To say that Apple’s iTunes App Store is a huge success is understatement personified. A few billion downloads. Over 100,000 apps. Maybe 70-million customers. And more than a few disgruntled iPhone application developers. Why? Follow the money trail.
Apple’s success with the iTunes App Store isn’t matched by the problems, though the latter have garnered more headlines in the less than 18 months the store has been open for business.
Problems? Apple controls what gets sold and what doesn’t get sold through an arcane, arbitrary, seemingly convoluted approval process that has some iPhone app developers going AWOL.
The App Store’s success is also a major failing. It takes Apple days, weeks, months to approve new applications as well as updates. Sometimes the approval process garners headlines for ridiculousness.
Apple says they’re reviewing and approving hundreds of iPhone apps, games, utilities every day. Unfortunately, a few developers and their apps get trampled upon by the work-in-process process.
While it’s true that there are many success stories in the App Store, 99-cent price tags and a secure spot in the middle of the pack cannot bode well for most apps. In other words, it’s a competitive landscape, prices are very low (relative to software sold for Macs and PCs), and profits difficult to find.
100,000 apps is probably a few tens of thousands of applications too many for iPhone developers to make any money. This despite the fact that iPhone and iPod touch sales continue to grow.
Some of our technology pundits suggest that with 100,000 apps most of them are crap. Crap is a relative term. How about most are mediocre? That still leaves thousands and thousands of superbly crafted applications, games, utilities and many millions of satisfied customers.
So, what’s the problem?
The Sour Grapes Trail
Among others, Facebook developer Joe Hewitt is one of a few high profile iPhone software developers who called it quits: From TechCrunch:
My decision to stop iPhone development has had everything to do with Apple’s policies. I respect their right to manage their platform however they want, however I am philosophically opposed to the existence of their review process. I am very concerned that they are setting a horrible precedent for other software platforms, and soon gatekeepers will start infesting the lives of every software developer.
RogueAmoeba ran into Apple’s app approval process and decided to jettison future efforts for Airfoil Speakers Touch. Paul Kafasis:
Rogue Amoeba no longer has any plans for additional iPhone applications, and updates to our existing iPhone applications will likely be rare. The iPhone platform had great promise, but that promise is not enough, so we’re focusing on the Mac.
Jeff Lamarche of iPhone Development suggested that RogueAmoeba was to blame for the tardy approval process by stepping on Apple’s trademarks.
Rogue Amoeba has valid concerns, but they don’t have anything to do with constitutionally protected rights. I don’t have a right, for example, to sell products in Wal Mart if Wal Mart doesn’t want my products on their shelves. Wal Mart owns their stores and gets to say what goes on the shelves. It’s not a violation of my rights that I can’t force Wal Mart to sell whatever I want them to sell. Same goes for Apple. If the terms aren’t acceptable, you’re free to go develop for another platform.
Daring Fireball’s John Gruber sliced and diced The Airfoil Speakers Touch Situation ad nauseum. Everyone seems to have missed a few very important points and problems.
The True Money Trail
First, the competition for attention and sales between 100,000 very inexpensive apps, games, utilities, all competing for buyers means that many developers just don’t make any money. Facebook’s app? Free, right? If substantial money was involved would Joe Hewitt be so quick to leave the iPhone platform?
If RogueAmoeba’s Airfoil Speakers Touch application was a hot seller and making money, would they be so quick to dump their iPhone development efforts?
That question can be repeated hundreds or thousands of times to the relatively small number developers who openly hate the App Store approval process and Apple’s heavy hand (and seeming inept handling of approvals). But the answer probably is the same. Sales covers a multitude of problems. Only the fittest survive.
Second, most App Store customers don’t care much about the approval process or the developer problems. They’re excited that the iPhone has such a wide, rich, and varied pool of apps, games, utilities from which to choose. Nothing else is even close.
Finally, Apple’s real problem here is the runaway success of the iPhone and iPod touch and the App Store. Success, like anything else, must be managed. Apple is good at counting money, good at providing customers with attractive gadgets, and obviously not so good at managing developers.
Guess what? Apple probably doesn’t care much about the grumblers because there are plenty of developers who don’t mind the arcane approval processes in exchange for a piece of the action—so long as the piece they get is financially worthwhile.
Without question there will be a shakeout of apps and developers over the next few years. Some will reap more success (sales and profits), others will stop their efforts and move on. Software is like life. It’s survival of the fittest.
In the end, isn’t it always about the money? If there’s enough grease, the squeaky wheel doesn’t make much noise. I suggest that those squeaky wheels we read about from time to time are not getting a sufficient share of grease.