The App Store is Not Flat
Itâ€™s that time again. Another set of complaints about the price of apps, and the difficulty of making money in the iOS App Store. Iâ€™ll spare everyone the reasons behind the most recent kerfuffle. It doesnâ€™t matter, since weâ€™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 donâ€™t like to pay for apps, itâ€™s hard to make money on the App Storeâ€”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: â€œNobody pays for apps! In-App purchases suck! Nobody pays for upgrades! You canâ€™t compete with free!â€ cried the developers.
In 2015, the playing field of app development is no longer flatâ€”if it ever really was. Now itâ€™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. Theyâ€™ve been over for a while. Itâ€™s easier to get your app noticed, made a top pick, and get press, when youâ€™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, â€œVery difficult is winning the Nobel Prize. Impossible is eating the sun.â€
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. Itâ€™s accurate, but thinking about it more, the App Store model is closer to the world of music. Youâ€™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 doesnâ€™t mean that your record wonâ€™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 Iâ€™ve never wanted for really good music to listen to, even new music, and Iâ€™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 donâ€™t know. One canâ€™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 doesnâ€™t need to sell huge numbers of a product to be successful. Problem is, â€œSuccessâ€ is a bothersomely relative metric, really. For one developer, â€œsuccessâ€ 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, â€œsuccessâ€ might be showing they have the development chops to get hired by a firm that builds iOS apps for other companies.
What does a â€œsuccessful appâ€ even look like in 2015? Iâ€™m not an app developer. I canâ€™t answer that question. Itâ€™s up to each individual developer to decide on their metric to define success, whether itâ€™s knocking Kim Kardashianâ€™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 highâ€”or too lowâ€”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 personâ€™s success is not a guarantee of anotherâ€™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.