As we approach the first anniversary of selling things on the iTunes App Store, I’d like to take the opportunity to look at where we’ve been and where we’d like to go. A lot of good things have happened since last July 11th, but there’s still much room for improvement.
Note: These words may be mine, but their origin is from conversations with hundreds of iPhone developers. Saying that there was a lot of discussion about the App Store in the bars around WWDC would be the understatement of the century. The length of this essay is proof.
There is hope
As developers, we have a tendency to look at things that are “wrong” and complain. It’s also important to look at what’s been improved in the past year: it gives me hope that we’ll eventually see some of the suggestions I make in this essay.
Here are things that have helped us sell more product:
- Reviews only from people who have purchased the app.
- Promotion codes.
- Better categorization.
- A nationwide ad campaign.
The root of the problem
Building the App Store using the iTunes infrastructure was a brilliant move on Apple’s part. It allowed them to sell software to millions of users with a minimal amount of development. Look at it this way: would you rather have lost the first 6 months of revenue while waiting for Apple to perfect the system used to deliver our applications?
But now iTunes presents problems for both Apple and third party developers because of this simple fact: software is not music. I believe this is the basic issue that both parties are coming to grips with:
- Music and software differ greatly in the number of titles. Apple is currently touting 50,000 applications in the App Store. While an impressive number in this nascent category, it pales in comparison to 10 million songs.
- As developers, we may be small fish in this sea of titles, but we’re more important to the health of the iPhone platform than musicians are to the health of iTunes. People like Walt Mossberg don’t talk about the importance of music when reviewing the competition.
- iTunes customers do not have functional problems with songs. People don’t have to learn how to listen to music. Anyone who’s done customer support can tell you that’s not true for software.
- There are never new versions of a song. Yes, there are remixes and other adaptations, but these are labeled, marketed and sold (via SKU) as unique products. Software, on the other hand, usually gets a new version every few months.
- Music can’t damage the device. Malicious software can.
- Music doesn’t depend on the network while its playing. Our software can break or change behavior because of this dependency on external data.
- Many musicians sell their content through third parties (media companies), most developers do not.
Finally, the complexity of system with 10 million database rows backed by a worldwide content distribution mechanism is not lost on us. Changes to infrastructure of this scale won’t happen overnight.
Apple needs to face the fact that the current review process is not scaling well. When the App Store launched, there were a thousand apps and reviews took less than a week.
Now, with 50,000 apps, we’re currently looking at three week lead times for reviews. When there are 100,000 apps are we going to be waiting a couple of months for approval? Or more?
And even with these long review periods, there is no shortage of applications being pulled from the App Store. Some developers wonder if approval is less about consumer protection than it is about protecting Apple’s interests.
This long review process has a serious impact for both developers and customers:
Maintenance releases aren’t viable
There are always bugs that pop up which can be fixed very easily. Twitterrific currently has a problem with marking tweets as a favorite (caused by a change at Twitter.) We could literally fix this bug in five minutes, but it would still take three weeks to get it onto a customer’s phone.
Patching an existing release and doing a quick update is something all developers have been able to do on other platforms (Mac or Windows, for example.) But after spending several weeks in a queue, your 1.0.1 release is likely to be out of date because in the interim you’ve been working on a 1.0.2 release. If you replace your 1.0.1 release with the new 1.0.2 release, you go to the end of the queue and start waiting again. You end up in a cycle where these small releases never see the light of day.
The net effect is that many developers are giving up on these maintenance releases. And that’s bad for customers.
No matter what some of us might think, developers are only human. Sometimes we do stupid things, and when we do, we need to resolve these issues with critical updates. In these cases, we need to jump to the front of the review queue. As someone who’s been the victim of stupidity more than once, I have no problem giving up my place in line for someone who’s suffering the consequences of a dumb mistake.
There are a couple of things that could help with the review process. The first is to verify developers, not apps.
I am perfectly willing to be held accountable for my actions. So is every other developer I’ve talked to. If we do something evil, pull all our products off the App Store shelves. Start legal action. Shut down our business. Those of us who respect our customer base and value our relationship with Apple will not be affected.
We don’t mind waiting a few weeks for a major version release (e.g. a 2.0) because it’s likely something that has already taken many months to create. Use an initial or major release as a point to establish the trust between Apple and the developer. Then, incremental releases (e.g. a 2.0.1 or 2.1) can be approved quickly because of that trust. If a developer breaks that trust in a point release, penalize them.
As my company releases more products, I also have more incentive to maintain that trust level (pulling multiple products hurts more than pulling just one.) Knowing that, Apple could spend less time reviewing each new product from a existing developer.
With critical updates, we won’t need to jump to the front of the review queue often. The best thing would be to give each developer a limited number of “fast track tickets” and tell them to use them wisely (no exceptions for developers who need “just one more.”)
