When I founded App Cubby in April of 2008, my vision was to create a suite of data logging apps for the iPhone. App Cubby was to be a ‘cubby’ of apps, and each app a cubbyhole for data. The name always felt a bit juvenile, but the metaphor was just too great to pass up.
I released Trip Cubby in August of 2008, then Gas Cubby that November, and Health Cubby the following January. I was incredibly proud of my work and all three apps were quite well received. But over time, App Cubby branched out beyond data logging apps, and the wood themed icons and interfaces that were once so fresh and beautiful began to look rather dated.
Within a few months of launching the new App Cubby site in October 2011, I was daydreaming about new branding and another complete redesign of the site. Then in the spring of 2012 LogMeIn launched Cubby App in the App Store and it became apparent that it was time for me to move on.
After months of search and deliberation, and many more months of work with several talented artists, I’m thrilled to announce that App Cubby is now Contrast and has a brand new website at contrast.co.
I’m a bit sad to leave the App Cubby name behind. It has, after all, been like part of my family for these past 5 years. However, I think Contrast is a much better fit for the projects I’m currently working on and the vision I have for the future of the company.
Trip Cubby Turns Five
Five years ago today, Trip Cubby landed in the App Store. After months of hard work, it was such a relief to finally have an app for sale. But it was also incredibly scary — I put it all on the line to build Trip Cubby. Would people find it useful? Would it actually sell? Were there any bugs that slipped through our testing?
Trip Cubby wasn’t a runaway success, and it didn’t make me an App Store millionaire overnight. But people did find it useful, and it did sell, and there were a few bugs we scrambled to fix.
Here we are five years later, and I’m embarrassed to say the app hasn’t been updated in almost two years. It’s still a decent mileage log, but it’s woefully out of date — especially under the bright lights of iOS 7. Because Apple does not allow paid upgrades, and the App Store is such a challenging place for niche apps to achieve profitability, updating the app for iOS 7 was not an easy decision to make. In fact, I’ve been thinking for months now that I would just pull the app from the App Store this summer.
I’ve been forced to pull apps from the App Store in the past, and, as painful as it was to feel like I’d abandoned users and given up, I justified pulling the apps because doing so would allow me to stay in business and keep building apps. Fortunately, things are a bit different this time. I still haven’t made millions, but I’m finally in a position where I can reinvest in an app like Trip Cubby without putting my entire financial future on the line.
So that’s exactly what I’m going to do! Last month, I hired Overcommitted to completely rewrite Trip Cubby from the ground up for iOS 7. Harold and Jonathan have been amazing to work with, and we’re pushing hard for a fall release.
Along with the fresh pixels and bits, Trip Cubby will also get a new name and be launched as a new, paid app. Existing users will be able to keep using Trip Cubby indefinitely or easily export their current data from Trip Cubby and import it into the new app. While we’re working on the new app, I’ve decided to make Trip Cubby free. You can download it today and start tracking your mileage in anticipation of importing your data into a great new app this fall.
I love debating the appropriate use of minimalism, exploring ways to make user interfaces simple without regressing to simplistic, and working within the constraints of the medium. But trying to approach design with “digital authenticity” is the furthest thing from my mind.
There is nothing inherently authentic about anything created digitally. There’s nothing genuine about 0’s and 1’s and any particular sequence that describes pixels on a screen. Humans created the hardware and software that sequence those bits, and unless we’re talking about some sort of futuristic research project, everything created digitally is created for some ultimate form of human consumption. Whether the output is high art or a calculator app, the point is human involvement — both in the creation and in the appreciation of the created. Even algorithms designed to create things autonomously were created by humans with the output intended to involve humans at some level.
And in user interface design, leaving humans out of the equation — or minimizing their importance — leads to poor choices. There’s a reason Apple uses “Human Interface Guidelines” to describe their most important design resource. If anything, we should strive to design with human authenticity in mind.
