Friday, March 11, 2016

What No Indie Developer Wants to Hear About the App Store

Rene Ritchie (tweet, Hacker News, Slashdot):

Big apps get all the attention these days, just like big movie, music, or book releases — or big toy releases — and indies get what little is left, when there’s even a little left. The App Store is big business, and that’s how big business works. Only our nostalgia keeps us thinking otherwise. Just like our nostalgia for the corner store in the age of online and big box.


It is, in a word, heartbreaking. I hate hearing it as much as I hate writing it. It’s far easier to simply blame platform owners for failing to pull levers and influence economies; for treating Facebook or HBO better than they treat the 76th Notes app to launch this year.


If the absolutely capricious and often maddening review process and lack of attention really did chill innovation, though, it should be easy to point to Google Play and its over half-a-decade of relatively lax approval policies, and see year after year of ground-breaking, platform-making, device-selling apps that would never come to market on the App Store.

There are so many variables that I think it’s difficult to conclude much from two data points. Windows was also an open platform that had unexpectedly few indie success stories.

I broadly agree with Ritchie, but I don’t think it’s a case of either-or. Big apps getting most of the attention doesn’t have to preclude the sustainability of solid indie apps unless the big apps are providing what everyone wants. I don’t think they are. Lots of people look beyond the blockbuster movies for their entertainment. The same will be true of software. Apple’s goal should be to make the App Store friendly to both.

Although I think the domination of “pop” was probably inevitable, things could have been much better if Apple had taken more care in designing the App Store economy. Of course, there is no way to prove a counterfactual. And there is always the possibility that the App Store is functioning as intended—that what we see as bugs Apple sees as features that help it sell more phones, at least in the short term. That what we see as sustainability Apple sees as factors that would lessen its power.

Update (2016-03-14): Chuq Von Rospach:

I don’t think the App Stores are broken; I think they’re doing exactly what Apple wants them to, because Apple’s interest is in supporting the corporate app developers and the larger studio developers.


I’m a strong believer that the indie developers are where the innovation comes from, not to mention the next generation of experts on the platform, and that it makes sense to invest in supporting them beyond what the revenue their apps will return through sales on the platform, but in all honesty, the revenue numbers and analytics make that a tough sell, and Apple is likely in that place where there are 300 proposals on the project list for the next year, and resources for 50 of them, so how do you choose which ones make the cut? If the decisions are driven by revenue, analytics and by discussions with key partners, you start to see why the indie developer needs get neglected.

Is this not the emerging critique of Tim Cook’s Apple, that too many decisions seem to be driven by data and metrics rather than vision?

First, I’d remove apps that haven’t been updated in three years. Honestly, if you aren’t doing some kind of even minimal bug fixing when Apple releases each new version of the OS, you aren’t really trying and the app is likely abandoned.


Putting a price tag on entry into the store, even if it’s effectively a token cost, will reduce this kind of store abuse.


I would like a way to use IAP to enable something like a demo mode that unlocks to a fully enabled app. you can download it for free, once you decide you want full capability, you use IAP to unlock it. Developers can choose this to be a one-time buy (permanent capability, effectively like buying an app today) or as a subscription model with annual renewal.

Brent Simmons:

There was never a golden age for indie iOS developers. It was easier earlier on, but it was never golden.

Daniel Jalkut:

So? Make wooden toys. Metaphorically speaking, I mean.

Update (2016-03-18): Jason Snell:

Just because hand-crafted independent apps won’t rise to the top of the charts or make their developers rich and famous doesn’t mean that there won’t be demand for them. Plenty of indie musicians make a living without ever coming within a couple of orders of magnitude of Coldplay’s album sales. There’s room out there for great stuff to reach an audience that will appreciate it. You don’t have to be a hit to be a success.


Today’s world is complicated. Building one app with love and precision can still work, but it’s a harder path than it’s ever been. Users expect to switch among platforms and devices and sync with cloud services, and some independent developers won’t be able to keep up.

Update (2016-03-25): Philip Greenspun:

My personal theory about having a successful business is that you need to have either (1) a lower cost of capital than everyone else, (2) knowledge and skill that nobody else has, or (3) experience with customers and a market that few others have.

Update (2016-03-30): See also: Under the Radar, Chris Adamson, Christopher Mims, Nick Heer.

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