Monday, December 15, 2008

"I'd buy that for a dollar!"--How Not to Make Money Selling Mobile Applications

As a friend from my Apple days used to say, "A funny thing happened to me today: I got paid."

On that note, there's unrest in developer-land again. Two interesting blog posts have come up illustrating the problems for subsidizing application development against expected sales on the iPhone. Craig Hockenberry started it with an open letter to Steve on the subject of "Ringtone apps", and why it's very difficult to make a case for developing non-trivial software when you can't exert much control over the marketing and distribution of that software.

The App Cubby blog follows up with a very detailed and well-thought-out post on the experiences they've had (with annotated graphs) marketing a number of popular iPhone applications. The writer says that, in spite of being fairly successful in iTunes App Store terms--featured in the "Top 50", a "Staff Pick"--he's been pulling down about five bucks an hour in salary so far.

It's not enough to create a context for developing applications, clearly. There has to be a marketplace for them, and it has to be a free and open marketplace. For it to be interesting, there has to be enough of an underlying demand to make it worth a developer's while--at least if we're talking about applications for which people expect to get paid. Both conditions are necessary, neither alone is sufficient. It's clear that Apple has the numbers, but not the marketplace: beyond any technical limitations of the iPhone SDK, Apple's heavy-handed and opaque approval process, the similar lack of transparency over how things like "Staff Picks" get made and unmade, etc., it's difficult--as both the articles substantiate--to make a solid case for doing a serious applications development effort for the platform, as attractive as it is.

This is a potential opportunity for the free and open source software community, one which I expect we'll start to see becoming a lot more "real" in 2009. We've had the first "GNOME Mobile" release, and it's a good start. We're seeing serious progress with UX/UI technologies like clutter. We're going to see phones based on this kind of software becoming increasingly available in the next twelve months, and--the economics of things being what they are--more of them will likely be "open" devices, at least in the sense of being able to add new software post-purchase.

How can the community tap into that market? There are definitely challenges to deal with, many of them having to do with the wide variety of form-factors and capabilities of these kinds of devices, as well as the variety of UI approaches that we can expect to see. If it's too difficult to adapt a program to new devices, it becomes uneconomical to do so--Apple controls this issue by owning the hardware, but Java was never able to really come to terms with it. Google attempts to manage this issue by owning the platform, effectively, but it's a very tenuous sort of ownership, mostly reinforced by there being one (maybe two) devices available which are running Android intentionally. I doubt that's a situation that can last...

By the way, I've read that the most popular Android app is PacMan.