The rise of the mobile app has been a swift and meteoric one, with the concentrated nuggets of software now providing a major part of the smartphone experience. Starting with a humble 500 apps in July 2008, the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPod Touch has gone on to provide a blueprint for how to market and distribute applications across a mobile platform.
Following the Cupertino company’s lead, Android, BlackBerry and eventually Windows all followed suit with their own digital storefronts with which to provide users with a dizzying array of apps to aid everything from personal health to stock market analysis.
But which offers the overall best experience for the keen app user? We decided to take a look at what each had to offer in a number of key areas including store navigation, search options and app information. Due to the large proliferation of manufacturer-led app stores, Samsung Apps for example, we have stuck to the main OS app marketplaces, namely the Apple App Store, Google Play, Windows Phone Marketplace and BlackBerry App World.
Navigation and Design
With so many apps available the ability for a user to find their way around quickly and easily is absolutely paramount. Whether it is through minimalist design or intuitive menu options, the most successful app stores get users to what they want with little fuss and in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.
The Google Play front end uses the usual visual cues well known to fans of the Mountain View company, with bold text, large imagery and clever colour coding enticing the user further into the store.
Apps are arranged initially via staff recommendations, editor’s choice and games tabs. Users can then scroll across various categorisations such as ‘Top Free’, ‘Top Grossing’ and ‘Trending’. User ratings are displayed prominently making app choice easier and 14 apps are displayed per page meaning scanning through is not a laborious process.
Search is as good as we would expect from a Google service, with results provided swiftly and with minimum fuss.
Apple App Store
Unsurprisingly the Apple App Store is a more understated proposition than its Google equivalent, with a grey and blue colour scheme and the familiar Helvetica typeface dominating.
The storefront contains a number of featured apps with the option to check out ‘what’s hot’ along with various category tabs displayed at the bottom of the screen. Interestingly, the Genius function from iTunes is carried over which uses previous app purchases to offer a tailored list of recommendations for the user.
Search functionality is a straightforward affair, with searches being carried out efficiently and accurately.
Windows Phone Marketplace
Providing the last word in minimalist style, the Windows Phone Marketplace offers a totally unique user experience from the word go. With visuals that remain in line with the stunning Metro UI employed by Windows Phone, the app store flows beautifully from one menu to the next.
Unfortunately, for all its visual appeal the Marketplace is actually quite cumbersome due in large part to oversized text and large icons filling the screen. As such, users can easily become disorientated when browsing through the numerous menus.
Users can search easily thanks to the search icon positioned at the base of the screen whenever the store is open. Results are pulled through a little slowly, but overall the function works well enough.
BlackBerry App World
Despite being around for almost as long as both the Apple App Store and Google Play, BlackBerry App World feels like a much less advanced piece of software. Menu screens are text-based in the main, particularly when lists are involved, with visual stimulation limited to miniature icons.
Categories are split into the usual subsections, with uninspiring interfaces throughout. That said, the limited design flourish does mean that navigation is easy enough when browsing around the store.
Search is comfortingly easy to use, however, the aesthetic appeal is again somewhat less than impressive when compared to the other competitors here.
App Information and Download Process
Browsing and searching through apps is one thing, but what about information such as app description, user reviews and ratings? It’s also a key aspect as to whether the download process convoluted or simple? With the app count within the major stores now in six figures, finding information and downloading effortlessly is a major element of any application purchasing experience.
App descriptions with the Android platform are both in-depth and easy-to-scroll through, with screenshots, descriptions, customer reviews and ratings all easily accessible from the product page. Descriptions are informative and user reviews plentiful, providing the purchaser with a detailed outline of what to expect from the software.
Following initial registration the download process is a simple two-touch affair, with active downloads displayed in the notification bar featured on the Android OS, allowing users to navigate away from the store while still being able to keep an eye on the progress of the apps arrival.
Apple App Store
Much like Google, the Apple App Store provides a user friendly overall look at any selected app, complete with user reviews, ratings and screenshots. Descriptions are for the most part lengthy and detailed and App Support is also easily accessible from the purchase page.
The download steps are simple enough with just a few taps required after initial registration. One gripe that has been raised on several occasions is the fact that credit card information must be submitted even if the user only intends to purchase a free app. This is perhaps the only slight on an otherwise impeccable user experience.
Windows Phone Marketplace
The minimalist menus seen throughout the front end of the Windows Phone app store continue within each app description. Thankfully, the amount of screens to scroll across is kept to a minimum and full descriptions have been condensed to avoid information overload. Several screenshots are provided with each app and user ratings are plentiful, although more descriptive user reviews would be useful.
As usual, registration is required in order to download apps but the process is incredibly simple once signed-in. One impressive feature is the ability to try paid apps for a limited period before purchase, a feature that is particularly useful when considering buying a more expensive app.
BlackBerry App World
Despite the BlackBerry app store’s limited appeal when browsing, once an individual app is selected the process is an altogether smoother experience. Descriptions and user reviews are easily accessible and useful for potential purchasers, with screenshots also available under their own tab.
Download is a little on the slow side unless a strong Wi-Fi signal is available and downloads paused randomly on a number of occasions during our tests. That said, apps are easily accessible once downloaded, thanks to the dedicated Downloads tab within the home screen.
While the various operating systems might provide user experiences that are vastly different from one another, the app markets that each provide follow a broadly similar framework. Each offers comprehensive app descriptions and, on the whole, all of the stores provide a quick and easy way to access the world of the mobile application.
However, due in part to the mass of apps available and also thanks to the intuitive user interfaces, both Apple and Google provide, their respective app distribution services are streets ahead of the competition. Apple’s App Store excels simply by being incredibly simple to use and by allowing a huge breadth of choice without ever being overwhelming. The Android offering holds its particular strength by adding a vibrancy to the app purchasing process that is lacking elsewhere.
While the Windows and BlackBerry efforts are not without their strengths, they struggle to get anywhere near the innovative approach taken by both Apple and Google. That said, fans of the minimalist aesthetic will find much to like in the Microsoft offering.
Overall, the winners here, Apple’s App Store and Google Play, are the two current powerhouses of mobile, and as such cannot be beaten in their simple yet involving approach to app distribution.