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What no indie developer wants to hear about the App Store (imore.com)
101 points by tambourine_man on Mar 12, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

> I fear we've moved into an era where pop — popular, light, snackable, mass-market — apps, not indie apps

This is some pretencious bullshit if I've ever seen some. "Uhh, you like them 'pop' apps, go back to your herd you sheeple". Like what the hell even is indie app? Based on this context it's anything that isn't doing so well or is "underground" that's not what indie means, it just means "independent" as in it's few guys/gals doing it on their free time.

And what is actually preventing author from giving money to indie app developers "I would if I could", bullshit, have you actually contacted the devs and asked if they would setup a paypal for monthly donations? I doubt it. Sure there are some people who develop apps just for fun and don't want to feel obligated to update the apps (i.e. they don't want paying customers), but I'm sure many on your "indie app list" would be willing to take your money if you just offered it.

This was my feel too.

I doubt the author would admit it, but, I think a lot of hyperbole is due to long-standing "Mac devs" and the author's circle of friends and acquaintances being unable to sustain a living from (merely) writing their own apps. Which is especially frustrating for them as the audience has grown dramatically over the past 5+ years.

Sure, the supply has grown considerably, and with that there are more 'light, snackable, mass-market apps'. But, that's what happens when the barrier to entry gets lower, and supply increases.

It is a true shame when we lose gifted 'indie' developers and some truly fantastic apps. But, no one has a right to a living.

Interestingly, and perhaps a hidden message in this article, is that there are significant parallels to draw to journalism.

So how's this different from Shareware in the 90's?

I don't think anyone then (i don't know for sure, because I know no one who actually put out shareware, personally) expected to get rich making software that spread like wildfire via floppy disk, but that's somehow changed (replace floppy disk with "social media"). I'd posit that the difference is expectations of grandeur that the startup culture (combined with pop culture) have created.

A few did end up making a living at it--at least for a while. But, right, it was a vanishingly small percentage. I probably did better than most and I still certainly wasn't about to give up my day job.

I think another difference today is that shareware, for the most part, was clearly separate and distinct from retail software. Today, the lines are much more blurred.

Kagi existed since the mid 90's at least, so it was easy to take folks money as a shareware developer.

Imagine how shareware might have taken off if easy payment existed then. The payment model was often dollar bills in the mail. Or international reply coupons, anyone remember those?

I had a deal with a local VAR (who also ran the BBS I belonged to) so that I could take credit cards in a pinch. But, yeah, I spent way too many evenings getting all the checks ready to take to the bank and stuffing floppies into mailers.

To your point though, I think the changing factors that would have made it much easier in many respects to operate a shareware business by the late 90s also led to a market dynamic where very few people were willing to pay for anything that wasn't nailed down. (This was always true to a degree of course but it was amplified once the mass market got online.)

The bar gets higher and people who aren't keeping up with the new requirements pine for the days they were able to - years ago the hard part was the technical feat of building the app.

> But, no one has a right to a living.

On the contrary, I think that should be a basic human right. But hey. Communism.

In this context though, the devs should change their strategy.

In context, no one has a right to make a living in the exact manner of their choosing, on the terms of their choosing. By principle of charity, let's assume that's what was meant.

No one has a right to make other people pretend their app is worth paying for. Just take your dole and keep the line moving, comrade.

> 'light, snackable, mass-market apps'.

I don't get this. What makes an app "snackable"? Like: "Ohh, it's so easy to use, fuck that! Cool guys configure their apps in source code and compile them themselves". I've never understood why people feel that instantly something is popular it must suck or be bad.

I could easily make a twitter app that would require you to donate $5 to a charity, run a mile and press a button 100 times everytime you tweet. This sure as hell isn't snackable or mass marketable. Am I now part of the cool kids club?

> Like what the hell even is indie app?

In the Mac world, and now iOS which most of this article refers to, the term indie developers has a more specific meaning. It refers to a single developer or small team of a few developers that is self-funded. It almost definitely implies doing it full-time [1], and not doing this during their free time only (aka. hobbyist).

It has more or less the same meaning as used in the video games community, and similar to how it's used in film making.

Similar definition with musicians as well, at least in the 90s - an indie musician was typically not signed to a record label, and published their own CDs and merchandise and sold / mailed them directly to fans. They didn't have the resources of a huge marketing department or big record label advances, but they had direct contact with individual fans & got a much higher percentage of the profit on every sale. They could make a living from a smaller fan/customer base (The 1000 True Fans theory).

Indie video games have never been defined like that, and neither have indie films. It means independent of a major publisher, that's all. The team size or level of funding has no bearing on that.

