GCN LAB IMPRESSIONS

Are some App Store apps rotten to the core?

Chinese developer games Apple's App Store feedback system to falsely boost ratings

The big news this week in applications is that Apple purged 1,000 apps from its App Store. According to CNN, this represents about 1 percent of all the applications that are available for the iPhone.

According to Apple, the problem was that a Chinese developer called Molinker was gaming the feedback system set up by the Apple store. Molinker allegedly was paying customers to write five-star reviews in return for free applications. This resulted in a slew of poorly written reviews with five stars and perhaps one or two single-star reviews that actually gave realistic feedback about the products, which many say were either substandard or outright copies of other applications.

Apple says it fixed the problem by expelling all 1,000 applications that Molinka produced. But what does that really fix? Getting a refund from a Chinese developer if you bought one of these apps is probably going to be next to impossible. With no real enforcement, they won’t be in a hurry to write a check. And the next time the Apple operating system  upgrades, it’s very likely that the apps in question will stop working. Nor will this do anything for all the customers who thought they were buying a five-star app based on store reviews, only to find a single-star dud once it was installed.

Recently I’ve written a lot about the Droid phone, and the fact that it has a ton of open-source applications that don’t require you to go through a specific store to get them like you do with Apple.

A few people have written to me to say that I am prejudiced against Apple, and that the Apple store is a great protection against scam apps. And to them I have to say: You are right, about the store part anyway (I don’t actually have anything at all against Apple and in fact admire many of their products). But this Molinker situation shows that Apple is not doing its job in testing and scanning applications before they go up for sale. If they had done so, wouldn’t at least some of the 1,000-plus Molinker scam apps gotten caught before a customer noticed that something didn’t quite smell right? Some of the Molinker apps even made it into the Staff Favorites part of the store. One has to wonder if anyone on staff really supported them, or if they were just automatically moved there because of all the bogus good reviews they were getting.

I do think that open source is better than a tightly controlled system monitored by a corporation, which is why I think Droid will overtake the iPhone eventually. But the Apple model has some advantages — namely, protecting users from bad applications. I would have expected something like this bad situation to happen to the Droid, which has no traffic cops, but not to the iPhone. The bottom line is that a lot of people were apparently asleep at the wheel at Apple, and with a new robust competitor in the market, that can’t happen for much longer if they plan to stay top dog. I’ve seen it a million times. Companies that have blazing highs can also have crippling lows, and the swings happen incredibly fast.

My advice to Apple is to play up on its strengths. If you are going to have a controlled store, then actually control it. Like we say in the GCN Lab, there is no substitute for hardcore testing. Sure it takes time, expertise and a lot of work, but the alternative is something like what happened with Molinker. And the Droid will be waiting in the wings to take advantage of this and every future slipup.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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