Apple tightens its grip on the App Store with iOS 6 – is mobile’s discovery problem now even worse?

Apple’s digital shopfront has undergone more than a simple facelift with the arrival of iPhone 5 and iOS 6. In the new App Store we can see the Cupertino giant taking a greater interest in content curation, keener than ever to hand-pick its highlights.

On iPhone and iPad, the much-discussed removal of the Release Date tab on iPhone, plus the way search results are displayed, has prompted fears that discovery is getting worse. But that tab was once just an unexpurgated view of hundreds of bad apps going live every day; This update feels like a silent nod to the damage a bad experience can do to consumer confidence.

Though it might not please developers, it seems Apple is tweaking the design of its storefront to subtly increase the extent to which it can select and promote good quality apps, minimising the risk of disappointment. If we only download quality apps, surely we become more and more inclined to buy more of them. A good thing for buyers, sure, but not so much for smaller developers desperately fighting for attention.

Getting listed in New & Noteworthy was already incredibly powerful. On the new App Store, that is amplified further still. “I do fear that discoverability is going to become harder for apps that are not noticed or helped by Apple,” says CEO and founder of Plague Inc developer Ndemic Creations, James Vaughan. “Some apps will be lucky and rise to the top of the charts without any involvement from Apple, but being featured keeps getting more and more important.”

Blitz Games Studios’ iOS project director Steve Stopps contends, however, that developers shouldn’t rely on Apple to promote their apps. “I understand their concerns, but am not sure how much this will really affect discoverability,” he tells us. “In my experience, most consumers buy from Apple’s featured [section], from the charts, or are searching for something specific, normally through a word of mouth recommendation.

CEO and founder of Plague Inc developer Ndemic Creations James Vaughan (left), and Blitz Games Studios’ iOS project director Steve Stopps

“I think the days of large numbers of people just stumbling upon your app are long gone. We need to realise that it is our job to make sure people know about, and are actively looking for, our games.”

Apple’s new App Store interface may have caused discontent from some, but its updated SDK hasn’t. “There are some great features around Game Centre and Facebook that make social game development easier and in many ways more flexible and exciting,” says Stopps. “We are just scratching the surface of what is possible. The SDK handles the screen size change between apps seamlessly, and the increases in power and resolution of the latest iOS devices is really exciting.”

Ndemic Creations’ James Vaughan agrees, but wants even greater control over how iOS devices work. “I think that Apple has handled the new screen size well, ensuring that older apps are not negatively impacted by it,” he tells us. “I wish that Apple would push the boat out and open up access to some of the deeper iPhone functionality, though. Developers could do so many cool things with it. For example, Swype is a fantastic keyboard replacement app which I use on my Android devices – I really, really wish I could have it on my iPhone as well.”

Apple’s biggest problem? Living up to lofty media and public expectations, adds Stopps. “They have done such a great job of combining outstanding product design with near faultless usability that they have little room for improvement. As we have seen with the App Store, some people will react quite negatively to even relatively minor change. There will always be people who expect more from an update.”

If Apple is moving into a more carefully curated App Store, then those tales of one-man dev teams, shoestring budgets and overnight success – epitomised by Ndemic’s Plague Inc – will come to an end. It might become slicker and better quality, but if Apple’s marketplace becomes too sanitised and too selective, it risks becoming a little less open and exciting too.