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Bye, bye Apple. Now Facebook's the global app kingmaker

Zuck's lot will sift the gold from the mud... bitch

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Analysis Facebook is helping Apple to solve the biggest problem facing mobile app stores: sorting through the quagmire of mediocrity endemic in the industry. But more importantly Facebook has found a way to turn mobile punters into profit.

The Facebook App Center (launched last week) isn't just about mobile apps, it's also a place where fans of web games such as Bubble Witch Saga can find out where their friends have gone (over to Candy Crush Saga, as it happens). Apple's decision to embed Facebook recommendations into its on-device store with iOS 6 shows Cupertino recognises that it can't fix its moribund application store on its own.

The existing discovery mechanism for mobile applications - searching and picking from the top ten - results in a starkly polarised marketplace where a handful of programs make millions while half a million make nothing at all.

"We estimate that up to two-thirds of the apps in leading consumer app store catalogues receive fewer than 1,000 downloads in their first year," states industry analyst Canalys in its latest report. "A significant proportion of those get none at all."

That's nothing new: the top-ten lists rapidly become self sustaining as few of those browsing go beyond the first page. Canalys spent 16 weeks monitoring the top 100 lists on Google Play and the iTunes app store, and discovered that around half of the titles remained on the list for the whole period - showing how popularity sustains popularity.

But alternative discovery mechanisms are hard to come by: Android's open nature was supposed to spawn specialist app stores, focusing on quality or a particular type of app, but the fragmentation of the Symbian app stores and the need to compete with Apple by numbers convinced the industry that handing Google Play a near monopoly was a price worth paying, for a while at least.

The likes of SlideMe, AppBrain and GetJar do compete with Google Play, just about, but only Amazon can offer anything new in terms of application discovery thanks to its cross-selling engine (aka "customers who bought x also bought y"). Google would, no doubt, like to mine Google+ for such data, but a dearth of activity on Google+ leaves little worth mining, so the market is open and ready for Facebook to step in.

Facebook, led by Web 2.0 adman Mark Zuckerberg, isn't making any money out of mobile app recommendations, not yet at least. However, developers will pay for access to users who "Like" related apps and the competitors who made them. Apple's new iOS lets a punter punch the "Like" button from within an application, without requiring a separate login, which is going to help Facebook build up a lot more data.

For Android apps, Zuck's social networking giant could decide to acquire AppBrain or similar down the line to cut Google out completely, but there's really little reason to bother - let Google and Apple run the backends for their thirty per cent cut while Facebook makes money from the advertising and recommendations.

Even without Apple's endorsement the Facebook App Center would still have been important, but with Apple effectively abandoning the whole application-recommendation business to Facebook it's going to become central to how mobile applications are bought and sold, for better or worse. ®

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