"Independent video games (commonly referred to as indie games) are video games created by individuals or small teams generally without video game publisher financial support." - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indie_game

That was always my understanding. Wikipedia could be wrong too, of course.

There have been development studios not owned by major publishers with a couple hundred people (not many left today), these were never called 'indies', at most 'independent studios'. The term 'indie' was always only used for very small teams or single developers.

Er, that's not true - at least in the case of games. Lots of indie games have major publisher support, although generally not much in terms of funding. Look at PlayStation Network (Sony) and Xbox Live (Microsoft). Braid, Journey, Bastion (published by Warner Bros) as a few examples. Sony in particular is a big supporter of indies.

Secondly companies like Supercell aren't considered indie, despite being completely independent of any publisher.

Generally indies are defined as single devs or small teams, small budgets (usually little to no outside funding) and retain creative control.

Many studios are large enough that they have publishing departments to rival major publishers. These are never defined as indie.

So it's just about size of the team and the amount of money? Why should that be a consideration? I personally just care that the application works and does what I expect it to do. I don't care if it's done by big team or small team or a single chimpanzee from the local zoo.

Gotta agree with this one. I do app development for a living, and if you didn't put marketing in your budget, well, you didn't think it through.

One problem (not the only one) with the app store (IMHO): all users go through the same funnel (or through several hidden funnels, doesn't really matter since they don't have a say in it), but a single user doesn't care about 99.999% of app store content. For instance, I mostly care about simulation and strategy games, I don't care at all about some other genres. Where is my lovingly curated special place in the app shop that also only cares about simulation and strategy games? Where's the whole community infrastructure around those games? Where are the curators that live and breathe those games, and find the occasional hidden gem?

App stores as simple store fronts may work as long as there wasn't a lot of content (like on the game consoles). But content-wise, the iOS app store is more like the world-wide-web, just with a shitty interface (or rather: it's more like AOL). Apple won't care as long as the overall revenue from the app store keeps growing, and they are the only ones who could solve the problem.

Apple categorizes apps just like Yahoo once categorized each site in a directory. But you're not forced to browse through each category. You can simply search for the specific app name or keyword like "todo list".

Also the curators are everywhere - they're called bloggers, tweeters, Etc.

"curators are everywhere - they're called bloggers, tweeters, Etc."

That won't change the market for these apps though, there needs to be a way for curators to actually be featured in the app store itself. An example would be how Steam did it's curator-feature. Although it's not perfect, it allows you to follow a curator, or get suggestions for which curators to follow based on apps you have already downloaded. [1]

I see big opportunities for re-igniting the indie-market in this way, I'm just not sure there's an incentive for the app stores to go through with it.

[1]: http://store.steampowered.com/about/curators/

Somewhere in this direction is where I've been wanting to see the iOS and Mac App Stores go. There needs to be a method to incentivize app quality beyond the current method of a set of rules & guidelines for devs to follow, and a bunch of one-off user reviews.

Despite iOS being huge, the universe of good apps (and by extension good devs) is quite limited and tractable by human curators, especially broken down by category. No algorithm can effectively compile the variety of criteria that make up a good app (tho they can inform that compilation process). If I were ran the iOS/Mac App Stores, I'd incorporate select curators as a sort of second party relationship - independent from Apple, but chosen for their credentials in a category/area of expertise and their ability to write for a broad audience within that category. I'd give them first class treatment in the app store, with embedded commentary on why the app matters and for whom.

I think Apple employee curators have their hands tied in not being able to provide real commentary or expert opinion, and thus are not able to pick winners in any sort of explicitly reasoned way (which doesn't really incentivize increased quality, just relationship building with Apple employees). The key bit is curating the curators to ensure their independence from financial incentive and their focus on broader appeal in a given domain, like finding the Mossbergs of different categories. The super niche curators will still have blogs and social media.

Of course the path beyond second party is the Steam example, where reviewers can sort of graduate to a superuser reviewer path. I think Apple has been reticent on this front given that the App Store hasn't been a priority, and that they've had trouble with social with Ping and now even artists on Apple Music.

One of the things I did at my education journalism company was build a near complete database of education apps [1] to help educators make sense of a large universe of possibilities. My experience is that if you're the one with the database + reviews, the best you can do is organize intelligently (according to user needs) and collect relevant data, but that because impartiality matters, your hands are tied when it comes to picking winners. This creates a mis-match with the user's desires, who want to find something quickly and be assured with decent, independent analysis. A solution to this I believe is second party curators.

