We all like to feel like we’ve got options. But being offered a choice, whether of the apps we use or the TV we watch, isn’t always a good thing.
More than two decades ago comedians Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry skewered the fallacy that the more choices we have, the better: a sketch by the pair shows a restaurant diner reacting angrily when his silver cutlery is replaced with hundreds of plastic coffee stirrers, all in the name of giving him more choice.
Search for a popular app on the Windows Store today and this experience of sifting through myriad low-quality and borderline useless offerings will likely feel familiar.
Take the media player VLC. Look it up and you’ll be presented with not only the Windows 8 app itself, but a host of pretenders, all using icons that echo the real product’s. In many cases, these imitators are nothing more than “guides” to the app’s features or how to install it. Worse, many of these non-apps actually cost money to download.
Now Microsoft says it’s planning to remove these copycat apps from the Windows Store, eliminating apps that reuse icons from popular software and that “are priced significantly higher than other apps in their category”.
The problem is Microsoft has been here before. In August last year, Microsoft announced it was “addressing misleading apps” by changing its apps certification process to require icons to be “differentiated to avoid being mistaken with others”. Yet, nearly a year later, the icons for all those VLC hanger-ons look pretty similar.
To be fair to Microsoft, its latest set of Windows Store changes seem to go further than last year’s. Its most recent guidance states that guides and the like must be easily identified so “customers don’t accidentally purchase an informational app when they intended to purchase a functional app”, as well as promising to target the near-identical icons that apps use to confuse users today and to remove apps that offer nothing new over existing software.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the Windows Store isn’t the prevalence of substandard apps, but the absence of the big names.
If an official Gmail app were available on the Windows Store then it would likely stand out from the copycats. Imposter apps would find it far harder to get a look-in if the official Google app were plain to see at the head of the results. As it is, a search for Gmail from a Windows desktop produces a page full of apps that certainly look like Gmail and promise some of the functionality you’d expect, but which are of unknown origin and vastly-differing quality.
The longer Windows Store lacks the marquee titles found on other platforms, the Pintrests and the Spotifys, the more opportunity it presents for other software to masquerade as official offerings. And, while the big names are missing, Microsoft can’t crack down too hard on third-party crapware for fear of accidentally removing access to popular services altogether.
Of course, Microsoft is well-aware of the need to attract more developers to Windows, as evidenced by moves to make it easier to port iOS and Android software to its Universal Windows Platform.
But Microsoft needs developers to bring the biggest apps to Windows Store if it is to get on top of the many imposters. The Windows shop front needs more handplated-silver knives to stand out from all those plastic coffee stirrers.