Is it just me or do a lot of the apps in the iTunes App Store, at least utility-oriented apps, end up with ratings of two and a half out five stars? It's almost as if that were the default rating for many. You might argue it's not that surprising ratings for a given title tend to average out somewhere in the middle.
But why should they? Ratings for other media categories within iTunes like movies and music seem to drive more of a consensus around a given film, song or album. You're more likely to see average ratings of four or five stars in those areas than in the App Store.
Perhaps that's because people are more likely to self-select with movies and music, so they have a better idea before they download what they're getting. Maybe they've listened to a song clip or watched a trailer. The experience of downloading and listening to a song or watching a movie on iTunes itself is likely to be fairly consistent from user to user.
But with an app, especially beyond the most popular titles, people may not be as sure of the content and quality of what they're getting. That's especially true of utility or productivity apps that someone has to test over a period to see how they perform in the real world. And the performance of apps can still vary widely depending on the technology, the user, location, and its ability to work with third-party systems.
So if an app crashes on one user and works smoothly for another, that could lead to a one-star and a five-star rating for the same title, leading to the average two and a half star rating that's become ubiquitous. In that regard, the App Store ratings are likely to reflect the views of those at the extremes of reaction to an app rather than those in the middle. If an app is buggy, crashes or doesn't work as advertised after even one or two attempts, it might to get slapped with a one-star rating, offsetting higher scores.
The problem is, if every app gets a two and a half stars, the rating system becomes meaningless and doesn't help users separate the bad from the good. More useful are the reviews that sometimes accompany ratings and allow someone to explain how they arrived at their rating. Again, the comments may reflect users more at the extremes, but they at least offer more insight into strengths or weaknesses of an app. And if a number of people report the same problem, it suggests it's not an isolated incident.
That feedback is valuable not just for consumers but for developers in making changes to future versions of an app. Maybe one way Apple could get around the limitations of the star system would be to require people to post reviews with the ratings. Another alternative might be to instead ask whether a user would recommend the app to a friend and show the resulting percentages.
The two and a half stars would theoretically correspond to an even split on recommendations for many apps. But more likely it would at least show whether or not even a narrow majority of users recommended the app -- something like the equivalent of RottenTomatoes' Tomatometer for movie ratings. Or maybe RottenTomatoes can just add apps to its rating categories.