[1] https://www.edsurge.com/products

That sounds like a very unpopular use case, at least for me. I want to follow what my friends are doing so I follow them on Facebook. But I don't want to know exclusively what apps they downloaded, similar to how I don't want to know what clothes or gadgets they bought.

I haven't looked into it, but is there data if the Steam curator feature actually has a noticeable impact? Do people who didn't follow reviewers before on other media now suddenly do via Steam? Are they now more influenced by their favorite reviewers than before?

I would only wish. Search is hopelessly broken in the App Store.

Google play on the other end has the opposite problem. Once you've as much as searched for simulation and strategy game a single time, the front page will be filled of nothing but simulation and strategy games.

I consider myself an indie developer, and I share none of the author's pessimism. On the contrary -- I think that the circumstances have never been better for indie developers.

First of all, customers have gotten used to buying software from individuals. On the app store, my app is sold alongside apps from major corporations.

Secondly, who cares if the app store is dominated by large companies? As a solo developer I don't need millions of dollars in revenue. I just need to find a niche that's worth 100.000€ a year, and there are plenty of those niches! And the nice thing is that these niches are not interesting for big companies, because the market is too small.

If you look for successful indies, you will find them. You won't often read about us in the media, since most of us make mostly boring stuff for small audiences, but we exist!

>On the app store, my app is sold alongside apps from major corporations. ... I just need to find a niche that's worth 100.000€ a year,

Fyi, the author seemed to be talking about the iOS App Store (phones/tablets) and not the Mac App Store (desktop software.)

In any case, are you talking about your PostgreSQL apps at eggerapps.at earning €100k? If so, that's awesome. To clarify, are you getting most/all of that €100k from the Mac App Store as opposed to sales outside that channel? 30% is a lot of commission to give to Apple and I'm surprised that a typical customer would discover that type of db app in the Mac App store as opposed to a google search or forum recommendation linking to your website. From there, they could download it directly without that Apple middleman.

You're right, my personal experience is limited to the Mac App Store. But I do know indie developers who make money with iPhone apps, and I think the general situation for indies is similar: you can find plenty of niches that are big enough to support a single developer or a small team.

And yes, I was talking about the apps on eggerapps.at, mostly Postico. I do sell my apps directly as well, and only around 20% of my sales are on the Mac App Store. Postico has a lower price on my website, but apparently there are some people who really prefer the Mac App Store.

I rarely even try apps on Play Store any more since I'm so damn tired of popup ads, video ads and pay-to-play concepts.

And a majority of the sorted, popular and "highest grossing" apps are that way.

If i knew where to get quality apps that don't try to lure or force me into paying for using apps, i would gladly pay for it and install it.

And i think that even more people would - because most people i talk to are also tired and even scared of installing new apps because of this.

I also hear the arguments "We HAVE to do this to get money!", no you don't - if an app is good it's more important to market it and make people notice it.

Shameless plug coming up:

This is why I built https://appapp.io , so it would be possible to search for apps in the App Store (it's IOS only at the moment) while filtering out those with in-app purchases. I'd like to also make filters for advertising models too, but structured data for that is much harder to come by.

I don't think smarter search will entirely solve the problem, but I think it's one piece of the jigsaw to help solve the problems of the App Store.

This is very nice and very fast, thanks for the plug!

I had a similar idea, but I would have started from the Android side. What timeframe do you think you will expand into the non-iOS app stores?

I look for paid apps on the Play store with high ratings. Those are usually decent, and you can return them if they aren't. Free apps on Android are like 90% borderline malware.

The Debian package repos have some quality apps, they're just not "optimised for touch screens".

I used to be on the Mac app store and did make fairly good money on it. I ended up dropping it because of the Sandbox which basically makes it impossible to innovate. Instead i focused only on selling directly from my website and through various distributers. Thats ended up being a much better strategy for me.

The biggest problem MAS have isn't that it's only pop apps but rather that it's 1) Not a destination for people looking for serious apps (google is)

2) Doesn't allow for fundamentally new types of apps to be developed.

One business problem is that app developers don't have any control over design at the point of sale. The app store template prevents differentiation. The worst turd looks just like the highest art in the app store. Mechanically, it is just as easy to buy turds as art...easier when the turd is "free".

Everybody says 'mobile first'. It just shows waterfall is not dead, just internalized to the point developers are taking app store requirements over the transom and tossing code back over and then doing their QA through the fortress of bureaucracy surrounding the users.

> The worst turd looks just like the highest art in the app store

This, and the lack of trials. If I find an app that, for example, looks like a solid iTunes replacement but costs $25, well, if it works, that's totally worth it to me. But there's a very good chance it doesn't work.

Including trial periods would improve the ecosystem - the good apps could go for what their worth and I'd stop collecting $2 promising garbage.