For readers who aren’t developers, let me explain the simple economics of our business: we sustain our efforts with upgrade revenue. Getting the initial sale is only the beginning of a long-term relationship with a customer.
Here’s how it works:
- You know the number of total customers for your product. (Some developers call this the installed base.)
- The percentage of users who upgrade a product is predictable. For most products, it’s normally around 40-60%.
- You know how much the upgrade is going to cost.
Given this information, you have a very good idea of how much money the upgrade will generate. That, in turn, tells you how much money you should spend creating that software.
Unfortunately, the App Store doesn’t allow us to generate upgrade revenue. We either do free upgrades or charge for a completely new product (SKU.) The former is bad for developers because we don’t see any incremental revenue. The latter is bad for customers because they don’t get a price break.
Many developers who have been in the App Store since its inception are facing this problem now: we’re working on our 2.0 releases and struggling with how to make money with them. Even if your product is selling well, it’s difficult to justify adding new features if there’s no extra revenue to pay for them.
Free upgrades also mean that great products (with smaller customer bases) will eventually wither and die. “There’s an app for that” will only apply to products with a mainstream customer base. Niche and vertical markets will not be served well.
For game developers, this is less of an issue: each new version can be marketed as a unique entity. But if you apply that same approach to other apps, you end up with “Twitterrific: The Awakening”, “Twitterrific: The Second Coming”, “Twitterrific: The Return of the Tweet”, etc. This will only make the App Store more confusing for customers of those applications.
Finally, major updates can’t be released on a predictable date. If you try to set an application’s availability date to some time in the future, the current product in the App Store becomes unavailable (so customers can’t buy the product while it’s being reviewed.) Apple, more than anyone, should understand the benefits of controlling your product release. There’s a lot more to it than a row in iTunes’ database.
Why can’t apps be upgraded just like music? If you look at version 1.0 being like a song with DRM, and version 2.0 being a song without DRM, you’ve solved most of the problem. The only difference is that we need to upgrade the song more than once.
The upgrade should also have its own release date: giving developers the ability to time press releases, website launches and other supporting activities.
We need better rules for the types of applications that are allowed in the App Store: the wording in section 3.3 of the license agreement is just too vague.
It’s likely that Apple’s legal team prefers to handle marginal cases on an ad hoc basis. But that’s a system that won’t scale and whose cost will quickly outweigh the benefits. How many lawyers will be needed when there are a million applications in the App Store?
With so much left open to interpretation, it makes it easy for a developer to wave a flag and generate bad press for Apple. As more applications are added to the App Store, there has also been an increasing number of these sensational “app rejection” pieces in the tech media. It’s event starting to go mainstream at places like CNN.
The situation is exacerbated by developers who are starting to realize that this “app rejection” attention by the media is good for sales once the controversy is resolved.
A clear set of rules also lets developers feel confident that their efforts will be rewarded with placement in the App Store. At present, it’s a crap shoot. When you roll snake eyes, you have no other channel to sell your product and you’ve lost a lot of time and money.
We also realize that there’s one rule that’s hard to define: “offensive content.” It’s completely subjective.
When you look at the music industry, you’ll see they’ve had a similar problems since 1985. After several decades of input from thousands of individuals in public forums, there are still controversies surrounding the rating of music. From a social point-of-view, it’s an impossible problem to solve. The current “solution” is to let the record companies police themselves.
As iPhone developers, we have one company making these policy decisions: Apple. The lack of transparency in their decision making process makes it impossible for us to know what’s acceptable and what is not. For all we know, the rules are being made up (and changed) as we go along.
A clear set of rules for reviewers and developers will make the process easier for everyone.
Apple should publish what can and cannot be developed for the App Store. Provide examples of what is OK and what is not. We have Human Interface Guidelines for how our applications behave, why don’t we have similar guidelines for the functions our applications perform?
For the situations that fall outside of these rules, provide developers with a means to get pre-approval for application ideas. If running our ideas by Apple’s legal department comes at an extra cost, that’s fine. The objective is to waste less money on app ideas that will never get published.
Better experience for customers
Both developers and Apple want the best possible experience for our customers. As the seller, Apple focuses on the sale. As developers, we focus on getting people to make the purchase in the first place.
So how can we make it better?
As it now stands, customers are making their purchase decisions with a few screenshots and a short product description. This is often not enough to convey the benefits of our products: especially ones that are more complex (and have a higher cost.)
Imagine the problems music companies would have if you couldn’t preview songs on iTunes. They’d have a lot of unhappy customers who bought the wrong song. And if the workaround was for customers to go to the artist’s website to listen to a sample or see a video clip, they’d lose a lot of sales because it’s a hassle and an unpredictable experience.
The current situation akin to walking into a phone store and looking at a hardware mockup that has a sticker of a screenshot and no battery. Compare that to walking into the Apple Store and using a fully functional iPhone.
