The Idea Dude


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.


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