Chomp? Why Didn’t Google Think Of That?

By

Cathy Edwards
Cathy Edwards was the CTO and cofounder of Chomp, an innovative app search engine acquired by Apple. She is now a senior iTunes engineer. She'll be working on one of the thorniest problems faced by the iOS users -- how to find the best apps.

Apple announced this week the acquisition of Chomp, an app-search startup.

Chomp CEO Ben Keighran is reportedly working already in Apple’s marketing department, and CTO Cathy Edwards is already employed as a senior iTunes engineer.

Chomp crawls the data associated with all the apps in an app store and uses a sophisticated algorithm-based search function to enable people to search and actually find the apps they really want. Less appreciated by the public (but not Apple) is what appear to be incredible analytics tools, enabling a deep understanding of what people are searching for, how successful they are at finding it and detecting meaningful trends in app demand.

Sound familiar? Search algorithms and analytics are Google’s core competency.

The app even has a “Surprise me!” link! (I guess “I’m Feeling Lucky” was taken.)

Apple is rumored to have paid about $50 million for the company. I don’t know what Apple intends to do with it. But Apple doesn’t acquire lightly, and I’m persuaded by the consensus that Apple will use an updated version as the main experience for finding apps on the iTunes App Store — and possibly other iTunes content as well.

Once baked into iTunes, it would pay for itself in about an hour, as the discovery of paid apps becomes twice as efficient.

Chomp is a really great startup. Their app and web site are incredibly good for app discovery. You actually feel compelled to spend quality time slicing and dicing and cycling through app options. It’s fun to use, too, especially on an iPhone.

You just enter a search term. For example, let’s say you want a to-do list app that syncs with Google’s Tasks. Just enter “Google Tasks.” The results screen gives you a “filter” button for sorting by price, etc. A list of keywords that scrolls to the left lets you refine your search. Below that, you get a single result, with app name, price, ratings and a screen shot of the app. Below that, two buttons give you the options for “Info & Reviews” and “Get it!”

By swiping to the left, you get the second result. Swipe again, and get the third, etc. In my search for “Google Tasks,” I got 59 results (Searching for the same words with the App Store app I got 27 results.).

The truth is that many iOS users don’t discover apps in the iTunes App Store. Instead they hear about them in the media, or via blogs, on social networks and in search.

I wouldn’t be surprised if more people find iOS apps on Google services than Apple ones — Google Search, Google Reader, Gmail, Blogger, Google+ and so on.

The App Store is problematic for discovering apps because 1) there are so many — more than a half billion; 2) they’re searchable mainly by the names of the apps, rather than the functions (so it can be gamed); and 3) tools for narrowing and refining app search are very limited.

Apple’s Chomp acquisition is a small catastrophe for Google.

Chomp is, er, was the best way to find Android apps, not just iOS ones. Android search will now be unceremoniously dumped.

The Chomp acquisition highlights Google’s failure to offer a compelling experience for discovering Android apps. Part of Google’s problem is store fragmentation — they allowed anybody to set up a rival app store. Handset makers like Samsung have Android app stores. Carriers like Verizon have app stores.

In fact, Verizon’s app store was based on Chomp.

Apple’s acquisition of Chomp brings attention to the obvious: Google should have created its own Chomp, and offered a single app store.

There are currently more than 40 major Android app stores. Many of them specialized. For example, the Samsung app store might feature apps that take advantage of features unique to their handset. The DoCoMo store features Japanese-language apps. And so on.

But all this slicing and dicing of the full range of Android apps could easily be done using search algorithms in a single app store.

Better still for Android users, Google could have integrated social signals from Google+, and signals harvested by monitoring user behavior across Google Search, Gmail, Reader and others. With their upcoming privacy overhaul, which involves getting user permission for Google to use everything it knows about you from all Google services to provide more relevant results in any Google service, Google’s version of Chomp could have been better than Chomp itself. Again, this is what Google does better than anyone.

As an example, let’s say Google knows from your Search, Gmail and Google+ history that you’re male, 40, a business traveller and highly technical. When you search for a to-do app, Google could order your list according to that knowledge — and give you the apps that people like you have purchased and rated highly in the past.

By simply being Google and doing what Google does, the company could fix its Android Market disaster.

But even if Google were to implement such a system in the Android Market, they’ve still got the other 40 app stores to contend with.

Google’s decision to let anyone and everyone create their own Android app store was a decision made in the old Google, when Eric Schmidt was CEO.

Today’s Google is a different animal altogether. The Larry Page version of Google is much more focused, and willing to exert control. Just look at what Page has done with Search Plus Your World, and, say, the Motorola acquisition.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the Chomp acqusition, Google didn’t decide to force-migrate all app stores over time into the Android Market, and transform Android Market into a Chomp-like search experience, but with harvested search signals across all Google platforms informing the results.

In the meantime, Apple’s Chomp acquisition means Apple is — for the time being — out-Googling Google.

Great move, Apple.

 

Picture shows Chomp CTO, co-founder and creator of the Chomp algorithm, Cathy Edwards.