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Making apps for love, not money

Very few people are willing to pay for content any more, be it music, news, or apps. Singers are seeing revenues plummet thanks to streaming, web sites are folding due to lack of income, and developers aren't able to feed their families simply by selling through the App Store. There are some notable exception, but increasingly creating content is becoming unsustainable. Perhaps new business models will emerge, perhaps not. For now, it's a harsh reality the various industries are just starting to come to terms with.

Brent Simmons, writing for Inessential:

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.

Allan Pike:

when expressing frustration with the current economics of the App Store, we need to consider the effect of this mass supply of enthusiastic, creative developers. As it gets ever easier to write apps, and we're more able to express our creativity by building apps, the market suffers more from the economic problems of other creative fields.The good news and the bad news are the same: we're extremely lucky to be paid to do this. In our careers as software designers and developers, we're able to create and share things we love, and we're able to make a decent living. With luck, we'll still be able to do both at once.

It became easy enough to make apps, and the prospect of having a hit app became attractive enough, that the market was flooded. In terms of raw numbers, supply vastly exceeded demand.

Some believe that if Apple created a premium App Store, or provided for demo periods or upgrade pricing, or made it harder to develop or get apps approved, it would either increase perceived value or lower supply. Others, that if enough developers held the line on pricing, it would raise all apps.

Perhaps. But truly fantastic apps are still few and far between, and enough people seem satisfied with "free" apps that it may not matter any more.

If so, then maybe we are moving into the age of indie apps for love, not money. And hopefully we don't just get what we're willing to pay for.

