App Store sorting by ‘Release Date’

Written by David Frampton @ 7:10 am, April 19, 2009

UPDATE – Nov 8th 2009 – Apple has now changed the sorting to the extent that most of this is (thankfully) not true anymore.

In iTunes, and in the iPhone App Store application, there are easily accessible ways of sorting the apps in various categories by ‘Release Date’.

The resulting list is completely broken. It’s useless for app downloaders, and frustrating for developers.

Let me explain.

From an App Store user’s perspective, a recent apps list should contain recent apps, ordered by release date. The best situation would be a twitter-like experience where every refresh reveals what is new.

From a developer’s perspective, the ‘release date’ list influences sales a lot, and trust me, any amount of time on the front page can double sales, or more. Developers love to be at the top of this list.

And here is the problem. The vast majority of apps never show up anywhere near the top of this list.

The first issue is that each day’s apps are listed alphabetically. So every time a new app or two show up in the most recent list, they appear after all of the apps that start with a letter earlier in the alphabet for that day. An app named Zen Tennis will probably never see the top of the list.

So already, an app may debut at #15 in the most recent list, but it gets worse.

The update interval for the recent lists varies from a few hours to a few days. Many applications show up at once in these bulk updates. So if an app is submitted just before a multiple day glut in updates, it can show up over a hundred places down, and never see the light of day.

I could stop here. Clearly the most-recent list is already just a random collection of apps released over the past few days, but it gets worse.

Developers have huge difficulty in making their app appear with today’s date, and not some date in the past. It is impossible to decide on a date in the future that an app appears, and still have it show up at the top of the most-recent list. In an FAQ Apple define the release date that is configurable by developers in iTunes Connect as:

The “Released” date is currently determined by the date of the app’s approval by Apple and the date that the developer has listed for the app’s availability within iTunes Connect, whichever is earlier.

The system works exactly as Apple have stated. So if an availability date is set, it means nothing. That is until the app is approved, and then it means the app’s release date is set to whatever the¬†availability¬†date was set to… That is, as long as the availability date was before the date the app was approved, otherwise it means nothing.

Confusing? Yeah.

But the end result is, if a developer sets an app’s availability date in iTunes Connect to some time after when the app is eventually approved, it will not show up until that availability date. The app will eventually show up well down the most recent list with a release date of when Apple approved it.

On the other hand, if a developer sets the availability date in iTunes Connect to some time before the approval date, it will show up as soon as it is approved. But it will show up with the set availability date, some time before approval. It will show up well down the most recent list.

And the clincher? Developers have no idea when Apple might approve their app.

So there is no way a developer can decide a release date, and have it show up near the top of the most recent list unless….

… they use the loophole. When an app is approved by Apple, an email is sent, just before it appears in the App Store. As long as the developer stays awake 24 hours a day, they can rush in to iTunes Connect on receipt of this email, and change the availability date to today. This is how anything younger than a few days old ever shows up in the most recent list.

OK, so there is a fun game where developers play iTunes Connect tag (while sleeping), and a big part of the App Store search system that is useless for people trying to find apps. But there is one last problem.

When a developer tries to set the release date of an upgrade of their app to some time in the future, their current version DISAPPEARS FROM THE STORE. Yes, watch out for that developers, there is only one release date for all versions, and if it’s in the future, no sales today. I see this happen all the time, and it cost me hundreds of sales when I tried. Developers have no control over when updates appear, and if they try? No sales for you!

iTunes Connect is a scary place.

In summary, the ‘Release Date’ lists and ‘Availability Date’ settings are useless, and have been for some time now. Come on Apple, fix it for all of us.