How can I turn my idea into a business? This question underlies the recent discussion in the Apple blogosphere with regards to indie developers on the App Store. Some apps are developed out of love, some apps are developed accidentally, some for fun … there are many motivations. But the grand unifying motivation for everything is usually money, and developers that want to go indie or are indie have some issues with the way that Apple runs the App Store. What underlies this is that the only thing you can trust a rational agent to do is what’s in their interest, in many instances “in their interest” translates to “earns them money”, and I’ll show how this plays out with the App Store.
But first, before I seem like an apologist, there are some undeniable problems, and not just for developers; for instance: the Mac App Store is bad. It takes a long time to load, it requires restarting your computer because of certificates occasionally, and it’s hard to find apps. The search-ability problem is especially bad on iOS, where I usually rely on a Google search to take me to an App Store page, probably infuriating both companies.
The iOS indie scene
But even given this, and maybe in part because these problems have kept some developers from joining at all, the Mac’s indie software scene has been and still is pretty good: anecdotally, I love Sketch and Omnigraffle and Sublime Text and many more indie Mac apps. But iOS’s indie scene doesn’t quite live up to that. Here’s Rene Ritchie on the “popification” of apps on the App Store:
Day in, day out, some gamers drop tens or hundreds or even thousands of dollars on in-app consumables so they can feed their need for instant and ego gratification by clashing clans, crushing candy, and going Hollywood. Likewise, enterprise and individuals sign up for software-as-a-service that they also use on iOS.
There’s still ungodly amounts of money to be made in the App Store, it’s just not the same money or made in the same way as it used to be.
The article’s point is largely that the big players and apps we (power users, or akin) don’t care about (namely pay-to-play games) make all the money on the iOS App Store, de-incentivising more niche productivity apps. I think this is true but not necessarily surprising and perhaps not bad.
The reason it’s true is, well, simply look at the “top grossing” apps in your App Store: for me it’s Candy Crush, 3 different versions of Clash of Clans, Spotify, and Pandora. Almost by definition, no indie productivity app is going to find itself there, but this little slice is a brush stroke in a big picture: major studios and multinational corporations make most the money on the iOS App Store.
It’s not surprising because the iOS App Store has always been this way: if you were on the App Store on day one, things weren’t necessarily different, it’s that you got some free marketing. Because that’s what it takes to be big on the App Store: marketing. Anecdotally, I’ve seen many more advertisements for Clash of Clans than any other app. What we have today is the App Store from day one, just with many more titan’s shipping their app and clogging up the attention that would be paid to indies back on day one. With more apps, more marketing is required, and you cannot rely on Apple for your marketing anymore.
Acting in their own interest
The reason this isn’t necessarily bad is that I think this means Apple is doing something right: I’ve heard stories around the campfire that back in the day, apps were hard to come by on the Mac. There were RSS readers and task lists, but not necessarily a word processor or internet browser. But today on the App Store, Mac or iOS, there are probably 12 of each of those categories. And while we can have a discussion about quality, that signals to me that there’s something right. Chuq Von Rospach makes this point in response to Rene Ritchie:
I don’t think the App Stores are broken; I think they’re doing exactly what Apple wants them to, because Apple’s interest is in supporting the corporate app developers and the larger studio developers. They care about the NetFlix app and Adobe’s applications and what Gameloft is doing, not about what the small indie developers want or need.
Perhaps it used to be in Apple’s interest to get lone developers to develop on their platform, creating a grassroots campaign for Mac software, but it increasingly seems that this is no longer the case. Perhaps this is the reason for the change in tone of the App Store? However, I think Chuq misses something crucial that Rene’s piece shows: people interested in indie apps are vocal and drive the platform forward. It’s great for Apple when Federico posts about how he’s converted his workflow to be all-iPad, and indie apps are what enable that. I think Apple should care about indies.
What could be different?
And even if Chuq is right, I think Apple can care about indies. The goals of allowing indie developers to make money and allowing multinationals to make money aren’t mutually exclusive, though one does make the other harder. Here’s Brent Simmons on what he thinks Apple can do to help indies, and not that I don’t think corporate clients would complain about any of these provisions:
And indies would do better than they are right now — possibly much better — if the App Store had trial versions, upgrade pricing, and a faster and better review process. (And the Mac App Store should make sandboxing either less onerous or, preferably, optional.) (And — since I’m listing the ponies I want — it would help if Apple took something like 10% rather than 30%.)
And given that Phil Schiller was recently given control of the App Store, I wouldn’t be surprised in the event on March 21st had some news about the App Stores. But in many ways, the state of indie development is better than it’s ever been: it’s easier to build and ship an application than it’s ever been. But with this comes some changes: there are more apps, so the expectation of quality is higher and price is lower, and these, and other platform realities, are just the various factors you have to consider when you’re trying to act in your own interest.