An Interview About Paid Apps
Last October, Andrew Hayward interviewed me for an article that ran in the print edition of MacLife. Since it was never published online, I completely forgot about the interview. Today, the article was posted on TechLife, a subsidiary of MacLife. Andrew used several quotes from our interview, but didn’t have room for some of my longer rants. Since the topic is just as relevant today, I figured it was worth posting the entire interview as emailed on October 30th, 2013.
How has the market for paid apps changed during your time selling premium apps in the App Store?
I’m not sure to what extent each factor is impacting the market, but it seems as though many factors have been at play in reshaping the market over the past couple years.
As the US smartphone market matures, it’s no longer more affluent early adopters buying iPhones and scouring the App Store for new apps, it’s less tech savvy users and more price sensitive consumers.
At the same time, the early adopters who are still upgrading their iPhone every year or two seem to not be as actively looking for apps. I used to buy 5+ new apps a week and now I hardly buy any. Not because I’m trying to spend less money, I’ve just already settled on 10-15 apps I use daily and am not seeing as many new apps that seem worth my time to check out.
It also seems as though there are enough free and cheap alternatives that people looking for specific types of apps end up using “good enough” free and cheap apps, rather than risking $3-5 on a premium app.
And I’m sure there are other factors at play as well. I’ve heard other theories about people no longer downloading and playing with apps as a form of entertainment in and of itself.
Have you taken any steps to counteract the changing market regarding the way you price and construct your apps, and have you seen results (whether positive or negative)?
I was hoping that as people upgraded to iOS 7 and went looking for iOS 7 compatible apps there would be a surge in sales for great iOS 7 apps. So, I decided to postpone more experiments with freemium and go with premium prices for the iOS 7 launch. But from what I’ve seen and heard from other developers, there wasn’t much of a surge in paid apps. In fact, it seems like sales of paid apps have been even worse since iOS 7 was released (which could be in part due to the App Store having so many issues since the iOS 7 launch). I have a few more experiments planned with premium pricing, then I’ll probably start working toward switching them to some sort of freemium model next year. Thankfully, Apple implemented App Store receipts in iOS 7, so developers can switch to freemium while still rewarding the early adopters who paid full price.
Do you think that there’s anything Apple can (or should) do to help buoy the premium app market?
There’s a lot Apple can do. Few people think of it this way, but Apple controls the App Store economy in a way similar to how the US government controls the US economy. The government doesn’t have complete control of the economy, but they work hard to shape it through a combination of tax incentives, monetary policy, and other means. Similarly, I think people underestimate just how much Apple’s policies shape the App Store market.
Currently developers can use IAP for all sorts of convoluted free-to-play schemes, but Apple has a rule against free trials, demo apps, and the like. With a single policy change, Apple could empower developers to use App Store receipts to roll their own free trials. Surely that’s no more user hostile than Candy Crush’s casino-like techniques for milking users for cash.
There are lots of other seemingly small things Apple could do that would end up rewarding developers who line up with Apple’s priorities. For example, there seems to be absolutely no search ranking boost associated with apps that were rebuilt for iOS 7. So, Apple pushed hard for developers to support iOS 7, but when you search for “weather” in the iOS 7 App Store, you see a bunch of apps that haven’t been updated in ages, much less optimized for iOS 7. Search is incredibly important to the App Store market, yet it’s absolutely terrible and Apple doesn’t seem to care.
Not only that, Apple didn’t even bother optimizing search for the iOS 7 release. If you search “iOS 7 weather” in the App Store, you don’t get weather apps that were optimized for iOS 7, you get SEO spammers (and soon my Perfect Weather app since I figured out the issue).
What’s your take on the trend (especially post-iOS 7) of developers releasing an entirely new app for a significant version release, as we’ve seen with Tweetbot and Screens of late? Do you think consumers will become more accepting of this approach as it continues?
There is a vocal minority that seems to be bothered by this, but I think it’s absolutely the right thing for developers, and ultimately for users since it keeps developers in business and updating their apps. However, I will say that I think developers should be careful in how they do this. Charging frequently for minor updates does feel like nickel and diming users. One big paid upgrade every 12-18 months with lots of new features seems fair to me.
I talked at length about all this today on CMD+Space. Feel free to use anything from there as well: http://5by5.tv/cmdspace/68
UPDATE: One caveat about releasing paid updates in the App Store: they can kill search ranking. If your app relies heavily on search for user acquisition, a paid update could significantly reduce sustained downloads once the initial surge of upgrades slows. This happens because App Store search results seem to be very heavily weighted to all-time downloads, which obviously gets reset with a new SKU.
Shaping the App Store
From time to time I email Apple executives a “boots on the ground” view of the App Store and do my best to provide insight and contructive criticism rather than shallow complaints. Here’s my most recent email, starting with a quote from Andrew Webster at The Verge:
Angry Birds Go… features all of the right ingredients, including a cast of familiar and adorable characters, a charming and colorful presentation, and gameplay that’s both easy to pick up and incredibly fun. But that potential is squandered — in the shift to free-to-play, Rovio has turned a great game into an annoying experience filled with incessant calls to spend more money.
While the current wave of free-to-play games are doing incredibly well financially, I worry that they are undermining the long-term strength of the iOS platform. Instead of building meaningful productivity and entertainment experiences, more and more developers are focusing their efforts on manipulating users into spending more and more money via consumable in-app purchases. I think John Gruber put it well: “…in-app purchases are driving game design more towards addiction and less towards fun.”
And another quote from independent developer Justin Williams: “The post-PC revolution won’t happen without the software that the current App Store economy makes it nearly impossible to build and sustain.”
I absolutely love the “Your Verse” iPad ad that was released this week, and on the surface it appears that the current state of the App Store isn’t preventing amazing “post-PC” apps from being developed. But things are not always as they appear on the surface. It would be interesting for Apple to study various “post-PC” apps in the App Store (including ones featured in the “Your Verse” ad and featured on the App Store in recent months) to better understand the financial viability of creating and maintaing those apps. If the apps Apple brags about and features aren’t financially viable, we will inevitably see less of those apps being built over time.
As I’ve mentioned in previous emails, Apple can and does dramatically shape the App Store economy. Similar to how governments shape economies through tax law and other policies, Apple shapes the App Store economy through app review policies, App Store implementation details, editorial decisions, the App Store search algorithm, and in so many other subtle (and not so subtle) ways. I’d love to see Apple wield that power to shape the App Store in ways that will sustain and encourage meaningful development over the long-term and not let the current success of the App Store blind it to issues that are impacting the trajectory of the App Store.
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.