The use of realistic textures and real world metaphors was not done — at least at a higher level — merely because we could, but because those designs were ultimately more relatable to humans. Though obviously overused in many cases, there are concrete usability improvements in relating interfaces to the physical world. As we make an aesthetic shift away from texture heavy interfaces, it’s more important than ever to keep humans at the center of design. I see too many designers unwittingly throwing the baby out with the bathwater and telling others to do the same.
Many have touted iOS 7 as Apple’s break from skeuomorphism, and that’s true if we apply its strictest definition, but in iOS 7 Apple chose to double down on physicality and the use of real world metaphors. Creating a physics engine for the user interface is most certainly not digital authenticity. While designing for iOS 7 and beyond, usability should always trump ideology and aesthetic. Beauty can enhance usability, but ultimately we’re creating software for people to use, not stare at in awe. That’s where texture heavy design went wrong, and that’s where “digitally authentic” design will likely stumble as well.
Interface design is about the human, not the computer.
App Cubby didn’t have an app in the App Store on day 1, so there’s not much to reminisce about today — the 5th anniversary of the App Store launch — except the frustration of having a finished app ready for the App Store, but no developer account with which to publish the app. At the time Apple was inundated with requests for developer accounts, and even though I had requested one within hours of Apple announcing the iPhone Software Development Kit, my account wasn’t approved until early August 2008. I’ll be celebrating App Cubby’s 5th anniversary in the App Store next month with a big announcement, but in the mean time I stumbled upon an interesting document today.
I founded App Cubby in April of 2008 on a $20k loan from family members. Below is the investment proposal I presented them, dated March 21st, 2008. Though some of it is a bit cringeworthy, I decided to publish the whole thing unedited. I’m proud to have recognized the potential of the App Store and Apple’s “touch platform”. And I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve managed to build in the ensuing 5 years. Big changes are coming for App Cubby, so it’s nice to reminisce a bit before announcing the beginning of the next phase of the company.
Investment Proposal — March 21, 2008
When computers were first built, they took up entire rooms and only performed simple calculations. Users had to load each program individually and type very specific commands to perform those simple calculations. In the 1980s Apple ignited the personal computer revolution with the Macintosh, and pioneered the use of a mouse and a graphical user interface. Since then, faster and smaller computers have been built, but we still rely on the 30 year old paradigm of using a mouse to interact with a computer. Tablet computers and PDAs were heralded as the next great thing, but were slow to catch on and difficult to use because the software was originally created with a mouse in mind, and was poorly adapted to the new technology.
With the iPhone, and more importantly the “touch platform,” Apple is once again reinventing how we interact with our computers. The touch platform is a completely re-imagined, intuitive way to interact with a computer. The iPhone and iPod Touch are just the beginning. By creating a whole new software platform, Apple has the opportunity to release a whole range of products that are based on the touch technology.
With the release of the iPhone Software Development Kit, Apple is enlisting the talent and creativity of thousands of entrepreneurs and programers to create a marketplace for completely re-imagined, innovative applications. Here is what one industry insider had to say about the iPhone SDK: “A revolutionary new platform is a rare and prized opportunity for entrepreneurs, and that’s exactly what Apple has created with iPhone and iPod touch. We think several significant new companies will emerge as this new platform evolves.”
Apple has made the barrier to entry very, very low. The charge to become a certified iPhone developer is only $99, and the tools to create iPhone software are free. They took it one step further and even posted how-to videos, sample code, and other resources online for free! Apple is investing heavily in making it easy for people to develop applications for the touch platform.
Not only are they making it easy to develop applications, they are also making it incredibly easy to sell and distribute those applications. When everything is released in June, customers will be able to go to the “iPhone Application Store” directly from their iPhone, or in iTunes on their computer. Buying and installing an application will be just a couple clicks away, and will require absolutely no technical understanding of the process. For application developers, Apple has also made it simple and financially compelling. Once an application is written and submitted to Apple, they handle everything… taxes, credit card transactions, accounting, webhosting, digital distribution… everything. For all these services and some built in marketing, Apple is charging a flat 30% off the top. A small price to pay when you consider typical manufacturing, distribution, and retail costs!