The best solution would be to allow a time limited version of the application to be downloaded for free. After evaluation, the customer could purchase the application. Developers could do this now if in-app purchases were allowed on free versions of applications. (There is even precedence for this approach: AT&T is doing something similar with its Navigator app.)
Apple has stated that “free remains free.” I can see why they want to do that, it’s a way to avoid applications that try to use bait-and-switch schemes. (Although, one could argue that we’ll see the same problem with paid apps.)
So why not compromise on a solution? iTunes on the desktop and the App Store application on the device both have access to excellent multimedia capabilities. Why not use these facilities to allow a couple of minutes of video for each app? It’s not as good as trying out the application, but it’s certainly better than five screenshots. Let developers upload a QuickTime movie with iTunes Connect and both they and customers will benefit.
Respond to reviews
Again, music is not software. Music is simple, you either like the song or you don’t.
For software, customers see the reviews pages not only as a place to comment on an application’s suitability, but also as a forum to voice their problems and concerns. As developers, it drives us crazy that we have no way to address those issues.
Give us a way to contact the customer. Ideally, we would be able to post a public response in iTunes so other users with similar issues could benefit.
Again, I can see this being too much to ask of the iTunes infrastructure. I also doubt that Apple wants to provide us with customer’s email addresses (which can be considered private data.)
So why not present a form for developers to fill out within iTunes? Our comments are entered into a text field and sent to the customer’s email address by Apple. We could provide our own contact information in that message for followup conversations.
Songs and games work in the current “top hits” ranking. Popularity for this type of content is ephemeral. This type of content is also easily identifiable by a brand name (“Death Cab for Cutie”, “Flight Control”, etc.)
The problem is finding applications that aren’t at the top of the charts. It’s incredibly hard to find the “that” in “there’s an app for that.” Between keyword spamming and the sheer volume of choices in each category, customers can’t find what they want.
The answer to this problem is organizing search by solutions, not titles or sales rank. During this summer season, customers are interested in applications that:
- Entertain while traveling to/from their vacation destination.
- Guide them around that destination.
- Helps them relax during the break.
The only thing you’ll find if you search the App Store for “Paris” is that there are a lot of fricken’ icons with the Eiffel Tower on them.
Macworld, with its App Guide, has figured this out. Apple should look at the success of staff favorites and expand upon that within iTunes.
Charge us more money
The $99 developer fee is great for making the App Store all inclusive. But the needs of larger, full-time developers are much different than those of those doing it part-time or as a hobby.
Charge $999 for premium service. For professional developers, this cost is not prohibitive and would allow Apple to provide additional services such as:
- Shorter review times. The trust level between Apple and the developer is higher when there’s more money on the table.
- More “fast track tickets” as mentioned above. Larger development shops have more staff doing stupid things, so give us more freedom to deal with it.
- Discounts for test devices. With each product release, it becomes more difficult for developers to support the new hardware. The primary factor here is that an AT&T contract is required to get the test device. Something similar to the Mac hardware discounts for ADC members would help significantly.
- Background artwork for our products in iTunes. Getting a nice background means a lot to us: it makes our products more attractive to potential customers. Let us pay for the time it takes to put it up.
- Approval of ideas prior to development. Developers have crazy ideas. Before spending months of development on that wacky thought, it would be nice to get pre-approval from Apple on the concept.
- More devices in the Program Portal. The current limit of 100 devices is a joke for developers with multiple products: if you have 5 products, you can only have 20 devices per app. That, combined with multiple hardware releases in the 12 month period, means we’re effectively prevented from testing our applications until July 12th.
- A contact in Apple Developer Relations. Sometimes we need to talk directly to someone at Apple.
I’ve talked about pricing before, but not much has changed. The addition of in-app purchase is great for certain kinds of applications: our upcoming title, Ramp Champ, makes great use of it. But most apps cannot take advantage of this new feature and are left struggling at the ringtone price point.
These low prices are making decisions for us. If you gave an iPhone developer $50,000 to spend anyway they choose, they’re going to make 5 ringtone apps at $10,000 each instead of one killer app for $50,000. In a gold rush, it’s better to have five small claims than a single large one.
The problem is that the long-term success of the iPhone platform will be defined by killer apps, not throwaways that you replace on your home screen after a few months.
Unlike other sections in this essay, I don’t have specific suggestions to make. I do think that the solutions presented above will, in aggregate, help us get some upward movement in pricing. And that would be very good news for those of us making a living from the App Store.
There’s no denying it: the last year has been a good one for both Apple and third-party iPhone developers. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement, especially at the point-of-sale.
The suggestions I’ve presented above are intended to help us grow this business and keep the ecosystem healthy. Every developer’s fear is that Apple doesn’t want an open a dialog regarding the App Store. It scared the shit out of me when our questions weren’t answered at WWDC.
A successful partnership is one where both parties work to the benefit of the other. If our needs are ignored, it will only lead to disenchantment. Working with the developers that are driving this new platform is Apple’s best long-term business strategy.