Most iOS app devs lose money..

Discussion in 'iPhone' started by archipellago, May 5, 2012.

  1. archipellago macrumors 65816

    Aug 16, 2008

    There is no shortage of stories about lone developers who made an app for the iPhone or iPad and had runaway success. But in the real world, the majority of app makers struggle to break even, according to a recent survey by marketing firm App Promo. Though the survey's methodology is a bit on the light side, numerous developers that we spoke to agree that the results—59 percent of apps don't break even, and 80 percent of developers can't sustain a business on their apps alone—are close to accurate.

    High expectations

    Apple often boasts that the App Store offers users hundreds of thousands of apps to choose from. But while the incredible variety may benefit consumers, the mature market can make it more difficult for small developers to get noticed.

    "Over the years I have seen visibility of applications I've worked on greatly reduced," developer Pat McCarron told Ars. "Right now your app is likely not going to be found if you never break the Top 100 or Top 200 lists. Users won't navigate forever down the list of top apps to find yours sitting lonely at the bottom."

    Rogue Amoeba's Paul Kafasis agreed that the App Store has become more of a lottery, and less a chance for small developers to succeed along with well-established companies.

    "The App Store is very much like the lottery, and very few companies are topping the charts," Kafasis told Ars. "It's a hit-based business. Much like music or book sales, there are a few huge winners, a bigger handful of minor successes, and a whole lot of failures."

    The App Store offers developers a lot of opportunity—for both success and failure.
    App Promo
    Some developers even said that App Promo's assertion that 59 percent of apps don't break even is a bit on the generous side. Former NetNewsWire developer Brent Simmons suspects the figure is "more like 85 percent," while Lucius Kwok believes it may "fall in the range of 90 percent or higher."

    Apple encourages practically anyone to try their hand at iOS development. Just $99 per year gives you access to Apple's developer program, the development tools are a free download, and numerous books line bookstore shelves (both physical and virtual) offering tips to budding iOS developers. While this creates a large developer base for the platform, it also creates a huge group of developers who grossly underestimate the amount of time, effort, and money that can go into developing a quality app.

    "Development costs are generally much higher than folks realize," Kafasis said. "Making an app still requires tens of thousands of dollars in development, if not hundreds of thousands. Recouping that kind of money 99 cents—or really, 70 cents—at a time is not easy."

    Part of the problem can be attributed to consumer expectations. Whereas $20-30 was not an uncommon price for desktop software created by small developers in the past, the App Store quickly led consumers to expect to pay 99 cents, or maybe $1.99 for most mobile apps. Many more are free, supported with in-app ads or "freemium" in-app purchases.

    "Paid apps, despite likely being only $1, is a surprisingly high barrier of entry," McCarron told Ars.

    Kafasis agreed. "Users still expect quite a lot, even for 99 cent apps," he said. "Worse, anything over perhaps a couple bucks on iOS is a 'premium' price, and you'll get dinged on the price everywhere, by both users and journalists. That can make it very difficult to recoup costs, let alone turn a profit."

    Discoverability, app demos, and marketing

    Another part of the problem is that Apple has done little to change how the App Store works since day one over four years ago. Discoverability is a real problem, and the search algorithms have led some developers to try and "game" the system with SEO techniques like overloading titles, descriptions, and other metadata with keywords.

    To illustrate the problem, McCarron noted that his company's app, Words Play, isn't even the top result for a search for "words play." Instead, that top result currently belongs to an app called "Words With Cheats for Friends ~ The Best Word Finder For Games You Play With Words And Friends."

    It's hard to be the number one search result even when your app name is an exact match for the search terms.
    Patrick McCarron
    "We knew these other results would come up for those words when we chose the name," McCarron said. "But we assumed since our name is an exact match for the search terms that we'd get slotted in at number one no matter what. Instead, we bounce around the top five randomly, it seems; I haven't seen us at number one since the week we launched."

    Developers agreed that Apple could improve browsing and discoverability, and the company seems to be making an effort to move in that direction. It recently bought Chomp, a service designed to help navigate app stores for various mobile platforms. Apple recently discontinued Chomp's Android offerings, so it seems likely that tighter integration with the App Store is coming sooner rather than later.

    In addition, Apple still needs to offer some kind of demo mechanism for paid apps. Shareware and commercial software on the desktop benefit largely from time- or feature-limited demos. Though Photoshop costs hundreds of dollars, users can at least download a free 30-day demo to decide if the investment is worth it.

    "I've hit many places where this would have been useful myself when shopping for an app to do a certain task," McCarron said. He feels that consumers would be more willing to pay $5, $10, or more for an app if they were convinced it would prove useful after having tried a demo.

    Of course, developers themselves could help by more tightly focusing their development efforts. Many developers are encouraged by the App Store's "lottery" effect to develop several apps in the hopes that one might be a hit, but they could benefit themselves by honing in on apps that perform their intended functions exceptionally well.

    "Developers would be better served by investing more strongly in fewer, better apps, trying to build a real business," Simmons said.

    "I think the best answer is to create narrow or shallow apps that do just one thing and do it well," Kafasis added. "This can result in great, focused apps." He warned, however, that always taking this approach will leave a gaping hole where apps with greater functionality could be successful. "Deeper, more expensive apps do have a place."

    App Promo's reasoning behind the survey is to show the benefit of marketing to app success—51 percent of developers didn't set aside any budget for marketing. The developers we spoke to agreed it was critical to fuel early adoption, which could lead to breaking into the top charts.

    "It used to be easier to get away without spending any money on marketing, but now it's quite hard to make a dent in the market without that," McCarron said.

    "If an app isn't charting, and it isn't featured by Apple, the only way users are likely to find it is through the developer's marketing efforts," added Kafasis.