Another (of what must now be well into the thousands) App Store piece that basically boils down to : The App Store is a maturing market and if you expect to make money from developing apps then you need an actual business plan including sustainable revenue models and marketing strategies. Just like any other business.

For some reason this makes the author sad.

What makes the author said is the specific nature of the sustainable revenue models and marketing strategies. The metaphor from the article works just fine. Once upon a time toys were wooden and passed down from generation to generation. They were made by local craftspeople. Now that is a niche within a niche.

It’s perfectly ok to feel sad about that time passing. We don’t have to choose to also feel sad, but there’s absolutely zero wrong with the author’s sadness, and it’s not a particularly difficult thing to understand.

The real problem is that the App Store favors some business plans (like free games that use a Skinner box mentality to get you to make lots of in-app purchases) and disallows others, like apps that charge for major version upgrades.

Your advantage as an indie company is that you can move fast, experiment with app ideas on all-new platforms. When the App Store was new, indie companies had to compete against other indie companies, where everyone came from about the same background.

Larger companies have the advantage of doing everything at scale. Once an app or platform seems to be proven, they can move in and do what they are best at: carpet-bomb the battlefield.

On the App Store today you will compete against CandyCrushes, who can buy out a massive amount of ad inventory, making CPIs super-cheap. You can still win with an all-new app idea, but it gets increasingly difficult to come up with something totally new that others can't copy in a week.

Or you can do what you as an indie company are best at: experiment with app ideas on all-new platforms.

Which all-new platforms would you currently recommend?

VR goggles, cars, TVs, smart watches. In that order.

TV as a platform? Seems like it's been around for a while.

Or do you mean Smart TVs? I don't know much about the app ecosystem there if it exists at all.

It's not so much about how long the platform existed already: mobile phones and mobile apps were around long before iPhone and Android brought the real break-through.

Timing is key, and though I think the time for VR, smart TV, IOT or wearables hasn't arrived yet, I do think that indie devs should keep their eyes open.

>Customers, by and large, decided we'd rather have an endless supply of cheap than we would a few precious pieces and the market has followed.

Wouldn't it be a travesty if a bunch of developers in ivory towers decided that the customer is wrong and that he actually needs expensive, carefully-engineered apps with features that he doesn't want? There's thankfully no Software Developer's Guild, so the real outcome of this approach is that no one buys your apps and your competitors eat your lunch.

>Others will continue to rage against the pop-ificiation of the App Store. There'll be more tweets and more editorials about what Apple has done wrong or should be doing better, on how developers "gouge" even while "racing to the bottom", and how customers are cheap, entitled, and, often, assholes. And I'll be joining them.

The customer is always right. If you need his money, the customer gets to be as much of an asshole as he wants. If the customer can get a more primitive, but sufficient, alternative cheaper from your competitor, he probably will. If BigTechCompany can make a competing app and sell it for less than indie devs, then it looks like the invisible hand found a more efficient way to produce the product, good! Anyone who thinks it should be otherwise, is it not they who are acting entitled to the customer's money and interest?

Some days the code I'm reading makes me wish there was a Software Developers Guild to punish the author of such terrible code.

It's a fun fantasy, I admit.

TLDR of the article: sour grapes.

As a former indie I can empathize with the sentiment, but as a journalist, by focusing on his indie friends' fortunes, he's missing the bigger story.

The app business is as healthy as Hollywood or TV, with all the good and bad that implies. You could even say it's the "golden age" of apps. Clash Royale just launched world-wide and immediately rocketed to #1 the same day -- the first blockbuster app launch?

And yet, some indies still do well! There are indies in the top 50 paid (if not grossing) apps list right now. It's an extremely interesting time in the app business. But he's missing this fascinating transition story.

I'm sure he'll rile people up. Unnamed indies, but surely any of his podcast listeners could guess who, wringing their hands because "the value and esteem is gone." What does that even mean? The obvious guess: they can no longer make a living from their note-taking or podcast-player apps. I'm sort of riled up! I bought Overcast. I bought Vesper. Etc. I like indies!

But markets move forward. And this is a very natural progression, from an immature market where anyone could set out a tent and do a brisk business, to a mature market that demands a lot more than just the best mousetrap.

Another note: the successful indies in the top 50 lists are mostly making games. Not utility apps. Not note-taking apps. Not podcast apps. The app store is mostly an entertainment venue. Games are at the fat end of the revenue curve. The indie podcast / note apps are squarely in the long tail.

Indie developers typically aren't interested in working at BigCorp, but perhaps for survival they could consolidate in to worker-owned companies.