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

28 Comments
  • The App Store gold rush has come to a close. Sent from the iMore App
  • Agree, but I still think there's quite a bit of potential with the Mac App Store (and for that matter, the Windows Store as well though many people would not want to mention that). For people who are having issues monetizing on iOS, they could potentially do much better on OS X (if the app is more than just an overpriced mobile app ported to desktop) and likely make a killing on the Windows Store if they're skilled enough and can make the transition. Android and iOS are too crowded now, better off trying to get paid on other ecosystems before the same thing happens there. There are entire underserved markets on OS X, Blackberry, and Windows Phone. You don't have to develop software as charity. Just cut your losses and go where the potential to make money or be noticed is better.
  • "There are entire underserved markets on OS X, Blackberry, and Windows Phone." Market share matters. The 3% market share of Windows Phone, a great deal of that being Windows' last ditch strategy of producing even cheaper phones than Android for the prepaid market, means that there simply aren't that many people around to buy your app. Blackberry? More of the same. OS X has a larger market share - ~15% - but there the competition is excellent commercial applications. It would be akin to going up against Call of Duty or Arkham Knight with Candy Crush. Maybe there would be some people willing to clutter up their MacBooks - designed for powerful general purpose software - with apps but not many. Microsoft found that out with Windows 8. They thought that they would be able to leverage their huge base of Windows PCs to grow their mobile app store, but no one wanted to run mobile apps on a laptop. If "getting noticed" is your goal, you should add Samsung's Tizen store. Now THAT ONE is wide open for the taking, but getting noticed because of lack of competition and actually having people willing to buy your app are two different things.
  • Windows 8 issues weren't the apps. Cause there are not many. OS C has a considerable app cap compared to Windows. I use both platforms. The Mac App store is anemic and a lot of the software on there is comparable to what someone would deploy on the Windows Store as a Universal app. Market share matters but that dynamic changes with Windows 10 in pretty obvious ways. Did you read my whole comment? Targeting Windows means targeting 3% phones + potentially 70%+ desktops in addition to a lot of tablets and convertibles/hybrids. And you don't have to do it as charity. A developer can do iOS, but the chances of me buying their software is almost NIL. I likely will never see it for one, and secondly theres a 90% chance that I already have and have been using any app I needed to do anything on my phone already. I don't waste time browsing app stores to replace working solution. Tizen is not comparable to Windows 10 as a platform. That's a horrible comparison.
  • No, that's short-sighted. Just like any business, making insanely good products or services that fill a need will result in a profitable business.
    The AppStore audience is so vast that it's still a valuable target.
    Now if I could just design that insanely great app, I'd be happy! Sent from the iMore App
  • That's not short-sighted. I use multiple platforms. I see the App Store and Google Play are completely saturated with tons of free and paid apps that heavily overlap each other in functionality. In many cases, there's just no way I can justify paying anything for a paid app when there are high quality completely free apps available in the target market. Why pay for Dartfish Express or Coach's Eye when Ubersense is free? Except, there's no Dartfish Express or Ubersense on Windows Phone, and the Coach's Eye app is dubious at beast in quality... so if you can develop a great mobile video analysis solution there, you can attract a lot more potential customers even with the huge disparity in users because that market is grossly underserved on Windows Phone. That's why it can be worth it to forego the major platforms and dart for a lesser used platform. Even though the user base is smaller, and the platform isn't as popular, the market dynamics make it have a higher potential for profitability than iOS and Android. You see gaping holes in the apps available in those ecosystems, so the potential to serve those markets and build a viable business in certain niches is easier and more profitable on those platforms. This is especially true with the strategy i.e. Microsoft is taking with Universal Apps - where you can very easily cross the boundaries between form factors (Smartphone and PC, increasing your potential user base for almost no extra effort). That's not short-sighted at all, and that does not mean the App Store is not a valuable target. It just means the App Store is mature and all the drawbacks of a mature market apply to it. The same thing applies to Native Windows applications. There's almost no real way to differentiate and create compelling solutions for most markets there, because those markets are already saturated with solutions, often from commercial companies with deep pockets, and also from Open Source development communities. I'd personally be more apt to target OS X than iOS at this point, personally.
  • How lucrative are the iAds for developers of free apps? Sent from the iMore App
  • Not sure, but I know a lot of users who would uninstall an app immediately if it pestered them with ads. A lot of people go to Android simply because they can use Ad Blockers to get rid of the Ads in Free Apps.
  • People were delusional to think this would last. For many it never arrived. It's been like this all along but now the market is maturing. Most, on the consumer side, that pay for apps have now found what they want that's good enough to get them by. There's still a lot of areas to build though. It just takes more money to get going though. Sent from the iMore App
  • I too have been wondering how many more apps we need. Look at any weekend supplement and there'll be the obligatory article "The x must have apps this n". It'll no doubt list a dozen 'essential' weather apps. What do we need a dozen weather apps for? We don't! We need four accurate pieces of information: temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity for the next few days, and a nice set of icons to tell us what the weather's doing: a reliable weather forecaster and a choice of skins. According to a report from mobile analytics company Adjust, nearly 80% of the 1.2 million apps currently available in Apple’s App Store have hardly any downloads at all. And the reality is; any of us only use a relatively small number of apps. Wouldn’t it be easier if apps were Open Source and coders built on the success of previous work, rather than writing the same stuff over and over again? Wouldn’t it be better to take the central core of an app and work to improve the user experience?
  • Great idea on the open source angle. I second that.
  • Sure ... if you can find a way for people to make money doing that go ahead.
  • What you are speaking of already exists ... it is called Linux. (As well as the Android Open Source Project.)
