App discovery is a zero-sum game

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How do you find new apps to download for your devices? Many developers seem to be banking on the fact that users are willing to turn to apps to find other apps. A recent rash of app discovery tools available for iOS devices (including one out of left field from Yahoo) definitely identifies a problem, but I’m not sure it provides any real lasting solutions.

Last week, Kevin covered the new Yahoo app discovery tool. He found that it worked only as well as (or worse) than the App Store itself, and while it might appeal to Android users because the Google marketplace is a little more discovery-challenged, it seems like a longshot for wide-ranging iOS user adoption.

Yahoo isn’t the first to attempt to navigate app discovery, and it won’t be the last. Appsfire has attracted users and investment based on its ability to recommend apps based on a user’s interests. Chomp and Quixey, and Zwapp are three other solutions we’ve talked about at GigaOM in the past. Discovr Apps, from the makers of Discovr Music, recently garnered a lot of press and success on the iTunes charts by offering what the company calls a “Pandora for apps,” which provides recommendations based on connections and similarities between apps and presents them as visual networks using app icons. Explor (vowels and discovery don’t mix, apparently) is another recent entrant, described by its developer as “Netflix for apps,” which stems from a machine learning Y-Combinator startup and has managed to raise 1.2 million to date.

All of these offerings take a slightly different approach to app discovery, and I won’t deny that the tech behind each is interesting. But in terms of providing something markedly better than the App Store’s own discovery tools, including search, charts and the Genius recommendation feature, I’m not blown away by any. I noted in an article a while ago that a tech demo built by Hunch was one of the better recommendation tools I’d come across for iOS software, and I stand by that. But even then, I’m not firing up the Hunch engine whenever I feel like buying an app.

Have I found apps using app discovery tools? Yes, but generally not more than one or two, and then these apps join the long list of those that either get deleted or moved to a seldom-checked folder, simply because its much easier to use the App Store itself, and any benefit that other services might offer is outweighed by inconvenience. Especially since Apple seems to be committed to improving the discoverability of its growing library of apps through measures like rejiggered chart rankings.

App discovery has potential, since a library that’s 400,000 strong is ripe for intelligent sifting, but to really have a noteworthy and lasting impact in this space, developers have to fight against the natural instincts of consumers to just go with what’s easiest. And in order to do that, they have to present us with an option that dramatically changes the game. Do you think anyone’s already there yet, and do you consistently use any app discovery tool besides the ones built-in to the stores themselves?

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