If you take several apps that don't make enough money to support their developers and add then up, they aren't going to support everyone working as one company. I don't see much cost reduction as a group.

I wasn't suggesting combining all their apps in to one stable. I was suggesting creating a larger company that has working conditions that suit the kind of person who is an indy developer. Most (all?) of their current apps would probably need to disappear.

It wouldn't be the same as working for yourself, but it wouldn't be the same as working for some faceless corporation either.

> Most (all?) of their current apps would probably need to disappear.

If the very product they're trying to sell needs to disappear, then your recommendations of "consolidate into worker co-op" or "create a larger company" does not have any useful meaning.

You've got cause-&-effect of product and business structure backwards.

What happens in the real world:

1st) have a viable product that sells for sustainable revenue ---> 2nd) amount of incoming money helps guide decisions about structuring the company to be sole-proprietor vs traditional incorporated vs workers cooperative.

The reverse direction of...

1st) organize a workers co-op ---> 2nd) sell something-I-don't-know-what-it-could-be-but-your-current-apps-need-to-disappear.

... is an academic dead end. If you're going to hand wave away where the money comes from to pay the salaries of the workers owning the co-op, it doesn't matter that they formed a co-op for better working conditions.

The article was about sustainable revenue in the long tail of the app store. A workers co-op is an unrelated tangent and doesn't solve how to survive in that long tail.

I think you might have realised I'm not really responding to the article, more of a "perhaps if the indy app scene isn't really a viable thing any more they could do this..." thought bubble.

No, that sounds awful, and precisely the kind of thing I quit working at BigCorps to avoid.

Your core assumption seems to be that changing the ownership model is enough to counter the lack of autonomy that comes from spending all day in a hierarchical business with other people. I'm actually struggling to imagine how you arrived at this point of view.

Christ, you're reading a lot in to "perhaps..." and ascribing some really strong emotions to it.

Could be. I certainly do have some strong emotions in this area.

what are some examples of worker owned collectives in the US?

Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. I recently bought a two dollar apple there ;)


I don't know, I'm not American.

There was a brief period - after the App Store opened, but before people had really figured out how to write good apps - where an indie dev could just put up a new app and expect sales on novelty alone.

Those days are OVER.

It's fairly appropriate that App Store apps are sold through iTunes - because the issue facing indie developers is exactly the same as the one facing indie musicians. If you don't have a massive promotional budget to drive traffic to your new thing, you'll need to get better at online promotion & connecting with your customers.

It's still an improvement over the indie software ecosystem of twenty years ago, where either you were big enough to get shelf space for a boxed product (good luck!) or you were hoping enough people would get tired of the nag screen and pay the shareware fee...

Why do you need a massive promotional budget. As long as the cost to acquire a user is less than the amount they will spend, you can start off small with your advertising spend and go from there. Cost per install ads can be bought at small scale.

One advantage to the shareware era is there were fewer choices even with indies. During that time I began working at Babbage's when only 25% of the store was games. Now there are so many mainstream games a store cannot fit them all.

Can someone explain to me why people keep saying you can't have trials on the app store? I've seen 2 ways this is easily achieved:

1) Release your app for free, but make the non-trial features be a single in-app purchase for whatever the price of the app would have been.

2) Release a free or lite version, and also release a full paid version. Users can use the lite version to see if they like it, then they can buy the full version if they do. Often the lite version will inform the user they could do more if they upgraded to the paid version.

Both of these currently exist. What is the impediment that makes developers think this isn't possible?

>why people keep saying you can't have trials on the app store?

>"... the non-trial features ..." "...lite version...full version..."

>"What is the impediment that makes developers think this isn't possible?"

It's possible to you because your idea of "trials" is crippled version vs uncrippled version.

Other developers are talking "trials" in terms of time-limited-trial. The timed-trial is the full version with all features except it quits working after 30 days or whatever.

Thanks for making that distinction!

"2.9 Apps that are "demo", "trial", or "test" versions will be rejected."


Sure, but if it's just a free version with a single in-app purchase that unlocks key features, then it's not a demo, a trial, or a test app, so they won't run afoul of that. As proof, there are many "Lite" and "Full" versions, and I have seen a few apps that you unlock with an in-app purchase. So obviously this isn't a concern at the moment.

I'll save us all time by saying that this text is equivalent to "what most people likes is not what I like, therefore what a sad state of affairs!"

I'm glad i didn't dabble with native platforms. Web technologies seem to be finally converging to dethrone them.

But, by god this writer sounds so entitled.

Not following. How do "web technologies" not suffer from similar issues to what the author describes?

No "app store" to have those isses.

This is very fast!

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