iCloud’s App Search Engine: A First Step To A Cloud-Enabled Phone

Apple has built a search engine for apps. It’s called iCloud – or more technically, it’s one aspect of the overall iCloud service. Using it, you can search through every app you have installed on your iOS device or have ever purchased in the past. And it’s available on your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch right now.

The average smartphone user has 64 mobile apps installed on their mobile device. I’m ahead of the curve. I have around 400. It’s pushing nearly 7 GB of storage. Granted, many of these apps were installed for testing purposes only – they aren’t used daily by any means. But my real problem is that I’m not inclined to remove apps I don’t use. They just sit there on the phone, abandoned, languishing on the back screens. I could delete them, but I don’t. You know…just in case.

But the promise of iCloud, as I see it, is that these apps can disappear from the iPhone’s homescreen, but never have to fully disappear from reach. They can be recalled through a simple search.

Note to Android users: This whole post is about Apple’s iCloud. Android has cool ideas, too. I love my Nexus S. But Android is not being addressed in today’s article. 

That search mechanism already exists. For now, it’s tucked away under a couple of screens within the iPhone’s App Store app. It’s neither an everyday necessity for the average user or functional enough for a power user’s needs. But it’s there, and somewhere at Apple HQ, it’s being improved.

Today, it’s easier to flip through your screens to find your apps, especially if you only have 64 of them (or less). Worst case scenario: you can’t remember which folder you tucked the app in, so you flip to the left side of the homescreen and use Spotlight Search to find the app in question instead.

But let’s extrapolate out to a few years into the future. A few years of downloading and abandoning apps on our backscreens. A few years of iPhone upgrades, with hundreds of leftover apps syncing to new devices. Why not delete the unused apps? Why not perform regular app cleanups? Because users are lazy. I’m lazy. I don’t want to. I have better things to do. So does everyone. And so the apps continue to sync from one device to the next, forgotten.

We need a new metaphor for search. Homescreens, app folders and Spotlight Search will not be enough. We need a cloud-hosted index of searchable apps.

A number of companies are working towards this end. (See: ChompQuixey, Do@tXyologicAppolociousAppsFireKinetik, and Crosswa.lk, for example). There are a lot baby steps being taken here, and the occasional leap. Build a search engine like Google, but for apps! Include rankings and user reviews! Use keywords from app descriptions! Make it social! All good ideas. But not enough.

And anyone who’s just building an app search engine app without some other larger business behind it, could easily get trounced on by Apple in the coming months.

To see what I mean, check out the bare-bones iCloud app search engine that’s on your iOS device right now (assuming you’re on the latest version of iOS):

  1. Launch the App Store app.
  2. Tap “Updates.”
  3. Tap “Purchased” (at the top).
  4. Drag the screen down so you can see the search box.
  5. Enter in a keyword (try something common, e.g. “photo.”).
  6. Tap “Search.”

Look at your results. There, all your apps matching your keywords. Ranked by – how? – I’m not 100% sure, but it looks like time of installation. It’s certainly not update date or alphabetically.

This iCloud app search engine is only partial functional, though. Like Spotlight, it only looks at the app’s titles, not descriptions, for keywords. It doesn’t know how much you’ve used an app or how you’ve rated it. Sometimes, it would show me which apps were installed versus which are available on the cloud. Sometimes it got buggy and showed all apps as having the iCloud download button, even if they were installed on the device.

But it’s there. And it’s only a matter of time before iCloud search is integrated with Spotlight Search and Siri, via APIs. We’ll soon be calling up our preferred apps using natural language, both in typed-in queries and in spoken ones. We won’t need to know whether the app is currently on our phone. iCloud will know. Siri will know. We may not even need to initiate the download ourselves. Our phone will do that for us.

In addition, our homescreen clutter will be gone. Apps will delete themselves after periods of non-use unless you configure them as “locked.” Maybe there will be an “auto organize” option for our homescreens, which arranges apps based on usage.

With the exponential growth of the mobile application ecosystem, this is one of the only possible ways to manage the entirety of a user’s app archive in the months ahead. Many of today’s apps are cloud-enabled, but this will be a cloud-enabled phone.

Maybe I’m dreaming? But if Apple can’t get it done, someone should. (Android? Windows Phone? An app developer? A startup?) The mobile ecosystem is still young enough to be entirely disrupted by someone with a new idea for parsing the new web of apps. Today, I believe it’s Apple that’s the closest to implementation, given the glimpse it’s given us with iCloud. But who knows? We could still be surprised.