  • :) Yes I know - I'm a Linux user. The same thing is happening to apps as happens with most commodities: in a mature market, the price goes down. Look at how the music and film industries have really struggled to maintain any market over the last generation. With free alternatives being at least good enough - and often very good - we're seeing the end of the proprietary model of sales. The moral questions (for both sides) is "what's the cost of the work, and what's the value of the product".
  • Stories of rock stars or even rock star developers are just a lure to all those beginners who think that they too can be stars. Those newbies would be surprised to learn how few of those big stars make much money. These disruptive technologies are opening up the worlds of graphic design, publishing, music production, application development and so many others to anyone who can afford the computer and software. At the same time they have gutted the markets for graphic designer, publishers, music producers, application developers and so many others. It's a different world that the one we grew up in. It's getting to where the only reason to do just about anything is simply for the love of it. Just don't quit your day job...
  • This all started long before the App Store, and continues today. IF any company is responsible for the devaluation of software, it is Google. I mean, look at Apple Music. People are complaining because "look what Google gives you for free!" Sent from the iMore App
  • No. It has nothing to do with Google. This started back with the "Open Source Movement" over a decade ago. It's what basically killed the Shareware market on Windows. It really just sort of blew open most markets for software development. Client, and Server software. Media Players, Productivity Software, Development Tools, everything. Open Source projects just cloned functionality and put the software out there for free, and it made it inviable for a lot of developers to keep maintaining software and trying to sell it when the base price of comparable solutions were driven down to 0. Google didn't really kill software. This started happening back in the Dial-Up days and around the Dot-Com Bubble. Google's software is all web-based and a lot of their software alternatives to desktop software are pretty recent in development (within the past 5 years or so) and acquisitions (Picasa, etc.). To counter this, a lot of developers are going the service route, instead of developing just client software solutions. This is precisely why even companies like Microsoft and Apple have turned to integrating cloud services into their Media and Productivity Software, across their platform and form-factors, and then enhancing functionality there.
  • The open source scene wasn't created to kill the shareware market. A lot of open source applications predate most forms of shareware. You could even argue that many commercial applications actually cloned functionality of open source apps, put a fancy skin on top of them (once GUIs became available) and charged money for it. OS X and iOS wouldn't even exist in their current forms if not for open source.
  • It wasn't created for that at all. It just had that effect. No use buying cheap startup software when you could get software with the same features for free. It collapsed the developer tools market for example, leaving only the enterprise customers actually buying them because compiler toolchains were commoditized on every platform. Every market suffered.
  • Saying it had nothing to do with Google is short sighted. Open Source was the enabler. Google implemented it in a way no one had before. More importantly, Google created the mindset that this is how software and services should be. Sent from the iMore App
  • Google want the first web services company. The commercial software market started to suffer long before Google really built up their other web services. Its like you're looking at 2015 and not thinking about 2000-2010.
  • There's still plenty of opportunity for hits, it's just that most apps will not provide anything close to a decent income for developers. The same situation has existed since, well, forever in the music and movie businesses. Apps are now the same as music singles... they're entertainment. So what's the solution? Developers need to be creative about partnering, about developing for corporate clients and either be more careful about investing a lot of time and money into something that may not pay off. Perhaps simpler, more clever apps are an alternative?
  • I'm not sure a Corporate Client is going to want to invest in your amazing idea for yet another Camera App, Twitter Client, or whatever... When those markets are basically dominated by very few players on the platform. Also, services like Google Now and Cortana are killing the need for many types of apps as well. Why download/install an app on your PC/Smartphone when you can just ask Cortana/Google Now and she will give you all the info that you want. You don't even need a calulator on your PC these days, anymore, because you can just type all that into a search box and get the freaking answer back instantly (sometimes in real time as you're typing the text into the box!) I mean, when I read app reviews... I just can't help but thinking that many people do everything they can to make the defaults on the device look at horrible as possible just so they can justify downloading a redundant app to their phone or tablet, Lol.
  • I am happy to pay for good software. I'm also more than willing to pay for software vs. deal with ads within the software. I still think some App Store changes like upgrade pricing and trials periods would help developers. Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree with this comment. The problem is people never try the costlier solution because they aren't sure it's worth the extra money. For some it might not be, but I suspect others my buy it if they were able to trial it. The upgrade pricing is really a head scratcher to me, why this isn't offered already is a real cause for loss of money for developers, either charging new app pricing for V2 or letting everyone upgrade for free is not a good business model.
  • Agree. Whenever there is a paid version and a free version of an app I use, I always choose paid. Both because I hate in-app ads and I want to support the developer.
  • Rene - I find it a little ironic that I'm sitting here on my iPad reading this article and there are ads interspersed with the actual text in the article, on the side of the article, and below the comments. What happens to imore when the ad blockers come out?
  • With respect to Brent Simmons comments, he works for a company that charges a lot for software on iOS that quite frankly has never been stable. So, I'm not sure that he should be yelling about this as loud as he is. I'm referring to omnigraffle, btw. Also, with Qbranch they created an app that tried to fill a gap that wasn't there. It's like they thought their notoriety you would ride them through or something. Not sure, but that app for what they were charging was not worth it considering what was available for free. The features weren't compelling enough to pay for it. Sent from the iMore App