The Prestige is one of my favorite movies. Every time I watch it, I notice a nuanced plot twist that I missed before. Since I started counting, the second most frequent question I get after, “how many apps are there?” is, “how are you doing this?”
“Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.”
Back in August, I had an idea. I pondered… “What if there was a way I could count the number of apps in the store?” I had my reasons, as I’ve discussed before.
I bandied the idea around a bit, ran it by a few friends, and we were all stumped about how to come up with the best way to tally the number of apps in the store in any automated, robust way. While we could fire up the Windows Store app on Windows 8 and do a simple * query and get a dynamic result back of how many apps are there, it:
- Can’t be automated
- Isn’t categorized
- Includes only one locale at a a time
- It includes desktop applications that can’t be bought in the store and more importantly, don’t make Windows RT viable – that’s up to Windows Store (WinRT/Metro/Modern) apps.
So… what to do…
“Are you watching closely?”
I often say that everything in my career happened for a reason – and without a doubt, skills I’ve picked up in each job snowballed to be useful in the next one… As I tried to figure out how to peruse the store, I thought to myself - I know how to do this!
“Many of you may be familiar with this technique, but for those of you who aren’t, do not be alarmed. What you’re about to see is considered safe. “
I started poking around on Microsoft’s public facing Windows Store site (apps.microsoft.com). In a previous job, we focused on creating product videos – an innately unsearchable binary format. But you see – there are standard tools to make video indexed. The big giant heads of search all agreed several years ago on the concept of sitemaps. A very simple XML format, sitemaps indicate the content of a Website as the Webmaster wants it indexed. While sitemaps can be manually submitted by a site to each search engine if the Website wants to avoid random crawls, most sites simply post their sitemap publicly (see the NY Times’ sitemap as an example). I found that searching Bing and Google for Windows Store apps most definitely let me find very freshly added apps – indicating that there must be a sitemap in place on the Windows Store. Indeed, there was.
“Exact science, Mr Angier, is not an exact science.”
Through a process of <ahem> programmatic duct tape, I was able to create a system that iterated through the sitemap and indexed the content in the store. Through some futzing with XML, a few rough Regular Expressions, my existing experience with sitemaps, and some Excel automation (yes – really), I built a roughed-in prototype that worked – and took off. Bear in mind this is also why I only get results once per day. While Microsoft may be pushing new apps out to the Windows Store, the sitemap is not updated that dynamically. Someday it likely will. But my process of daily queries carried through the RTM and GA just fine.
“A real magician tries to invent something new, that other magicians are gonna scratch their heads over.”
So that’s it. It’s not really magic. I haven’t shared the source, nor do I intend to (you wouldn’t want it). I have been talking with a friend about possibly creating an app that helps provide better insight into what’s going on in the store – to help users find apps that they’ll love. Regardless, what I do intend to do from this point on is seriously constrain posts on statistics (at least sheer number statistics) related to the store. From this day on, regardless of what this site posts, the Windows Store will win or lose its role in the world not through the sheer count of apps… But instead through the caliber of apps that are there. The apps that users clamor for and say, “I need a Windows 8 or Windows RT device so I can run <insert title>”.
I may have been/still be a bit bearish on Windows RT and Windows 8 – and the WinRT platform as a whole. I don’t think that it as easy to ignite a platform -> app -> developer virtuous cycle as Microsoft thinks. But I also may be underestimating how important the typical consumer finds Windows (even the more constrained world of Windows RT) or Office to their life. We’ll see in time.