Is There An App For That?

Am I the only person to find Apple’s App Stores impossible to search usefully?

There are times when I feel like someone walking around a nightmare totalitarian supermarket, full of products with near-identical labels like ‘Red Fruit’ and ‘Cereal’.

Each time I look for an app, I find several contenders, but no means of telling them apart without buying them. For instance, I had a project running that needed me to strip the (Unicode) text content from the bodies of PDF documents. Unfortunately Adobe Acrobat Pro X had an infuriating bug in its Save As Text feature that often mistook the last page of text for the caption to an illustration, so truncating many of the text files that I created.

Search the (Mac) App Store for ‘pdf text extractor’ and you are presented with five apps that all claim to do this, ranging in price from £3.99 to £22.99. None of these have star ratings, but even if they did it would not be particularly helpful, as others may not have tried a similar task with them.

As a result, I just plugged on with Acrobat Pro and lost a proportion of each document.

Before the App Store, you could at least download and try the great majority of products before forking out for them. As you can preview audio tracks and view movie trailers in the main iTunes Store, there should at least be some way of getting a better idea as to whether key features of an app work before parting with your money. Indeed discovering which applications support a given feature is tough enough.

For a while I have wanted to find a tool that will search across folders full of text files and report their individual and aggregate word counts. The first is one of the most potent and least promoted features of BBEdit, something that I only stumbled across when playing with its intricate powers of search. But the second does not appear to be a standard feature of any current app, and something that I will clearly have to script for myself.

Those who work with numbers have a solution that I would like to propose for more general use: an ontologic index of techniques. GAMS, the Guide to Available Mathematical Software or GAMS, is an extraordinary cross-index of numerical routines, modules, and applications that can tackle almost any conceivable mathematical problem.

The time has come for a more general index that lists all the products capable of converting PDF to text, whether they can do so on body content, which apps can search folders full of text, those capable of editing long XML documents, correcting photos for optical aberration, and so on.

Several compilations of product information have attempted this in the past, and Apple used to maintain an impressively comprehensive listing by category; sadly that disappeared some time ago. Remaining third-party sites are either too crude in detail, or like Wikipedia are patchy in coverage and not systematic.

Product reviews, a strength of MacUser’s former site, are a good start, but no single publication – not even the insomniac workaholic reviewers who used to write for MacUser – can hope to keep pace with the stream of products arriving each week.

Whoever is going to develop Macappology should not even need a business plan. After all many of our most popular, successful, and now valuable websites seem to have done perfectly well without any obvious means of generating ample income. I have just two small requests: a small acknowledgement for the idea, and that it is not funded by product advertising.

Are there any takers?

Updated hardly at all, from the original which was first published in MacUser volume 28 issue 19, 2012. Still no takers, I am afraid.