Going Indie, June 2011
by Markus Nigrin
“Do you think it is a good idea to go Indie with mobile apps?”
Interesting enough, I got this question a lot the last few weeks. So as my first post returning to #idevblogaday, here is the answer I currently give to that question, as a snapshot covering the current state of the different platforms from an Indie dev perspective.
Why going Indie in June 2011
If you didn’t take the plunge already, why now? I was wondering the exact same thing as this question flamed up again the last weeks. I’d say there is a bunch of factors contributing to thisit was not just a hype. Not only is Apple still around, they kick some serious butt. Apps just don’t disappear from the news. People don’t suddenly wake up and realize that buying 20 apps per month is ridiculous (note: it is not, so don’t feel bad). Au contraire. The whole thing is real and shifting the whole computer industry, and fast most of those who dared to quit their job and start a life as independent developer in the past are… still around!
corporate work life out there for developers still mainly sucks. Conference calls anyone? Internal political reasons more important than doing the right thing?
Feature creep/overload? Outdated architectures? <insert more>
All of this combined with the occasional shake-ups (aka strategy change, aka lay-offs) every large company goes through at times provides a constant number of people for whom this question is very relevant.
World of Confusion
Put a group of Indie devs together and ask about the potential they see in different platforms or what release strategies they find successful and you sure will trigger a lively debate. A lot of those things are in the air right now. Browse the technology blogs and you run a good chance of adding a ton of conflicting messages to that confusion.
Apple is put (back) into a niche. This is what necessarily happens with a closed ecosystem and competitors are playing that well in the meantime. Not that consumers seem to really care. Or do they?
500000 iOS apps? Can you really make app Nr. 500,001 and be successful with that?
Supposedly you can’t make any money on Android per some very recent blog posts
Supposedly Android is on a massive roll with market share, user numbers, etc
WP7 is great, even if nobody is buying it. But oh the potential?
HP is selling so many computers, they must sell their tablet in huge numbers, right? When it comes out.
The TV spot for the Playbook is really nice
So how much money are people really making on those platforms? Will you have a chance doing this for a living?
The iOS gold rush
Let me start with the Apple platform first. There are two things that are important to understand, especially when reading number posts.
1. You CAN make millions on iOS
And this has not ended, in fact, you can make more money than ever with a top app on iOS. It is much much harder to get there, but it is possible and more iPhone/iPod/iPad owners spend more on apps every day than the day before. So it certainly is “not over”, but here is the thing
2. There WAS a gold rush on iOS and it IS over
This can easily be confused with the above statement. But it is very important to understand where the difference is for anybody thinking about going Indie.
Here is my definition of the iOS gold rush, what it meant and why it is over. I’m using rough number ranges solely based on discussions with other devs and only for illustration. Note there are not two similar careers out there!
In the first year, June 2008 to June 2009, putting any quality app up on Apple’s platform meant you had a certain chance of making significant $$, let’s say >50k, and a high chance of making let’s say 10-20k with no other effort than writing the app and publishing it.
Note the usage of the word “quality”. Note that a typical Indie dev puts out several apps per year or keeps a very successful app alive with updates. Note some people made much more than that in year one.
In the second year, a quality app had a certain chance of making >100k and a high chance of making between 2-10k. And anything in-between, depending on traction and feature. You also had to start doing PR.
This third year, a quality Indie app has a slim chance of making >250k, a small chance of making 10-100k and a risk of making $200-$1000. The latter is no typo, I have seen good quality apps completely tank even on iOS these days.
That third mid-range layer, kind of a new thing this year, comes from apps that got great traction and/or got featured, shot up the charts but dropped out again equally fast because of the enormous pressure the flood of high-quality apps creates.
Now, those first two years I call gold rush. Yeah, those millions were nice, the mid-range was attractive but most important, those almost guaranteed 2-10k that most small quality apps made per year kept a lot of Indies floating. The real tricky thing to understand when you ask any Indie who had apps out there for a while is how much of that gold-rush induced success is floating him today.
Because those apps are still around. Most well maintained and updated. They block chart positions and they still provide revenue. Most of my early apps provide me with a constant stream of somewhere around 50% of the first year revenue, although that is slowly declining. I hear similar stories from all early devs.
Also, those old install bases sometimes are really large. They provide a great platform for pushing new apps of those developers into the charts, a mechanism Apple slowly started to crack down on. And rightfully so, this is one to watch carefully as it might make it virtually impossible for newcomers to get a foot in the door.
Read ANY number post VERY carefully. If you read about any lasting success these days, make sure you understand how it was triggered, how much legacy success was used as a basis and if that is something you feel you can compete with your own venture.
So as this fruit seems to have dried out a little, let’s look at greener pastures?
