Imagine if, in the iTunes Store, reviews for "The Dark Knight," the acclaimed latest installment of the Batman series, were diluted with complaints about the widely panned 1997 "Batman and Robin." It would be wildly confusing and annoying - sure, both movies have the Batmobile, the Batcave, and Batman himself, but they're completely different films. While no analogy is perfect, I think you can see what I'm getting at.
Until now, the iPhone App Store lacked a way for reviewers to distinguish between which version of an app they were reviewing. Thus, developers were continually punished for previous bugs or mistakes, even after correcting them in subsequent versions. With the updated review policy, customers are presented with two different sets of user reviews: Reviews for the Current Version, and Reviews for All Versions.
Presumably, once an app is updated, the reviews and ratings for the formerly current version will be integrated into the reviews and ratings for all versions. That will likely make it impossible to compare the new version with the immediately preceding version. While that might have been handy in some cases, it's mostly irrelevant, since you can only purchase the latest version anyway.
The change has been generally well-received by iPhone developers. Shane Crawford of Alta Vida, developer of the Babelingo translation app, said, "I think that the changes linking a review to an app version as well as a date are long overdue. Those are great changes." However, Crawford was less certain about the way the App Store obscures the average star rating for previous versions.
David Sinclair of Dejal Systems, developer of the SmileDial visual dialing app, called the change "a most welcome enhancement," and went on to say, "Often, reviews mention deficiencies that are addressed in subsequent versions, but without a version number (and to a lesser extent, a date), potential customers have no real way of knowing if that comment is still relevant."
Another small update to the App Store is the capability to sort reviews by Most Helpful, Most Favorable, Most Critical, and Most Recent. This brings the App Store into line with other online stores such as Amazon.com, which give customers greater control when sifting through reviews. Amazon still has an edge here, enabling customers to view the Most Helpful Favorable and Most Helpful Critical reviews in a side-by-side comparison. Apple might think about extending this same functionality to the App Store.
Shane Crawford also suggested that Apple consider removing the prompt to review an app when the user deletes it, since that's a point at which most users are thinking negatively. Adam Talcott of Atomic Powered, developer of the Napkin Genius sketching app, echoed this sentiment, saying, "What I'd really like to see Apple focus on is making it easier for users to rate applications they like and not just those they delete."
Since the review-on-removal prompt surveys a biased population, Apple should work on ways to prevent the data from being skewed in this manner. One solution would be simply to remove the prompt, but a more constructive approach might involve creating a time- or activation-based request-for-review prompt for those continuing to use an app over the long term. Either way, it's an issue on developers' minds - and one which Apple should find a way of addressing.
This isn't the first time Apple has taken steps to improve the App Store's review process and policy. In September 2008, Apple began requiring that App Store reviewers had actually downloaded the application they sought to evaluate, in an attempt to prevent trash talk reviews (see "Apple Changes App Store Customer Review Policy," 2008-10-07). Apple took another major step towards cleaning up the review sections when it removed all of the remaining non-customer reviews a few weeks ago, effectively lowering review counts for most apps, but also often resulting in higher average ratings.
As we've noted recently (see "High App Spending Points to iPhone Lock-in," 2009-03-06), it truly is in Apple's best interest to improve the health of the App Store, and implicit in that is ensuring that the review process reflects consumer opinion as clearly as possible. The decision to distinguish between reviews of different versions is thus a smart move in the right direction.