The Idea Dude


Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPad, a tablet for all seasons

Being iPhone app developers, we looked forward to Apple's iPad announcement with great anticipation. Secretly, I hoped it would be a scaled down Mac instead of the oversized iPhone/iPod. Running the standard iPhone OS, it is not multi-tasking and the walled garden surrounding apps is still there. However, I would think with subsequent releases, this will change. With a 1GHz custom chip with loads more computing capability, why would you want an iPod or iPhone on steroids?

But it makes a lot of sense as a first release, Macs have never been the PC killer and the number of iPods / iPhones sold is staggering so why not make sure the iPad can access the 140,000+ apps out there.

The opinion around me is pretty interesting. My good friend Tony raved about it. Why? he has a Sony Reader and given that the launch price is just a little more than a Kindle, Amazon should be afraid, be very afraid. For less than $100 more, you get a sexy device that is color, has browsing capabilities, access to iTunes, AppStore and iBook. Of course, if you're a hard-core reader, you'll realize that the Kindle is better for reading outdoors and has a much longer battery life due to it's eInk technology. But humans are swayed by shimmering, colorful things and I'm sure many potential eBook reader buyers will be swayed towards Apple.

It is also a great entry level for the non-technical folk. People who have never been comfortable near computers. Now they have a personal device they can hug and hold like a book. The keyboard dock or better still, the ability to use a bluetooth keyboard is a stroke of genius. I would buy the iPad before a PC for my parents.

My son who is in the market for a netbook was disappointed. I would be too in his position. While the iPad will have iWorks, it isn't clear whether this device will be a good substitute for a netbook which is only limited by its processing power and format but in every way a full-fledged PC. No multitasking and the omission of a camera for internet chatting are serious omissions. But it is first generation so some things must wait and hopefully available later.

Nevertheless, I'm sure we'll get a couple of them in the office if only to see how we can leverage the larger format. I'm intrigued by the format. I've often felt the iPhone was great if only it was bigger.

Perhaps now is the time to ditch the iPhone, buy a very small Nokia phone or Blackberry and get the iPad. But as my son pointed out, I'd be carry 3 devices, a phone, a tablet and a Mac around with me.

For many who are die hard Blackberry users, it is an interesting device that means they don't have to give up their phone or their PC. Now even Bill can buy one without feeling guilty about ditching his Windows 7.

Monday, January 25, 2010

99c apps are not 99c songs

Somehow, somewhere down the line, we were hoodwinked into thinking 99c was the ultimate price for everything. Apple got us so used to buying songs for 99c they figured it was just a natural progression to buy apps for 99c. Given the amount of apps that have been sold, they were correct. Today over 53% of all 138,000 apps in the iTunes Appstore cost 99c. In fact only 77 of them cost more than $100.

It was a great marketing move but perhaps not so great for the small developers. The problem with 99c is that to make money you need volume. If you knew how steep the long tail curve is in the AppStore, you'll realize that the percentage of people actually making a decent living from iPhone apps is in the single digits. Given there are probably 30,000 or more developers out there, starving is the word of the day.

What continues to baffle me is to see high quality apps next to some pretty crappy ones for exactly the same price... 99c. Having developed around 29 of our apps, we know what it takes to write a good one, the effort is in the weeks if not months.

Here's why 99c apps are not 99c songs. Songs, (especially the popular artists) have the backing of some pretty large music companies who have invested thousands into each artist. The studio time, producers, promoters etc. They generally have well-oiled and well-funded marketing machines that put the faces of their artists in supermarkets, TV. There are established distribution channels, i.e. radio stations that play the songs over and over again until you end up buying. The appstore has none of these advantages unless you're an EA or already have a large brand and online/offline presence. i.e. if you're a standalone developer, the future looks bleak, better buy a lottery ticket.

At the end of the day, there are some pretty good apps languishing at the bottom of the pile. You spend months working on your masterpiece only to get swamped by 60+ apps on the same day you launched. Talk about drowning in noise. To say the good will float to the top is not correct, that is only true if there is steady state and the cream is given a chance to rise. Keep stirring the pot vigorously, nothing rises but just a whole lot of churning.

Even in the music world, only a handful of artists get valuable airtime and make a whole bunch of money. The rest are hopefuls and has-beens.

The key is not to try and create apps that sell a million, that's a nice to have. But to create apps that address a niche, a demographic who are passionate about a topic like you are and are prepared to pay 4.99 or 9.99. That is the business.

At the end of the day 99c apps are not 99c songs. Right now the appstore is akin to every American Idol hopeful, recording a song on their iPhone and posting it to iTunes for 99c. (The recent auditions in Chicago yielded 13 finalists from 12,000). If they don't let that happen on iTunes, why should it happen in the Appstore?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Great apps are not great on day one (or why there are more and more bad apps in the AppStore)

It's pretty common knowledge that unless you have deep pockets and high risk tolerance, it's really hard to market iPhone apps. If you follow the forums, advertising in traditional web channels are not that successful unless you doing it with a brand which generally means big bucks.

So the best way is to be mentioned by well known websites like New York Times, MacWorld or a raving blog celebrity. Given there are over 126,000 apps, that is like winning the lottery at best.

The reason why advertising on the web is tough is the context. Most people get their apps when they are actually on the iPhone, e.g. waiting for the bus, or having some time to kill. The first thing they do is look at the Top 25, What's Hot and New. Which means unless you're in the first 50, forget about mindshare.