My early revenues on Android for paid apps were always around 9% of my iOS revenues. And honestly, that never changed. Similar apps, similar update cadence (none for some). If you think iOS got less great over time, I can tell you Android never was good. There is a CRAZY amount of crap apps flooding that store every day. I know some few devs making decent advertising revenue with free apps, but I have not read any recent success story or number post from an independent developer on Android and that’s just more than telling.
When I decided to stop outsourcing and rather code myself a year ago, I had to decide for a platform, as a single (learning) developer you can’t really do two. So I went with iOS, which back then simply was stronger, and I kept my eyes wide open on what happened at Android. See, I really liked how the dev advocates communicated with us devs at Google IO 2010. Very open, in the best sense of the word. WWDC in comparison was a bit more uptight in communication.
But then, in 2010, Apple fulfilled one developer request after the next. More transparent review process? Check. Update the installed base hard and fast to >4.0?
Check. Fast-path for reviews of bug fixes? Check. Ongoingly strong app monetization? Double-check. List goes on.
Google, on the other hand, released shiny Honeycomb.
There was a wishlist, a petition of things floating around in the Google Groups in Spring 2010. Pretty much nothing from that list got done. Some more promises on potential future updates potentially mitigating some stuff, nothing really tangible. The main thing that did happen was that a more sophisticated chart system was released this May. One year later. And IAP. Effect to be seen.
Right now, I’m less bullish on Android than ever. Google still has a chance to convert the huge install base into something viable and financially attractive for devs. I’m not sure it is high on their list and frankly, I’m not sure if Google is organized strong enough to harness all the brilliance their engineers clearly have into such an effort.
Go do Android if you believe Google will shift it into something financially sound soon and if you are a cross-device compatibility testing masochist. Prepare yourself for zero exposure from the market, the moment you release you will be buried by the 40k new apps per month that Google is so proud of.
I like what Microsoft does, from a big picture perspective. In fact, they show a lot of signals that they “get it”. Trying to create an ecosystem that creates enough value for participants to make a living. If those handsets gain any traction and Microsoft continues to listen to developers and improve their ecosystem accordingly, especially if they pull out the Xbox card, this would be my clear Nr. 3 platform to watch, trending towards Nr. 2.
Q: What about the Playbook, the HP tablet and other great things that will come out soon?
A: In my opinion there is no serious contender in sight for the above mentioned three players.
Indie Yes or No?
Can one make a living going Indie? From all I saw over the last years, the answer depends on two factors that are not really tied to platform choice
1.can you force yourself into doing the right things, mixing a strong work ethic with all the other aspects of an independent’s life to release stuff with a tight cadence?
2.how much time do you have before you run out of money?
I have seen incredible things from other devs. People quitting their jobs and starting to release new games and updates with breathtaking speed. There are no real excuses in that area, your releases are highly visible. This requires a high level of seniority in programming. The refresher/learning approach I started with for myself is very risky and requires a longterm commitment/investment.
Assuming you have a high level of seniority and trust yourself to crank out stuff, the minimum answer to 2) is one year.
And the winner is…
For platform choice, as far as I am concerned, no platform right now provides a gold rush environment. That was nice for a while on iOS, never true on Android, not true on WP7 or anything else, so it is a level playing field, but ONLY for the gold rush aspect, meaning the idea that it is super easy to make money on a specific platform.
On none of those platforms can you make a living with me-too or “just decent quality” apps. On any of those platforms a good app can tank.
That said, for serious entrepreneurs, the iOS platform by far is your best and safest bet financially. The market share and device distribution is very solid, so is growth and innovation. With minimal investment you can target iPhone/iPod, iPad and Mac and alternate between three unique sub-platforms with a strong, well paying installed base. Fragmentation is under control and the customer base has proven again and again that it is willing to shell out money for apps.
I’m deeply convinced that if you want to make a living, the cake you want a share from is not the market share of any specific platform. It is the number of sales of apps, ad, iap and corresponding revenue on that platform that is the only thing interesting for you.
Granted, there is a potential in going niche. Especially when doing contract work. I’m sure there are strategies to make money on specific platforms if you do something very specific. Spam an appstore with crap apps? Not a great strategy on iOS. But if you mainly want to create cool, innovative stuff and feel you got what it takes to get your ideas to release, the reality is that iOS still is far ahead of Nr. 2 and Nr. 3 in terms of generating money for developers and in terms of odds for newcomers.
With some background knowledge, credible success or no-success stories from other Indies are your best friend in making that decision! Also, watch out where new cool stuff gets released and ask yourself why that developer chose that specific platform.
Did I do too less homework on a certain platform? Got success stories to share? Daring to place a bet on something completely different I don’t mention here? Please leave a comment!（source:pocketcyclone）