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July 29, 2009

The App Stores On Fire!

by shiftyjelly

It would seem lately that every man and his dog has been posting things on how much they dislike the app store. I think they all have valid points, but are also missing the forest for the trees. A lot of people ask us what we think of Apple and the App Store, so we thought we may as well write a quick post on it:

The Upsides

Firstly, let’s start with the positives, and there are a lot. Apple provides a distribution mechanism to well over 20 million iPhone/iPod Touch devices worldwide, and all they ask is a $US99 fee and 30% of the revenue generated. They handle all the payment processing, bandwidth, customer complaints and refunds without a developer having to life a finger. A lot of developers seem to forget that this platform is unique, I mean where else in the world can a fart app earn you close to a million dollars? Apple also copy protects your work for you, meaning you don’t have to worry about serial numbers and licensing. The system is not uncrackable, but the bar is set high enough that you don’t normally have to worry about piracy.

Then there’s the advertising side, for the lucky few Apple advertises our products for free. Apple picked our application Pocket Weather AU as a ‘Staff Pick’ and sales tripled overnight, and stayed high for well over a month. Our competitor Oz Weather gets even better treatment, being splashed all over magazine ads, and lit up in fluorescent glory in all the Apple stores around Australia. All this Apple does for free. I accept that if you’re not one of the chosen ones that’s not a bonus, but there is always that lucky dip aspect of magically appearing in the Staff Picks, What’s Hot or What’s New sections, or sometimes just being featured with other applications that are similar to your own.

Finally there’s the store itself, which supports browsing, reading reviews, screenshots, suggestions and a lot more. All that is great, but the better part is that this store is installed on every single iPhone and iPod Touch sold, and also on most of the desktop computers that these devices sync with.

The Downsides

Of course it would be remiss of us not to mention the many flaws in the App Store as well:

  • Review times can sometimes be almost a month, even for minor updates. As a developer there is only one thing more frustrating than releasing an application that contains a bug, and that’s not being able to get the fix to the bug into your users hands for weeks on end. It’s painful, trust us.
  • Reviews are fairly random, and things that got through in one release may not pass the second time. Every rejection (even for the most minor of matters) puts you back to the start of the queue.
  • The Review process is opaque. There’s no way to know where your application is in the queue and how long it will be before it’s looked at or approved.
  • The App store contains over 50,000 applications, even if you do a brilliant job it may still be hard to rise above the noise. Add to that the fact that competition drives prices down, and you may have a hard time charging anything more than a few dollars for your work.
  • There’s no way to charge for upgrades on the store, which is a downside if you run a server (like we do) with ongoing costs. It also discourages developers from putting effort into bigger and better releases. This is a real problem if you intend to create an application that fills a small niche, because you sure as heck can’t make up for the difference by volume.
  • When you have a problem getting paid, or with the store in general, there are no phone numbers to call, and emails more often than not don’t receive responses. At one point Apple violated their agreement with us (and many others) by not paying within 45 days of the end of the month and we emailed all the different contacts we could find, without a single response. Eventually they paid us, but it’s a damn good thing we weren’t relying on that money to feed our families.

As you can see, most of the downsides are most probably related to staffing problems at Apple. If Apple can figure out how to make the review and email processes scale, then 70% of the problems would be gone overnight and developers would be free to concentrate their whining on that last 30%. Overall the App Store has been a roller coaster that we’ve enjoyed riding. Despite that we are still holding out hope that Android and the Palm Pre take off, and give Apple the much needed incentive to improve the experience for all the developers that have made their phone such a success.

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