In the past, updating your app meant you were actually put into the new list along with other brand new apps ensuring that at least for a day or two depending on your category, your app would potentially be seen by millions.

Now this may seem like people would be gaming the system by adding features just to get to the New list and we all did. But it wasn't a bad thing because given the 2-3 week cycle to approve apps in the past, no-one could really abuse the system. The most you could update your app was generally once a month.

There were no losers because developers were motivated to add more to the apps and users would get the benefit since all upgrades to apps are free. So for the community, it meant over time, the good apps really got better. Of course, if your app did really badly, you didn't care to update it anyway and it would sink to the bottom through natural attrition.

Late last year, that all changed. Only brand new apps made it to the new list and the updated apps were no where to be seen. I'm assuming that as the number of apps increased in the store, the number of updating apps exceeded the new apps, a problem that only gets worse as the total number of apps increases. So Apple stopped 'promoting' updated apps.

So what did that mean for developers with existing apps. Having lost one of the most important marketing channels, I believe a large number of them will stop updating their apps on a regular basis preferring to submit new ones. Worst still, since there is no rule about submitting similar apps, I believe many will and did basically reskin the same app and submit under a different name.

As a small developer, my choice when waking up in the morning is a) work on an existing app, b) work on a new app which will at least be seen by millions for a few days, c) change my existing app with a few new features and submit as a new app to get on the new list, d) make existing users pay for upgrades which is non-trivial requiring the developer to keep track of users and add a registration process.

So what's the upshot? The good apps don't get better or deeper in functionality. There will be a lot of similar apps that all do the same thing with very little depth. The number of apps increases dramatically increasing Apple's cost of maintaining the Appstore.

What's the quick fix? I agree that having updating apps swamp the New list is not desirable. But there should be another list, a Recently Updated list which does showcase updated apps. I'm sure it is a great way to resurrect tired apps, get developers a motivation to create really deep and useful apps and benefits the users because apps aren't generally great on day 1.

Here's the kicker. Great apps are generally not great on day one. Unless you're well-funded, the strategy most developers take is the spaghetti one. Throw something against the wall and see what sticks. If it sticks, make it better.

I would argue the best apps in the appstore are those that have been around at least 6 months and been updated 4-5 times. You can be sure many of the early bugs are fixed and a host of good features gleaned from user feedback are in there.

Email Signature Pro is a good case in point, it has grown with every update and 90% of the features added subsequent to the first release are from customer feedback. It meets the needs of our users because we listened. The only suggestions we didn't do were those that were not currently possible on the iPhone platform.

We have 28 other iPhones, many of them are free. Why would we spend a week updating a free app when there is very little marketing return. Unless it is a highly popular, there is no incentive.

We love the iPhone and the AppStore. But love doesn't pay the rent.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Unscrambling the egg

I can't believe I haven't blogged this year. It has been crazy. There's definitely a new sense of optimism in the city and with our clients. Feels like everyone woke up on 1 Jan and realized they are a year behind. In just two weeks, we've hit some great milestones in our consulting work, found some long lost friends and made a couple of new ones. Not to mention some new opportunities on the horizon.

But that has nothing to with unscrambling the egg. The title probably should have been something like "Software development is a non-linear activity". But that would be boring.

I read a book about magicians a long time ago. Every year, they would gather for a contest to see who had the neatest trick. One particular one did the most simple thing, he scrambled an egg and proceed to unscramble it, drawing gasps of amazement from his peers.

The story has always stuck with me. Unscrambling the egg is the holy grail. Whoever can figure it out will unlock the secrets of the universe.

I digress once again. Looking back at the last few months, it is interesting to see even with years of software development experience we still get it wrong when it comes to estimation. Most of the time, we get it right to within days. Usually the pragmatic estimate is the average guess of Tony and myself. He tends to be more conservative and me, well let's just say I've often said "how hard can it be?".

But there is always that one feature that looks like an iceberg. Looks pretty simple but in reality as you get close you realize 90% of the work lies hidden. Which leads to the maxim, if you going in at a fix price, charge as much as the client will bear otherwise, your effective earnings will be one sixth of what you thought it will be. A better way is build a relationship with your client and bill on a hourly basis with an estimate of the final outcome. That way, you don't end up cutting corners to save time and the client pays a fair price. End of the day it is a win-win, you get to earn a fair wage and the client gets a quality product. The thing I learnt over the years, is to be open with the client and share the issues. You'll be amazed that they are actually quite understanding if they feel like they are part of the problem. What they don't like is surprises, especially nasty ones.

But software development is sometimes like scrambling and unscrambling an egg. The 80/20 rule is often more like 90/10. You get 90% of the feature in 10% of the time and then hit the wall. This is when you're unscrambling the egg, i.e. it takes a lot lochrome://intouchlink/content/buttons/itl-second-home.pngnger, and sometimes not possible. That last 10% could be a simple change to the way the user interface works or restoring a saved state in a multi-input wizard.

I remember the time a team of 40 developers stood around for a couple days while one developer had to fix a particulachrome://intouchlink/content/buttons/itl-second-home.pngr nasty Windows related bug. The problem is it is not linear and proportional to the time you took to do the first 90%. The last mile is often the killer. Ask any marathon runner...

So next time you hit a wall in whatever you do, remember how easy it was to unscramble an egg but it is difficult if not impossible to unscramble one.

A belated Happy New Year!