Keys to success are elusive for iPhone app developers

IPhone application developers don’t need to offer an inexpensive iPhone app in order to make a dent in the marketplace, but, that said, it’s sometimes the simplest applications that derive the most high-profile attention.

October 7, 2009

4 Min Read
Keys to success are elusive for iPhone app developers

By Tammy Parker

IPhone application developers don’t need to offer an inexpensive iPhone app in order to make a dent in the marketplace, but, that said, it’s sometimes the simplest applications that derive the most high-profile attention.

Those were two of the lessons I learned at the recent 360iDev conference. The 225 or so attendees at this event, held in Denver, appeared to be acolytes of Apple CEO Steve Jobs (though that is exactly how one attendee said he did not want to be described). For the most part, they didn’t seem interested in developing apps for Google’s Android OS, Windows Mobile, Palm’s webOS or anything without the Apple brand on it.

It’s difficult to blame these apps designers for what might seem a myopic view of the mobile world. After all, in September 2008, the nascent Apple App Store, which had launched in July 2008, recorded 100 million apps downloads. That number leapt to a staggering 2 billion downloads by late September 2009. There are now in excess of 85,000 apps available to the more than 50 million iPhone and iPod Touch customers worldwide. The Apple App store is where the action is, which is why more than 125,000 developers have joined Apple’s iPhone Developer Program.

Dan Burcaw, CEO of Denver-based mobile software development company Double Encore, observed that the iPhone’s influence has likely impacted more than just the mobile phone industry. He displayed a graph showing that the numbers of Twitter “uniques” – such as individual tweets – have very closely mimicked the same hockey-stick growth trajectory over the past year as that exhibited by the numbers of Apple App Store downloads. Burcaw contends that the iPhone has contributed hugely to Twitter’s growth as a social-networking phenomenon because people are using their iPhones to upload their up-to-the-minute tweets. “Mobile can change a business,” said Burcaw.

Greg Yardley, CEO of New York-based Pinch Media, offered some surprising facts about iPhone downloads. His firm’s Pinch Analytics software collects anonymous usage data from mobile applications and presents it in aggregated form so developers can learn how their application is being used. Pinch Analytics currently supports only the iPhone and iPod Touch.

The firm’s research shows that the average paid app averages 9,300 downloads, while the average free app averages 71,000 downloads. However, paid apps tend to be used more than free apps, which may be because the buyer has a financial investment, and thus more of an emotional connection, in a paid app. This is especially true in the health-and-fitness category, where the average free app may only get used seven times but a paid app generates an average of 28 uses.

Though iPhone apps developers complain about downward pricing pressure, Yardley said that in the realm of paid apps, the number of downloads is not necessarily linked to price. For instance, there are more US$4.99 apps downloaded than apps in any other price point.

Nonetheless, one of the applications that garnered considerable media attention when it launched this past spring was a low-end US$0.99 app – the Bad Decision Blocker, created by Double Encore. The BDB app enables a user to block out a person’s email address and phone number for a specific period of time, mainly to prevent incidents of “drunk-dialing.”  The idea behind the app is that if someone knows they’re going out on a Friday night to visit a few bars, they might be wise to activate the BDB so that they won’t be able to make the classic faux pas of calling or emailing a former love interest in the middle of the night to suggest getting back together. The app’s tongue-in-cheek tagline is, “Protecting you from yourself.”  The public-relations campaign behind the BDB app was aided by the fact that the product was released the same week that Google’s Gmail unveiled “Undo Send,” a somewhat similar app that deals with email remorse by letting a sender click a panic button to pull back an email within five seconds of sending it.

But the most intriguing tidbit of history about the BDB app is that it was created almost as an afterthought. The developers at Double Encore were having a slow week, so they decided to kill some time by creating the BDB app. As Burcaw noted, the application was one of the less-elegant ones that his firm has come up with, but it has resonated with the mass media as well as the public.

Clearly there is still more art than science involved in predicting which apps will find success through the Apple App Store. Meanwhile, the legions of faithful Apple developers show no signs up letting up their efforts to keep creating useful, or at least entertaining, apps for the iPhone.

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