Apple has been getting a lot of grief lately about the App Store. This post will do nothing to help that, because on top of its other problems, there's a fundamental interface design issue that is making app ratings useless.
Litman and I were in the pub comparing iPhone apps yesterday. Knowing that I am an obsessive user of Delicious, he showed me Red Delicious, which is far and away better than any of the free apps I had been tinkering with.
I went to the App Store on my phone to pick it up and noticed it was on a 3-star rating. This is not unusual for good apps. In my experience, very few break through the 4-star barrier. The excellent New York Times app is at a middling 3 1/2. So is Tweetie, the consensus favourite iPhone Twitter client.
The problem is that Apple only puts one opportunity to rate an app in front of the average user: when the user is deleting the app. This is the equivalent of Zagat choosing to only solicit restaurant reviews from people who are visibly gagging.
If you want to give a rating to a good or great app, you need to go out of your way to do so. Unlike songs and movies, the apps section of your iTunes library gives you no opportunity to assign stars - you need to go to its app store page to do that, something that Joe User is unlikely to do after he's installed it. You should be able to rate everything from your computer's iTunes library.
No piece of software is going to run well on every system, and not everybody is going to like every app. In the current system people with negative views are overrepresented, and Statler & Waldorf are running the show. For me that devalues app ratings in general.