inessential by Brent Simmons


At the Cyclops the other night I was talking with fellow Mac and iOS developers. One person mentioned that a friend had acquired an iOS game — a good game that’s less popular than it deserves, that maybe just needs some marketing.

Person: “So here’s the question. Would my friend’s iOS app be successful if…”

Everyone else at the table: “No!”

We didn’t wait for the “if” clause, because there’s nothing that could be in it that would matter.

That’s not to say that there aren’t successful iOS apps. Of course there are. I know people who work on them. I work with people who work on them.

But the odds are so very long.

Do we still talk about new apps and recommend apps to people? Hardly, these days.

* * *

Well, that’s freaking dark, and I guess I did say it out loud. Hello despair:

…there’s nothing that could be in it that would matter.

Okay. I feel responsible for letting you out of this post a bit more nicely. Despair isn’t my style.

* * *

If I estimate the number of iOS apps in the App Store, and get the difference between the estimate and the actual number, that difference will be larger than the number of successful apps.

(I define successful as a good-faith “makes enough of a profit to make it worth continuing to work on the app.” Most apps fail to make a profit at all, of course.)

I haven’t done an actual study. But do any developers doubt that I’m right? And when developers think this way, they take their app ideas and toss ’em aside.

“Hey, you know what, this idea would be really great for iPad! Darn.”

“This would be perfect for iPhone! Oh well.”

Shrug. Whatareyagonnado?

* * *

Yes, there are strategies for making a living, and nobody’s entitled to anything. But it’s also true that the economics of a thing may be generally favorable or generally unfavorable — and the iOS App Store is, to understate the case, generally unfavorable. Indies don’t have a fighting chance.

The platform is awesome. We love writing iOS apps. It’s fun and massively rewarding in every way except monetarily. As a craft — as a budding art form, perhaps — it’s juicy.

* * *

You might think that development needs to get easier in order to make writing apps economically viable. The problem is that we’ve seen what happens when development gets easier — we get a million apps on the iOS App Store. The easier development gets, the more apps we see.

And, the easier development gets, the more is expected of the apps you write, and the less people will pay. You probably have to do syncing. You need a companion Apple Watch app. And so on.

I kind of want to say that development needs to get harder — but what I really mean is that we need to solve harder problems in our app. Think of the difficulty level in things like Capo — do something actually very difficult like that, create a great UI and market the app well, and you may have a success.

The problem, of course, is that you’re taking a big risk. Your odds may be better when you’re solving a truly difficult problem — but the investment in time is bigger.

And that’s not a general solution to the economic problems of developing iOS apps.

I don’t have one. Maybe there isn’t one.

(Well, there’s Mac apps. Want a business? Write Mac apps. But that’s a closely-guarded secret, and I promised not to tell anyone. You didn’t hear it from me.)

* * *

This is the age of writing iOS apps for love.

Well, that’s not true for everybody. Well-established and awesome companies such as Omni, Panic, Flexibits, AgileBits, Tapbots, and The Iconfactory have a business writing iOS apps. (They do it for love, but not just for love.) Companies like Black Pixel make money by writing apps for other companies that have money.

And big companies and funded companies don’t actually have to make money from their iOS apps. They have other goals. (I don’t pretend to understand the economics of funded companies.)

You the indie developer could become the next Flexibits. Could. But almost certainly not. Okay — not.

What’s more likely is that you’ll find yourself working on a Mobile Experience for a Big National Brand(tm) and doing the apps you want to write in your spare time.

If there’s a way out of despair, it’s in changing our expectations.

Write the apps you want to write in your free time and out of love for the platform and for those specific apps. Take risks. Make those apps interesting and different. Don’t play it safe. If you’re not expecting money, you have nothing to lose.

Could the do-it-for-love era — with the creative freedom that that brings — bring us back to the days when we downloaded apps that weren’t from Facebook and Starbucks and Funded Company X, and we told our friends about our exciting finds?

I hope. I have hope.