Having just wrapped up my last recording project at the recording studio, I’m in a unique place to be able to drop everything and focus on developing applications ahead of the the June release. Having at least one application available at the launch, should give us a strategic advantage. There will undoubtedly be hundreds, maybe even thousands of applications available at launch, but with such a short development time, there will also be quite a few developers who were overly ambitious and wont finish their application in time.
To take advantage of this opportunity in timing, and to set achievable goals in learning and programing, I have decided to create a series of very simple applications that should be relatively easy to program. Part of Apple’s philosophy as a company is that applications (and even hardware) should be built from a perspective of usability over having a long feature list or spec sheet. Sometimes a waffle maker that makes really good waffles is preferable to the waffle/pancake/kitchen sink/sandwich maker that sounds good on paper, but compromises in each function.
Elizabeth helped me come up with a name for the company. It is going to be called: The Application Cubby (AppCubby for short). The idea being that each application is a little cubbyhole where you can store information you’d like to track.
Here are a few ideas we’ve come up with:
- Gas Cubby - Track your gas mileage and fuel costs.
- Car Cubby - Track oil changes and other vehicle maintenance.
- Mileage Cubby - Track billable mileage for reimbursement or tax purposes.
- Time Cubby - Track billable hours or time spent on specific projects.
- Golf Cubby - Track golf score and handicap related information.
- Outfit Cubby - Using the built in camera, take a picture of yourself each morning. Then look back in time to see how long it has been since you wore a particular outfit.
- Run Cubby - With the built-in stopwatch, track your running regimen.
- Weight Cubby - Track your weight and other related physical stats.
- Lift Cubby - Track your weight lifting progress.
- Meal Cubby - Track your food intake.
- Grocery Cubby - As you run out of things mark them down and build a grocery list.
- Cash Cubby - Track and categorize cash purchases or other transactions.
- Doodad Cubby - Organize your closet, attic, or other storage area by taking pictures of what’s inside a box then tagging each item for easy search.
These are just a few of the many potential tracking applications that would be relatively easy to build, and reuse enough code to make each successive application easier to build than the one before. Not all of the ideas mentioned above are fully thought out, or even worth creating, but it’s a start. By creating these very simple, but compelling applications, and charging an impulse level $1.99 each, I feel poised find a niche in this very large and lucrative new market.
Though there is very real potential that hundreds of thousands of dollars will come rolling in, there are many levels at which this venture could be successful.
In a very worst case scenario, the only people to purchase from the AppCubby are the 1,000 (0.01% of all users - $1,393 net) or so journalists who buy every single application available for review purposes. They give the applications a terrible review, and no one else buys a single copy. In this case, some of the investment will be returned, and I’ll have learned some very valuable skills that should help me move toward a career in programming.
If the AppCubby is moderately successful (only 0.1% of all users buy at least one of our applications - $13,930 net) there will be enough money to pay back a significant portion of the initial investment and move forward with the company as a part time venture that provides a small side income for me, and slowly pays back the entire investment, and is a long term trickle of cash for the investors.
If the AppCubby is reasonably successful (1% of all users buy at least one of our applications - $139,300 net) there will be enough to fully pay back the initial investment and allow me to work full time on new applications and updated features for the existing applications. The investors will make a good return on their investment and will have a continued source of income as future applications are released and new users buy the applications.
If the AppCubby is wildly successful (5%+ of all users buy at least one of our applications $696,500+ net) the initial investment will be fully paid back and we’ll have some tough decisions to make. Do we hire more employees and make a real business out of it? Do we attempt to sell the business and cash out? Or ,do we continue to milk it, slowly releasing additional applications as I have time to write them… keeping the overhead low, and the ROI high? Those would be very fun questions to ask!
