Apps are Websites

The Apple developer community is atwitter this week about independent developers and whether or not they can earn a good living working independently on the Mac and or iOS platforms. It’s a great discussion about an unfortunately bleak topic. It’s sad to hear so many great developers, working on so many great products, are doing so poorly from it. And it seems like a lot of it is mostly out of their control (if I thought I knew a better way, I’d be doing it!). David Smith summarizes most of the discussion (with an awesome list of links):

It has never been easy to make a living (whatever that might mean to you) in the App Store. When the Store was young it may have been somewhat more straightforward to try something and see if it would hit. But it was never “easy”. Most of my failed apps were launched in the first 3 years of the Store. As the Store has matured it has also become a much more efficient marketplace (in the economics sense of market). The little tips and tricks that I used to be able to use to gain an ‘unfair’ advantage now are few and far between.

The basic gist seems to be “it’s nearly impossible to make a living off iOS apps and it’s possible but still pretty hard to do off OS X.” Most of us I think would tend to agree you can charge more for OS X software than you can for iOS because OS X apps are usually “bigger” or more fleshed out, but I think that’s only half the story.

The real reason why it’s so hard to sell iOS apps is that iOS apps are really just websites. Implementation details aside, 95 per cent of people think of iOS apps the same way they think about websites. Websites that most people are exposed to are mostly promotional, ad-laden and most importantly, free. Most people do not pay for websites. A website is just something you visit and use, but it isn’t a piece of software, and this is the exact same way they think of and treat iOS apps. That’s why indie developers are having such a hard time making money.

(Just so we’re clear, I’ve been making iOS apps the whole duration of the App Store and I know damn well iOS apps are not “websites.” I’m well aware they are contained binaries that may-or-may-not use the internet or web services. I’m talking purely about perceptions here)

For a simple test, ask any of your non-developer friends what the difference between an “app” and an “application” or “program” is and I’d be willing to bet they think of them as distinct concepts. To most people, “apps” are only on your phone or tablet, and programs are bigger and on your computer. “Apps” seem to be a wholly different category of software from programs like Word or Photoshop, and the idea that Mac and iOS apps are basically the same on the inside doesn’t really occur to people (nor does it need to, really). People “know” apps aren’t the same thing as programs.

Apps aren’t really “used” so much as they are “checked” (how often do people “check Twitter” vs “use Twitter”?) which is usually a brief “visit” measured in seconds (of, ugh, “engagement”). Most apps are used briefly and fleetingly, just like most websites. iOS, then, isn’t so much an operating system but a browser and the App Store its crappy search engine. Your app is one of limitless other apps just like your website is one of limitless other websites too. The ones people have heard of are promoted and advertised, or the ones in their own niches.

I don’t know how to make money in the App Store, but if I had to I’d try to learn from financially successful websites. I’d charge a subscription and I’d provide value. I’d make an app that did something other than have a “feed” or a “stream” or “shared moments.” I’d make an app that help people create or understand. I’d try new things.

I couldn’t charge $50 for an “app” because apps are perceived as not having that kind of value which I have to agree with (I know firsthand how much works goes in to making an app, but that doesn’t make the app valuable), so maybe we need to create a new category of software on iOS, one that breaks out of the “app” shell (and maybe breaks out of the moniker, too). I don’t know what that entails, but I’m pretty sure that’s what we need.

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