    Even still, success isn't guaranteed.

    "I think that there's little correlation between how much time and effort you put into an app and how successful it is," Kwok told Ars. "My most successful apps were fairly easy to make, but just happened to be in the right market at the right time. The apps I've spent the most time and effort on ended up being flops."

    Developer Jonathan Rentzsch had slightly more cynical advice for developers considering breaking in to the iOS market. Instead of going into business for yourself, consider contracting out work to larger companies with big budgets.

    "It's no secret that the money in the App Store is the contracts writing the apps, not in selling the apps themselves," he said.
  2. thewitt macrumors 68020


    Sep 13, 2011
    There are ways to make money in the App Store, but you do have to write a quality app with an actual market in mind...
  3. miles01110 macrumors Core


    Jul 24, 2006
    The Ivory Tower (I'm not coming down)
    Did you read the article? A lot of app developers do just that. One of the many points in the article is that even if the app is great and people are searching for it, it doesn't necessarily show up where it should in the search results. Thus, a quality app targeted at a specific market isn't usually enough to be successful.
  4. Moonjumper macrumors 68000


    Jun 20, 2009
    Lincoln, UK
    There are some very poor apps that understandably don't do well, but there are good apps that sell very poorly as well.

    The App Store is not a lottery, because the developers can influence their chances, but luck is still needed.

    My first iOS game, ShootStorm, is decent, but I never expected it to be a big hit as retro arcade games are a bit too niche. But I did expected it to do a lot better than it did. If you are off the radar, sales can be minuscule, even with something good.

    Not giving up though. Looking for a publisher for my next game as marketing is where I am particularly weak, and marketing does need to be very strong on the flooded App Store.

    Do not become a developer thinking it will be easy money. I started working in video games 15 years ago and still have a lot to learn. My next game is better than the first. I am now working on my third iOS game, and I think it is my best work ever. If it is a success, I think I will have earned it, but I know I will have been very lucky as well.
  5. bobenhaus macrumors 6502a

    Mar 2, 2011
    and people always complain about the android market. double-standards again eh?
  6. cynics macrumors G4

    Jan 8, 2012
    Like mentioned in the article. If I search "shoot storm" the free version is like 10 down from the top. I never would have known it existed if I didn't know to search "shootstorm"....
  7. thewitt macrumors 68020


    Sep 13, 2011
    Yes I read the article, and run a very successful application development house...

    You do have to market your product, not simply put it on the shelf and hope it sells.

    We market to our customers. They buy because we told them about our apps, not because they stumbled into the in the App Store.

    It's no different than selling any other product.
  8. Eso macrumors 68000


    Aug 14, 2008
    Most developers should lose all their money because most apps are junk. Even so, the way that every app store is organized is just terrible
  9. Mak47 macrumors 6502a

    Mar 27, 2011
    Harrisburg, PA
    Most businesses fail.
    Most movies aren't profitable.
    Most records don't make any money.
    Water is wet.
    Grass is green.

    Why is anything in that article a surprise? All the App Store does is put your product on the shelf. You still need to give people a reason to buy it. Marketing and advertising are the developer's responsibility, just like they are with a record label releasing something on iTunes.

    I can make the single greatest rock album of all time, but if I don't tell anybody about it, no one will buy it. I can put it in iTunes, the biggest music store on the planet, but again--nobody knows, nobody buys.

    The advantage is in the distribution channel. iOS developers have access to the most profitable application distribution system ever made. They still need to advertise their product to an appropriate audience. If they do, it's a high quality app, and it was developed using good financial sense, they will likely make a profit.

    If it's just like a dozen other apps, doesn't work right or the developer spent ridiculous amounts of money to make it, then it won't' be profitable. The product and all the work that goes into it is yours, Apple just provides a shelf and a price tag.
  10. flyguy206 macrumors 6502a

    Aug 5, 2008
    good post people think just getting it in the app store alone is enough. if you make a good app that people want and need then you will make money. People to busy trying to make an app that is already been done.
  11. aznsmith macrumors newbie

    Dec 20, 2009
    Am I the only one to think that the statistics actually promotes a good chance of success? Like most responses, good business planning is the main ingredient that appears left out with most app development projects.
  12. gpsouza macrumors 6502


    Jan 1, 2012
    That is life.

    You make more money with an **** app with a good marketing than an great app with no marketing.

    EDIT: But I do belive that the app store should renew itself... Some apps are clearly using illegal strategies to promote themselves, such as creating fake ID's to rate and comment the app.
  13. Redjericho macrumors 6502a

    Sep 16, 2011
  14. transam7816 macrumors regular

    Mar 7, 2008
    Didn't feel like reading that much but there's a risk in everything. Tough luck, learn, and move on.
  15. kdarling macrumors P6


    Jun 9, 2007
    First university coding class = 47 years ago
    I wrote my first commercial app in the early 1980s.

    Back in those "old days", when a reseller took a percentage, in return they advertised your app in related magazines and promoted it at national computer shows.

    Now the app stores just take the money.
  16. twigman08 macrumors 6502

    Apr 13, 2012
    stupid article.

    Seriously, this is no difference than anything else. Forget that we are making apps and lets just say we make video games for the 360 or PS3. If we expect our game to sell really well and the development company to actually make a little money then we must market the game. Just setting the game on the shelf will not work anymore!

    Why do big games like COD, Battlefield and Madden sell so well? People talk about it! The word gets out! Their are entirely too many app developers now that expect their app to just automatically sell well and when it doesn't they cry and say it is a terrible system.
  17. Syk macrumors 6502a

    Jun 20, 2010
    I agree you're going to have to promote your app via websites or giving free copies to people who can help you promote them

    That said the app store does need some work. I've searched for things and not get hits. It's almost as if it has to be spelled exactly

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