Taking Back the Market

Developer Dreams, the App Store, and Apple

Tim Nash - 2009.11.30

Every developer knows that every day of delay, every day of waiting for approval, costs them money. Even if you are writing the 500th sound-alike fart app, you believe deep down that this is the one that will blow the others away, the one to take over the anal expletives market.

It's the frustration of authors, screenplay writers, all creatives nurturing their projects into the early hours: "If only those anonymous people would look at this and get it out there, I'll get the recognition. I'll start making money and drop that other day job."

Developers want to live the App Store dream. It's like Hollywood, only you don't have to deal with people.

Success Depends on Trust

Apple knows that App Store success depends on trust. Someone downloading an app wants to know it won't screw up their iPhone. After agreeing to an expensive service contract or paying hundreds of dollars for an unlocked iPhone, it's a reasonable expectation.

Now that jailbroken iPhones in Australia and Europe are getting worms, few will want to risk that route when everything inside the protected garden looks great. Who minds spending a few dollars more with over 100,000 choices? So much of the stuff is free, and most of the "expensive" apps are cheap, and more and more of those you get to try out for free. All you need to do is download.

It's retail therapy without the drive, park, and walk.

Waiting for Approval

Meanwhile, you're in App Store limbo, waiting for heavenly approval, waiting for the whole new wonderful world to start - and waiting is something few people in the West do well. Where would the iPhone be without apps, you ask yourself. "We give people the software they want" somehow shifts to "without us the iPhone would be dead."

Of course, if all the developers dropped off the iPhone, that would be true, but just how many are convinced that Apple would even notice if another me-too program dropped off or didn't get into the App Store? Does an app without enthusiastic users fall without a sound?

Let's face it, there are very few groundbreaking apps out there. If you're good (and lucky!), your app is thought of as one of the two or three leaders in a niche, but be honest with yourself - how much difference would it make to iPhone sales if your app was only available on Android or Symbian or RIM or Windows Mobile or WebOS?

The Walled Garden

Apple certainly isn't in the iPhone business for your developer registration fee. At $99 a year, even with 125,000 developers, it's at the level of financial noise or a rounding error in the annual reports. Apple is not another Microsoft, trying to charge developers every step of the way.

The App Store is a walled garden, but the wall is kept low for anyone who is serious - just $99 a year, coding time, and perseverance. So not even 18 months after the App Store's launch, according to Apple VP Phil Schiller in a BusinessWeek interview, over 10,000 apps are submitted every week.

Gale Sayers, the great running back, wrote an autobiography called I Am Third. It was God, his family, and then him. In this case it is Apple, iPhone users, and then developers, so the end of the walled garden will only occur with new legislation.

But all that most users want is an iPhone that works.

With the walled garden, the iPhone is so much better than anything else out there. iPhoners don't want to waste their time on another Windows, trying to keep the worms and viruses at bay. They will settle for Eden, even if some developers promise Nirvana.

Developers who feel it would be so much better if they had the freedom to do what they want will need to prove their point on another platform. Make their "must have" app elsewhere and get iPhoners to demand it.

For now, the commercial pressure is on Apple keeping the whole ecosystem working. If even Google can't compel Apple to include its apps, there is no hope for the independents.

Advantage Apple

Until it finds something better, Apple will probably go with the classic computer company support model, the one that NeXT (Steve Jobs' second computer company) used.

If your app sells in quantity through the App Store and becomes a reason for buying the iPhone, you will have someone in App approval assigned to shepherd your latest offering through the process. The "best of class" apps, key to success in a niche like healthcare, may even have help with optimization to get them to run and look better on the iPhone than on any other smartphone.

Apple will keep its own best interests at heart, and when your app is exceptional and gets traction, the App Store Home Page beckons.

Think of the App Store approval process as part of the environment. It's a bottleneck you have to get through. While the process will improve, the number of apps will increase too, so the delay will be there until the next platform comes along. Use that time well to test your app as much as you can.

Sooner or later, Apple will start charging developers or putting apps that ship with a load of bugs in a slower queue.

The Linux or Google idea of shipping overnight builds or near permanent betas works well for free software with good peer review or where the downloader is prepared to take all the risk. But in Apple's case, people expect their iPhones to work and Apple to look after them - unless they jailbreak it.

This "looking after" is the problem with the EFF proposal for jailbreaking to be a recognized legal exception to the DMCA: People will expect the warranty to cover them, and the cost will naturally be added to the price of new iPhones. Having the right to have your iPhone unlocked from the network at the end of your service contract would work much better.

The Best Option for Developers

Your choices are stark. If you want a chance at that pot of gold - if you believe that your app is that good - the App Store is your best chance, at least for the next couple of years. If you want to charge for your mobile app, for now it's the only game in town. As Gameloft has found, it is selling 400 times more games on iPhone than on Android, and those sales accounted for 13% of Gameloft's revenue in the last quarter.

Android may well overtake the iPhone if all you look at is the number of units sold, but many sales will be in China, and that is a market open to few Western programmers. Further, the market is fragmenting like Linux, one standard with many flavors, complicating implementation and making the addressable market much smaller for any but the simplest apps.

There is no great incentive for Google to change this either, as Android is doing its job well - it is killing off the market for Windows Mobile and making it ever more difficult for Bing to gain traction. LEM

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Tim Nash is a Director of WattWenn which has a new approach to scheduling the production of TV and movies to make the most of budgets. The views in this article are his own and are prejudiced from spending more years working for computer companies than he cares to remember.

Tim lives with his wife, her website on the area ariege.com, two daughters, a cat, and a dog in the French Pyrenees. He lapsed for a while after the Apple II, but became a Mac fan when his wife introduced him to the Macintosh IIsi. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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