenge is this:
Popular is not synonymous with Useful
The real issue however with the App Store is the ranking algorithm. Most apps are downloaded because they are found in the most downloaded/highest earning lists, either overall, or by category. Requirements to make the top list clearly vary depending on the popularity of the category. And there are ways you can game the algorithm, e.g. by having regular updates, which inflate the download count. But the challenges is this: as a developer, if you’re app isn’t popular because it serves a particular niche, your professional, useful app may never reach the end users you had in mind. And as an end user, you’ll probably never find it amongst the thousands of apps competing for your attention.