The App Store gold rush is over as zombies take over the farm

August 28, 2013 8:14 AM EDT

When it comes to mobile apps on Apple [AAPL] or any other platform, the shake down has begun: it's time developers got professional before App Store providers begin to kick them out.

[ABOVE: Back in the beginning...]

Zombie apps are everywhere

The problem we have today is the existence of thousands of apps which are never updated, apps which confuse customers and get in the way of the app discovery process.

It's inevitable I guess. After all, App development is still new: It was only in 2008 Apple launched its own App Store, with other mobile platforms running into the space soon after. At first App development was the new Wild West, developers large and small ran into the new frontier to stake a claim, generating a wave of apps, some good, some bad, some downright dreadful.

Thousands of apps were created before larger developers chose to join in; fortunes were won and lost; imitators imitated and the world ended up downloading Facebook, Angry Birds and Dropbox.

Eventually some developers became disillusioned. Sure, some made money but many did not. They moved on, but their apps didn't.

Destined never again to be updated the apps remain available via various virtual app stores, kind of like abandoned mining towns in a wasteland of digital expectation.

The digital dustbowl that sits at the heart of the app store experience is a problem. The Wild West is still untamed, but for many developers those golden nuggets never transpired, leaving a hopeless trail of abandoned apps as relics of their abandoned 'Get Rich Quick' schemes.

After the gold rush

Some may say I'm sounding a little melodramatic. Some may argue that the majority of developers are doing OK. Some may even believe that those apps which are made available via these App Stores are bound to be actively maintained, or they wouldn't be made available online.

That’s not what the evidence says. Take this recent survey from mobile testing service, StarDust, which claims an astonishing 700,000 of the 1.2 million apps available for iOS, Android and Windows are dead. These apps are not curated or maintained, many have never been updated.

It's a fault in app store marketing, I suppose. The drive to proclaim supremacy by declaring the number of apps available on a platform means Apple, Google and Microsoft all want the apps, but don't do the pruning.

Here are the stats:

  • Dead apps on the Apple App Store             65 percent of 617,436
  • Dead apps on Google Play                           41 percent of 484,271
  • Dead apps on WindowsPhone Market       69 percent

[ABOVE: A detail from a StarDust infographic -- see the whole thing here.]

Corrective procedures

This makes me think two things:

First: You should consider these dead apps as a potential security risk if they are installed on your device. It seems clear to me that a lack of updates may be an opportunity for hackers to figure out how to use these apps within an attack. I'm sure that's a challenge, but I submit that it's irresponsible to offer these abandoned apps for sale without at least making it clear that the original developer is no longer committed to supporting them.

Second: Developers on every platform are infuriated by the difficulty of app discovery on mobile devices. Most say that if their apps aren't among the top twenty sold on a platform, then app sales become increasingly insignificant. It seems crystal clear to me that these dead apps get in the way of app discovery.

How much easier would it be to find a good app on Apple's App Store if the 65 percent of dead apps that currently reside there were no longer in the way? While it is true that apps listings do eventually expire, it's clear the expiration process needs tweaking.

"Each day, 2,371 applications averagely are published, with almost half of them on Android (47 per cent). 41 per cent of them are launched for iOS and only 12 per cent of them are for Windows Phone. It seems according to the study that publishers still prefer to join Apple’s developer program. The total publishers on their App Store are 167,156, with 90 new who publish daily. In comparison, only 75 developers would publish an app on Google Play every day and 34 -- on Windows Phone Marketplace," according to the report.

While app store owners do take steps to discourage these dead apps, it's clearly time to end the numbers game. Apple and Google should stop preaching how many apps (dead or alive) they offer and instead focus to how many active apps they have available.

App stores should also make information concerning how active developers are more easily available. Another step that might work is to make a clearer separation between these dead apps and active ones.

Developers, developers, developers

Those developers who do show commitment deserve to be rewarded. Making active apps easier to find should improve app discovery, which should also improve sales, generating more income for successful developers, while improving the plight of less successful souls.

One thing the report does prove: Apple remains the first choice platform for developers, who know around half of all paid apps are purchased there; in contrast to 32 percent of all paid apps purchased on Android and the minority share Windows enjoys.

At present, however, the app stores have a dust bowl at their center, to the detriment of customers, developers and the stores themselves. Apple, Google and Microsoft should probably sort this problem out.

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