I Was Wrong
As a small indie developer trying to make my way in the App Store, I like to experiment and take risks. Having a couple experiments go horribly wrong is a pretty good indication that I really am taking some risks. And that’s a good thing. The thing about experimentation though, is that the point is to learn, not to be right. Confirmation bias isn’t just bad science — it’s bad friendship, bad politics, and even bad business.
In the short 24 hours Timer 2.0 has been in the App Store, I’ve learned quite a bit. Most of this is rather obvious in hindsight, but it’s really easy to get wrapped up in a project and miss the forest for the trees.
The first thing I was wrong about was how many users who had paid for the app are still actively using it. Timer was only 99¢ for a couple months, and quite frankly didn’t sell very well. I made it free over the summer, and at this point I was estimating that less than 3% of the active userbase had actually paid. I don’t have analytics in Timer since I’ve had a hard time finding a good analytics provider that doesn’t do shady things with the data they collect, but given how few people paid for the app and how low the long-term retention rate generally is for iOS apps, I was estimating that only a few hundred people who had paid were still using the app.
Since most of Timer’s users hadn’t paid for the app, I decided that putting an ad in the app made sense. I assumed that the few hundred people who had paid and were still using the app would be excited about all the new stuff and wouldn’t mind shelling out a buck for a new theme, which would disable the ad. If Apple provided a reliable way to determine who had already paid, I would have just automatically disabled ads for people who had paid. But Apple doesn’t provide a way to do that, and most of the hacks we came up with to do it ourselves seemed unreliable, especially given that the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 shipped just a couple months ago.
Disappointing some early adopters is at times just a casualty of progress. Loren Brichter famously took a lot of heat for making Tweetie 2 a new app and charging for it. That was the right thing to do even though he took some heat for it. He worked incredibly hard on Tweetie 2 and deserved to charge a fair price for all that work. Part of what Loren did right was to make Tweetie 2 a separate app. People who didn’t agree with his decision could make their case known, but nothing was forced upon them, they could continue using Tweetie 1.
But that’s not what I did with Timer. I forced an update on everyone whether they had paid or not, and gave paying users no option other than to pay again or live with the new ad. And as Craig Hockenberry pointed out to me on Twitter, I didn’t even do a very good job of offering a way for people to quickly just disable the ad if that’s all they wanted to do.
Another bad assumption was that people who hadn’t paid for the app wouldn’t mind the ad much since they hadn’t paid. The problem is, I had given it away for so long without ads, that inserting one was confusing and frustrating even for those who never paid. I honestly think that a lot of the bad reviews on the App Store are actually from people who forget that they didn’t pay for the app. When you use an app for several months without ads or IAP, it’s easy to forget that it was free.
But the biggest, most blinding mistake of them all was that the ad is just too clever. Banner ads are often ugly and force bad UI decisions. I thought it was incredibly clever to just take away a single timer and show an app icon as an ad that takes the user to that app in the App Store. And since it was so clever, and even beautiful in some ways, I didn’t think people would mind it nearly as much as a typical banner ad. Nope! Still just an ad.
Even worse, a lot of people don’t realize it’s an ad. So far the ad has a 24% tap through rate, meaning one ad is tapped on for every 4 that are shown. Developers dream of that kind of tap through rate because it generally means more revenue, but I wasn’t charging for the ads, so the tap through rate didn’t impact my bottom line at all. It does, however, seem to indicate that people are essentially being tricked into tapping since the ad doesn’t look like an ad. I don’t want to trick people into tapping on an ad, and even if I were a jerk and did, the ads wouldn’t be very valuable since people weren’t tapping with the intent of learning more about one of the advertised apps.
Given all the mistakes and bad assumptions, it’s clear that the best choice here is to immediately change course. For now I’m going to replace the ads with an apology, and later today I’ll be submitting an update to Timer that removes the ad completely.
Please accept my sincere apologies for making a mess of a great app.