Essays on Technology and Culture

The App Store is Not Flat

It’s that time again. Another set of complaints about the price of apps, and the difficulty of making money in the iOS App Store. I’ll spare everyone the reasons behind the most recent kerfuffle. It doesn’t matter, since we’re likely to have this same, tired discussion in the next six to twelve months. The people and apps involved might change, but the fundamental points remain: people don’t like to pay for apps, it’s hard to make money on the App Store—let alone consistent money.

When the App Store launched seven years ago, there was a gold rush of developers staking claims on the new platform in hopes of getting rich. There was a brief, shining moment, where indie developers and established software houses had an equal chance of making a mint by selling an iPhone app. Indeed, there were a few people who became millionaires, seemingly overnight, but after a while, the only people really striking it rich were the ones selling how-to guides for building apps and optimizing placement in the App Store. And the chorus began: “Nobody pays for apps! In-App purchases suck! Nobody pays for upgrades! You can’t compete with free!” cried the developers.

In 2015, the playing field of app development is no longer flat—if it ever really was. Now it’s tilted, strongly, in favor of established companies both big and small, and large indie developers who staked their claims in the short-lived Wild West of the App Store. The days where it was theoretically possible to strike it rich by making one or two apps, and without using In-App Purchases, are over. They’ve been over for a while. It’s easier to get your app noticed, made a top pick, and get press, when you’ve had a couple other successful app launches under your belt. Nobody will deny that. For a new, independent developer, reaching the heights of the top selling and top grossing charts is difficult. Making a sustainable business out of it? That is very difficult.

But not impossible. To quote Lou Reed, “Very difficult is winning the Nobel Prize. Impossible is eating the sun.”

New indie app developers do not have to eat the sun.

On Twitter, I made an analogy comparing selling apps in the App Store to selling refrigerators. Even the best refrigerator startup is unlikely to outsell GE without a lot of time in the business. It’s accurate, but thinking about it more, the App Store model is closer to the world of music. You’re not going to go from playing in a garage from playing a stadium overnight. You gotta work your way there. And just because Taylor Swift sold 8.6 million copies of 1989 doesn’t mean that your record won’t sell enough copies to pay for the next album, one way or the other.

The music industry is tough to make it in, but I’ve never wanted for really good music to listen to, even new music, and I’ve never wanted for really good iOS apps. I may have wanted for specific apps, but there is no shortage of really good iOS software out there, put out by independent developers, at a myriad of price points. OmniFocus for iOS costs $39.99, and I use it every day. I could probably get by with the stock Reminders app, but OmniFocus is better for what I need, and the price was well worth it. I also use Cesium every day as a replacement for the stock Music app, and it might be the best $1.99 I ever spent on the App Store.

Are these apps sustainable? I don’t know. One can’t generalize on this sort of thing. The economics of app development are complex, and when faced with complex systems, we love to make generalizations to help us grasp it. I think we can agree that a developer doesn’t need to sell huge numbers of a product to be successful. Problem is, “Success” is a bothersomely relative metric, really. For one developer, “success” might be making enough money that they can go live in a private island in the Bahamas, and drink Mai Tais served by monkey butlers. For another, “success” might be showing they have the development chops to get hired by a firm that builds iOS apps for other companies.

What does a “successful app” even look like in 2015? I’m not an app developer. I can’t answer that question. It’s up to each individual developer to decide on their metric to define success, whether it’s knocking Kim Kardashian’s app off the Top Grossing list, or just making beer money. Before we start raising our hackles about developers who price their apps too high—or too low—we need to step back and see the bigger picture. A price change for one app, no matter how popular it may be among an audience of tech nerds, is no bellwether of the fortunes of developers as a whole. One person’s success is not a guarantee of another’s failure, and one new business model does not preclude the success of another.

Try to remember this when the perfect storm of app pricing comes around again next year.