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Lost in a sea of 'crapware'

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The iTunes App Store may be the iPhone's killer app, as USA Today and others have claimed, but its home - the online mega-mall iTunes Store - has hit a few bumps as of late.

First, there were reports yesterday from ipodnn and a few friends of The Reg that the iTunes Store has been hit with slowdowns and outages. While all seems to be copacetic today, and while a few bumps and grinds are to be forgiven during the Season of Shopping, the glory of the Store is its instant gratification - click'n'get, as it were. Any slippage on the "instant" part of that promise should be cause for concern in the halls of One Infinite Loop.

More troubling for the guardians of the Store, however, should be the growing resentment among iPhone app developers. In a widely circulated "Dear Steve" open letter, Craig Hockenberry, Principal and Engineer of Iconfactory, spoke for what The Reg assumes are many iPhone-app developers when he wrote, "I’m starting to see a trend that concerns me: developers are lowering prices to the lowest possible level in order to get favorable placement in iTunes. This proliferation of 99¢ 'ringtone apps' is affecting our product development."

Hockenberry goes on to say, "I also worry that this low price point for applications is going to limit innovation on the platform. Sure, apps like Ocarina and Koi Pond are very cool and very cheap. But when are we going to see the utility of the platform taken to another level, like when spreadsheets appeared on the Apple ][ and desktop publishing appeared on the Mac?"

He has a point. A good point. According to research published on Charles Teague's DragonStyle, a steaming heap of $0.99 iPhone applications - what Hockenberry refers to as "ringtone apps" - outnumbers even the over 2000 free apps available on the App Store. As Hockenberry argues, developers simply can't afford to develop complex, genre-changing apps if such apps are never even seen - let alone demoed - by potential customers due to the high App-Store ranking of el cheapo ringtone apps.

Even Edible Apple, which recently published an article based on Teague's numbers that detailed how "The iTunes App store is thriving," also recently published a follow-up that decries the Store's infestation by aptly named "crapware," saltily defined as "Shitty software with limited functionality that doesn’t perform as advertised."

Philip Elmer-DeWitt, a long-time Apple observer now blogging for Fortune, seems to agree with Hockenberry's analysis when he writes, "...the business model that nurtured [the App Store's] success now threatens to choke off the programming talent that sustained it." Developer David Barnard added to the discussion with a thoughtful analysis of the "Financial Realities of the App Store."

Apple, for its part, appears to have listened to Hockenberry. Today, as pointed out by AppleInsider, Apple changed the way apps are offered in the Store, using a new layout "aimed at showcasing a broader range of top offerings in each category."

One thing is certain, however - and it's a lesson that has been painfully learned by anyone who has designed and implemented an etail site: As traffic grows and as offerings multiply, an architecture that looked thoroughly reasonable upon inception will seem, in hindsight, to have been designed by a halfwit.

Admit it - it's happened to you. And if it hasn't, there can only be one of two reasons: 1) you're an exceptionally brilliant information architect, or 2) your etail presence is dead in the water. ®

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