Experiences with Apple’s AppStore: no bogeyman in sight

For almost a year, the most prominent products of my company, Molecular Materials Informatics, have been available for Apple’s touchscreen devices, namely the iPhone, iPod and iPad trilogy. They can be purchased from the iTunes AppStore, and nowhere else. The properties of the AppStore, and the policies of its reviewers, have gotten some rather awful press over the last couple of years, and have become quite infamous in some social circles.

On a personal level, I was never a fan of Apple back in the days of the PC wars. When Mac OS X arrived, I kept a vaguely open mind to the possibility that the company’s approach – making computers just work without all of the problems that are associated with maintaining a Windows or Linux PC – might actually pan out. I’ve had Mac hardware in my home for a few years now, but for the most part, I was somewhat underwhelmed. Mainly due to the heavy-handed enforcement of user interface principles that did not fit well with the way I work.

Fast forward to the mobile arena of mid-2010. There were three main choices for which device to support first: BlackBerry, Apple and Android. All of these platforms had strong pros and cons that require a lot of contemplation, prognostication, and mainly just plain luck.

Android clearly had the best development platform. Its promiscuity and openness suggested that it could dominate the market quite quickly. But early devices were underperformant, and the much vaunted Marketplace blocked commercial apps from most of the world for far too long, which was a showstopper. It was not at all certain that this would be the sweepstakes winner that many were predicting.

BlackBerry had the strongest presence in the business market, which could be counted as a big plus for selling an app which is not wholly consumer-focused. Users and developers have some freedom to install software without requiring the blessing of RIM, which means that private sales are possible. The biggest problem was that BlackBerry users are simply not huge buyers of third party apps. Compounded with slipping market share and its parent company flailing to find the right technical direction, the platform becomes a lot less promising.

Apple’s iOS has about it quite a lot of things to hate, from the point of view of creating and selling a new app. The development language, Objective-C, is a throwback to an older, rougher time when programming languages and the accompanying development tools had to make far greater concessions in the interests of efficiency, at the expense of programmer agony and allowing fatal crash-bugs to lurk indefinitely in the darkness. Admittedly the language does grow on you after awhile, but the learning curve seems unnecessarily steep: it’s like going back to writing C++, except the syntax is different just for the sake of being different, the API is counterintuitive, and there are a fair few other gotchas that take quite a bit of getting used to. And of course it requires the purchase of a brand new Mac to run the development tools, which is not a welcome prospect if your desk is already covered in computers or your wallet is empty.

But the biggest turnoff was undoubtedly the app distribution mechanism. For all practical purposes, the only way to get your app onto somebody else’s device was to submit it for approval to a group of people who are unknown and unaccountable. The number of Kafkaesque stories floating around is quite numerous: the rules seem to be a little vague and open to some interpretation, and change without notice; some people apparently had to wait weeks or months to be able to distribute their products; and of course the rejections that supposedly came with little explanation and no recourse. Pile on all of the stories about Apple’s corporate personality of being paranoid and secretive and occasionally even capricious, and the idea of being dependent on them becomes rather unnerving.

Would you bet your career on the outcome of something like that? It wouldn’t be going too far out on a limb to suggest that having a backup plan might be a good idea.

Now, however, having gone through the AppStore approval process quite a few times, I can definitely say that I have not experienced any of these troubles. That’s not to say that anyone else is exaggerating, or that I won’t find out the hard way at some point. But my own personal experience could be summarised more like this: the iTunes AppStore provides a reasonably timely and very valuable service, which balances quality and the health of the ecosystem against the rights and needs of the app producers. My limited contact with Apple staff suggests that they’re a perfectly normal organisation that wants its products to succeed, rather than having some Machiavellian agenda.

For the apps I have submitted, approvals have sometimes been as quick as 3 days, but a week is normal. The 30% revenue cut that the store takes from the final sales may sound a bit high from some perspectives. To an organisation that already has a sales and distribution network in place, this probably is quite unreasonable. But for a startup company, or an independent developer, the services that are provided in return for this cut are actually an exceptional bargain.

What you get: international sales without having to worry about tax, currency conversion, invoices, debt collecting, refunds, vigs, local laws, or any of that dirty stuff that most tech people would go a long way to avoid. And some marketing, too. Just being on the AppStore is a remarkably good start. Anyone who has not been through this has a very pleasant surprise coming up: when your app gets approved, people will start buying it before you even tell anyone that it’s available on the store. True story. Maybe my business experience is insufficiently broad, but I think that’s not normally the way it works. And if your app gets picked out by Apple to be featured, get ready to watch your sales spike.

So, what would I conclude from this? Only so much considering that this article is based on one data point. I would not recommend trying to publish an app that competed with something on Apple’s strategic roadmap, but if you are trying to make an honest living, stay out of their way, and build cool stuff that makes their products more attractive… I don’t think there’s anything much to be worried about.

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