Thursday, March 14, 2013

Apple's Newsstand attracts sharks as the app review team appears to have gone missing

If the mobile platform wars were real wars I sometimes wonder if Apple's iTunes team has been infiltrated by double agents working for Google and Amazon. iTunes itself remains a horribly buggy, slow mess of a software program and the App Store looks like it has been designed to make it impossible to find anything. If Apple is winning the platform war I'd hate to see what the loser looks like.

As someone who looks at new mobile and tablet apps on a daily basis entering iTunes is like entering a minefield. Everywhere one looks there are apps of origins and motives that appear less than honorable. The Newsstand is so filled with publications now, with about a dozen new ones appearing every weekday, that finding something to read has gone from ridiculously easy to quite a chore.

For every Paperweight Magazine, a new digital humor magazine that wants to create an interactive experience using a native publishing solution, there are the replica editions that so many publisher's love because the price to launch is next to nothing and the vendor promises a few pennies of revenue in return.

But I don't begrudge Apple for these apps: one group is trying to embrace the new digital publishing platforms, while the other is trying to make a buck (and probably hates everything about digital media).

The real problem lies with those new apps that are leftover: a collection of odd looking titles that come from sources that appear less than honorable. How does a reader tell if what is to be found inside is worth paying for, and how can one trust those reviews found inside the App Store?

Of the latest 100 app editions released inside Apple's Newsstand only a few originate from recognizable publishers. Even titles like Men's Health are from the international publishers of the title and have the name of the replica edition vendor slapped on it. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that many of the big U.S. consumer titles launched apps long ago, leaving only the international versions and other more obscure titles to now appear.

Then, sprinkled in, are the more worrisome new launches. Oh! Yeah! Black comes from Dmitry Nikolin and has a companion title Magazine "Oh! Yeah!" which bares the promo line "Oral Sex" on the cover.

Then there is Magazine "Pick upHD" from Sergey Rudnev, a seller who has lots of other "magazines" in the Newsstand such as Magazine 'Gun' and Magazine 'Father'.

Amazingly some of these magazine apps have reviews, including five-star reviews, such as the one from "Britanny" who says the skin magazine "Oh! Yeah"" is "a must have." A look at the three other reviews "Brittany" has written show that they also are five-star reviews and are for equally obscure apps.

These apps, one would think, would not have gone unnoticed by the Apple app review team, but here they are, filling out the Newsstand.

But what to make of new digital magazine titles with reasonable sounding names – you know, with the word "magazine" appears at the end of the title, not at the beginning.

Take a look at the three new digital magazine apps from JLynnApps. There are three new tablet magazine inside the Newsstand with logical titles: Got A Job Magazine, Create A Website In 7min and Live Organic Magazine. Each title feels a bit odd to me, like they come from someone with a better, but still imperfect grasp of English.

The first tablet magazine actually charges $0.99 for the app, a rare example of a magazine app that is paid. This title was launched two weeks ago and already has 19 reviews – every one of them a five-star review. And guess what? All 19 were written reviews. That's right, every single person who rated the app wrote a review – and all of them were written on January 30 or 31. 19 reviews in two days, and none since. What are the odds?

The newest app already has six 5-star reviews, and it has just launched. I don't think Wired or The New Yorker ever was a popular tablet edition as Create A Website in 7min is proving to be. Maybe they would consider buying the Time Inc. titles.

The tipoff, in the case of JLynnApps, is that the rest of the company's apps are games or utilities. Magazine publishers and digital publishing vendors don't normally get involved with game apps or other software.

If it is so easy to see what is going on in the Newsstand why doesn't Apple see it? Do they care? Or are they, in reality, in on the scam? You would think not, but as time goes by it is harder and harder to give the company the benefit of the doubt. Developers have been complaining about Apple's search mechanism and its iTunes store design for so long that many now feel that the game is being rigged against them. Others simply believe Apple is too big to care about hundreds of dollars worth of sales when the quarterly goals are now so high and even record sales and profits can't placate Wall Street. The result is an App Store that reveals Capitalism at its most ugly self.