Apple steps up app search efforts

Apple has stepped up its efforts to tackle a significant problem for both users and developers of the 550,000 apps available for iPhone and iPad that will be familiar to customers of satellite TV: too much choice.

The California-based technology firm has acquired Chomp, a search engine start-up which launched in 2010 to help people discover new and interesting applications, or apps.

“Discovering apps in a catalogue of more than 500,000 apps – and growing – is a challenge for many consumers,” said Thomas Husson, mobile analyst at Forrester Research. “Apple was until now not doing a good job at this.”

The move comes as Apple nears 25bn total downloads of apps on its iOS platform, up from 18bn in October, with Google’s rival Android catching up fast with around 1bn downloads a month.

Apps are seen as vital in consumers’ smartphone purchasing decisions.

Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis said that Apple needed to maintain its position as the most lucrative platform for developers to ensure that more of the hottest new apps appear on the iPhone first. This in turn bolsters Apple’s ability to sell handsets at almost twice the price of an average Android device.

Chomp groups apps by theme – such as “live sports” – and also provides personalised recommendations. Its algorithm learns what apps do, rather than just using their names, to allow easier browsing. Apple already has its own personalisation technology, Genius, but the acquisition of Chomp has been seen as an admission that it needed improvement.

The start-up’s team of professors and PhDs from Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton universities have already begun work at Apple after what Bloomberg reported was a $50m acquisition.

Apple would not comment on the price of the acquisition.

Apple itself handpicks around 40 apps to showcase on the App Store’s homepage, which can be akin to winning the lottery for lucky developers who gain huge exposure to prospective customers.

“Apple’s curated feature list is sacred to developers and has fostered the rapid growth of many unknown applications into well-known favourites,” said Nick D’Aloisio, developer of Summly, a recent “App of the Week” which automatically summarises web pages.

However, unless they are picked out from the crowd or invest substantially in advertising to reach the top of the App Store charts, a large number of apps languish undiscovered – prompting complaints from some developers about the lack of ways to publicise new releases.

In desperation to reach the top of the charts – where successful apps such as WhatsAapp Messenger have taken up semi-permanent residence for months on end – some developers have turned to underhand means to artificially boost rankings.

Earlier this month, Apple posted a warning that developers found to be manipulating chart rankings or hiring shady “marketing” firms could be kicked off its App Store.

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