The Rise and Fall of the Independent Developer

I’m old enough to remember a time before the Internet. I know what it’s like to develop software both with and without a worldwide network.

Little has changed with the process of software development since the 1980′s. Of course there have been improvements in our tools and techniques, but the basic act of creating software products is much the same. What has changed dramatically in the past 30 years is how we distribute our creations.

In the days where software was distributed on magnetic media, such as reels of tape, cassettes, or floppy disks, it cost a lot of money to get the product to a customer. As a result, large companies and software publishers were the only ones with the financial resources to get these applications into a retail channel. There were very few independent software developers; and those who did exist were very small operations.

Then along came the Internet and everything changed. Distribution was suddenly cheap.

I remember a conversation with my good friend Cabel Sasser a few years ago. He and I were reminiscing about our first foray into online distribution and were surprised that we had the same initial reaction: “Holy crap! We can put our software on the Internet and people will actually buy it!”

Many other developers had this same experience and began leaving large companies to work on their own. Making a good living while having the freedom to work on their passion was a great life.

Now distribution is going mainstream with the App Store. And it’s already begun changing the lives and businesses of independent software developers. On the surface, it all looks good. There are more customers, increased revenues, and many great new products.

But this expanded distribution is also putting our business at risk: there are people in this new market who claim a right to a part of our hard work. Either by patent or copyright infringement, developers are finding this new cost of litigation to be onerous.

The scary part is that these infringements can happen with any part of our products or websites: things that you’d never imagine being a violation of someone else’s intellectual property. It feels like coding in a mine field.

From our experience, it’s entirely possible that all the revenue for a product can be eaten up by legal fees. After years of pouring your heart and soul into that product, it’s devastating. It makes you question why the hell you’re in the business: when you can’t pay salaries from product sales, there’s no point in building it in the first place.

So, just as in the days of magnetic media, the independent developer now finds him or herself at a point where it is again becoming very expensive to distribute their products to a mass market. This time the retail channel itself is very cheap, but the ancillary costs, both financially and emotionally, are very high.

And, of course, only large companies and publishers can bear these costs. My fear is that It’s only a matter of time before developers find the risks and expenses prohibitive and retreat to the safety of a larger organization. We’ll be going back to square one.

Over the years many of the top selling apps have been created by independent developers, starting with Steve Demeter and Trism at the App Store launch, and continuing to this day with titles like Tiny Wings by Andreas Illiger.

Losing that kind of talent and innovation to a legal system is the real crime.