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I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

App Rot

Look around your iPad for a minute. How are its third-party apps doing?

Are they all being actively updated? Are they all built for iOS 7 yet? You never see any non-Retina graphics, iOS 6 keyboards, or old-style controls anymore, right?

Have you looked for any great new iPad apps recently? Did the market seem vibrant, with multiple good choices?

New iOS apps you care about are still launching with iPad versions, and they seem well-cared-for, right?1

Are you confident that they’ll be updated to take advantage of iOS 8 shortly after its release?

I hope you’ve said yes to everything, and I’m the anomaly. Because while I’m not the most devoted or frequent iPad user, the software landscape on mine has become alarmingly stagnant.

*   *   *

Apple’s App Store design is a big part of the problem. The dominance and prominence of “top lists” stratifies the top 0.02% so far above everyone else that the entire ecosystem is encouraged to design for a theoretical top-list placement that, by definition, won’t happen to 99.98% of them. Top lists reward apps that get people to download them, regardless of quality or long-term use, so that’s what most developers optimize for. Profits at the top are so massive that the promise alone attracts vast floods of spam, sleaziness, clones, and ripoffs.

Quality, sustainability, and updates are almost irrelevant to App Store success and usually aren’t rewarded as much as we think they should be, and that’s mostly the fault of Apple’s lazy reliance on top lists instead of more editorial selections and better search.

The best thing Apple could do to increase the quality of apps is remove every top list from the App Store.

I hope Apple realizes how important it is to everyone — developers, customers, and Apple — that they make changes to encourage more high-quality apps. If they’re trying to boost iPad sales and increase differentiation between iOS and Android devices, that’s the first place to start.

But that won’t solve the biggest problem. (Neither will upgrade pricing, trials, or any other theoretical panacea.)

*   *   *

The app market is becoming a mature, developed industry, with vastly increased commoditization compared to its early days. Competition is ubiquitous, relentless, and often shameless, even in categories that were previously under-the-radar niches. Standing out requires more effort than ever, yet profits are harder to come by than ever.2

Full-time iOS indie developers — people who make the majority of their income from sales of their apps, rather than consulting or other related work — are increasingly rare. I thought Brent Simmons would get flooded with counterexamples when he proposed that there are very few, but he didn’t.

Consulting isn’t immune to decline, either. Clients were spending top dollar on app development in 2008 because they had to, as almost nobody could make apps. Now, mobile-app developers are everywhere. App development is no longer a specialty — it’s a commodity.

I’m not the only one seeing this. Here’s Matt Gemmell:

There’s a chill wind blowing, isn’t there? I know we don’t talk about it much, and that you’re crossing your fingers and knocking on wood right now, but you do know what I mean.

We’ve had our (latest) software Renaissance in the form of the mobile platforms and their App Stores, and I think the software biz is now starting to slide back towards consolidation and mega-corps again. It’s not a particularly great time to be an indie app developer anymore.

Small shops are closing. Three-person companies are dropping back to sole proprietorships all over the place. Products are being acquired every week, usually just for their development teams, and then discarded.

Luc Vandal:

Let’s face it, the app gold rush is well over. It is now much harder to make it into the market and it requires more planning, financial investment and time. … I have spoken with other successful developers and many told me the same: sales are generally down. They are still doing great but there are more and more competitors are also taking a slice of the same pie.

Gus Mueller:

I’m in my tenth year as a full time indie dev (so I can claim to have a bit of perspective). And I think that yes, it is much harder these days to go indie.

Why though?

I think it comes down to a handful of reasons, but the major one is that we have more potential customers than ever, but we also have more developers than ever.

Jared Sinclair’s sales figures for Unread, which launched to rave reviews from major writers in our community:

Considering the enormous amount of effort I have put into these apps over the past year, that’s a depressing figure. I try not to think about the salary I could earn if I worked for another company, with my skills and qualifications. It’s also a solid piece of evidence that shows that paid-up-front app sales are not a sustainable way to make money on the App Store.

These pressures are taking an immense toll on the quality and sustainability of iOS apps. I picked on the iPad earlier because its problem is deeper and more visible than on the iPhone today: while the iPad has most of the pricing and competitive pressure of the iPhone, the iPhone’s immense installed base can hide the problems for longer. The iPad has a much smaller installed base, so iPad development is even harder to justify.

But the iPhone app market has the same fate. It’s most of the way there already.

*   *   *

As the economics get tighter, it becomes much harder to support the lavish treatment that developers have given apps in the past, such as full-time staffs, offices, pixel-perfect custom designs of every screen, frequent free updates, and completely different iPhone and iPad interfaces.

Many will give up and leave for stable, better-paying jobs. (Many already have.) But there’s a way forward for those of us who want to stay.

When other industries mature and deal with these pressures, the survivors are those who can adapt and — to borrow a horrible phrase for corporations to justify downsizing and convince the remaining workers to accept more work without a raise — do more with less.

That’s where we are today.

Benjamin Mayo in response to the Unread numbers, emphasis mine:

You have to be efficient with your time to make good ROI’s on the App Store. … If you want to maximise your profitability, make small apps that do a few things well. The amount of effort you put into an app has very little to do with how much of the market will buy it.

Brent Simmons on standard vs. custom controls a few weeks ago:

A big problem is the cost of all this development. … It’s probably necessary for indies to make more than just one iPhone app. Do the same app on Macintosh. Maybe make a second or third app.

Not long ago this would have been very, very expensive — because we believed (rightly) that we had to do custom versions of all the things.

But now, I most emphatically suggest getting out of that mindset. Use standard components in the expected ways as much as possible. Create custom things only when absolutely needed.

Efficiency is key. And efficiency means doing more (or all) of the work yourself, writing a lot less custom code and UI, dropping support for older OSes, and providing less customer support.3

Apple is greatly helping our efficiency. Every version of iOS brings new capabilities that make previously difficult features much easier. iOS 7’s redesign gave indie developers a huge advantage by making the stock UI cool again.

iOS 8 helps even more. Extensions open up vast new markets and give our apps a lot more functionality for very little effort. CloudKit removes the need for many apps to run web services. Adaptive Layout will remove the need for most apps to code radically different UIs for their iPad and iPhone versions, instead providing a responsive-web-like method of automatically rearranging one UI to fit any size screen.

It’s not going to be an easy road, but it’s possible to adapt and keep going.


  1. Ignore my recent contribution to this problem. 

  2. It’s too early to know, but I doubt Overcast will have the financial success that Instapaper did. Instapaper rode the App Store boom because it was in the right place, at the right time, solving the right need — and Instapaper 1.0 only took three months to develop, even as my first Objective-C app and with the relatively primitive iPhone OS 2.0 SDK. Overcast has taken over a year of work to make a 1.0 that could be competitive in a much more crowded and narrower market, and there’s still a lot I need to do. 

  3. Much of Overcast’s interface, language, attitude, and abilities are intentionally designed to minimize support email. I’m trying to keep Overcast as cheap as possible to operate, and that includes doing support myself for as long as I can. 

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