Sep 12

Much has been written already about Apple’s event this past Tuesday. I will try to not repeat everyone else’s opinions, but instead focus on what the news means for you as an app business owner and an app developer.

iPhone 6

Let’s start with the least surprising announcements. The new phones were almost exactly what we had expected.

There was an interesting change in how the iPhone 6 Plus renders views to its screen. An app sees a native screen resolution of 1242 x 2208 but the resolution of the screen panel is just 1080 x 1920 pixels. The phone hardware downsamples from the larger screen buffer to the physical screen. This doesn’t sound like a good idea, but people who have seen it in real life claim that the result is not a fuzzy screen. I think we have reached the point where pixels are now so small that you cannot see any imperfections resulting from this downsampling. For app designers it means that you should not try to draw single pixels lines or depend on your UI to be pixel perfect. The trend away from skeumorphic pixel perfect designs has been very clear since iOS 7, so this should not be news. Focus on the content of your app, and it will look beautiful on these new HD screens.

Introducing this downsampling technique also provides a lot more flexibility for Apple in future screen sizes. They are no longer constrained to just 2x and 3x multiples of the original iPhone screen from 2007. The screen sizes seen by the app can remain nice multiples so developers don’t go totally insane when creating image assets for apps. Then Apple can pick an appropriately sized screen panel for the device they want to build.

Of course there are now two more screen sizes to deal with. The writing on the wall has been written with flashing neon paint for quite some time. By now you should be using auto layout and be getting familiar with the new screen size classes. If you have to maintain compatibility with iOS 7 (and earlier) then there will be pain.

I have yet to research if it’s possible to include/exclude specific iPhone models from installing your app. It seems that the old iPhone/iPad selector is too crude of a switch now that we have an iPhone that is quite close to the iPad mini size. I can imagine iPad only apps today that would work on the iPhone 6 Plus, look ok on the iPhone 6, but be totally unusable on the smaller iPhones. (Before you say “adapt the layout to the screen size”, imagine an app that displays a PDF file or any other asset that has a large fixed size.)

The new phones look like they have new keyboard layouts to make good use of the extra screen space. If you are developing a keyboard extension then you have some extra work to do. Maybe that was why no keyboard was visible in the variable sized simulators in Xcode betas.

Both iPhone 6 models support the new, more efficient H.265 video format. If you are streaming video to iPhones you should definitely check the device type that is requesting the video stream and where possible serve an H.265 stream since that will considerably save bandwidth for you and provide a better experience for the customer. Since the old iPhone devices do not support this new format it’s too early to replace any embedded video files you may have in your app.

Apple Pay

The real story here is about security and not about convenience. Physical credit cards and credit card terminals are in a sorry state in the United States. It’s probably the only country in the world where just the knowledge of the numbers on the card are sufficient to make a purchase. Most civilized countries require a chip on the card which proves to the terminal that you actually have a valid card and not a generic piece of plastic that you just magnetized with data from a credit card dump. Apple Pay is at this level basically a secure chip to guarantee the authenticity of the payment card.

In 2015 merchants will become liable for fraudulent transactions made at their POS terminals. Therefore they will become reluctant to take the old magnetic stripe cards in the future. iPhone 6 customers will be very welcome because the risk of fraudulent transactions will be much, much lower. Payment terminals will be replaced because of this shift in liability and new ones will include NFC. Apple’s timing here is perfect.

Apple likes to make plastic obsolete (floppy disks, CDs and DVDs, etc) and that’s really what they’re doing with Apple Pay. They are not replacing banks or credit card institutions, they are working with them. Apple brings trust and security to the equation in a way that no other company has been able to offer to the industry before. And it doesn’t hurt that they bring along a few hundred million highly valued customers…

Reports indicate that Apple is receiving a %0.15 fee on all transactions that go through Apple Pay. And it’s almost entirely profit for Apple. Of course they have spent years building up their products and infrastructure to put them in a position to be able to offer this service. Another example of Apple’s long term thinking.

What’s in it for you as an app business owner? There will be an API (in iOS 8.1) to add Buy buttons inside your apps. This will make it very easy for you to sell physical goods inside an app. You just add the Buy button and Apple takes care of the whole checkout process. So you can sell fluffy toys of your game characters easily from within your app. Or if your app requires a hardware accessory, then your customers no longer have to find your website to place their order.

If there’s some form of affiliate tracking capability built into Apple Pay, then you could earn extra revenue in your apps by selling other peoples’ stuff from within the app. Many podcasters print custom t-shirts and sell to their fans. Say you have a podcast app you could easily have buy buttons for such real goods in the app. This is a huge revenue opportunity for apps.

While there will soon be an API for Apple Pay, there will not yet be an API to access the underlying NFC hardware. Apple’s usual pattern is to introduce new hardware, keep the APIs internal for a while to better formulate a public API for 3rd party apps. The Touch ID sensor is a perfect example of this. If you have specific use cases in mind for NFC let Apple know via Bugreporter. See this article for some ideas of what they’re doing with NFC over in Android land.

I’m assuming that Apple will not allow you to sell digital items with Apple Pay. They still want their 30% on In-App Purchases, not the 3-6% that you would pay for a credit card transaction. I foresee some interesting gray areas and boundary drawing here in the future.

Apple Watch

Two things struck me about the presentation of the Apple Watch.

  1. There was no explanation for why you would want the Apple Watch before it was revealed. Compare this to the extensive preamble both in the iPhone and iPad introductions.
  2. The presentation and especially the demo was very geeky. Definitely more directed to a tech audience than the invited fashion editors.

I think both items stem from the fact that Apple doesn’t really know what the Apple Watch will become. Just like they didn’t really know how the iPhone and iPad would eventually be used. (Installed any web apps recently?) They showed some of the things they have come up with internally that they thought seemed cool. But with Apple’s secrecy the developers in the know could probably not walk around all day with an Apple Watch on their wrist to experience daily life usage. Apple has a great advantage because of the developer community who loves to take their beautiful devices and make them magical with new software. This is of course a great opportunity.

With the top of the line watches probably costing many thousands of dollars, you would think there could be a profitable market for high-quality apps. At least I can hope for a higher bar when it comes to UI design. Please, if you are going to develop for the Apple Watch, invest in good UI and UX design. Nobody is going to want to show off their new solid gold watch with crappy looking apps.

How do you get started as an app developer with a great idea for a watch app? First get familiar with iOS 8 Extensions. It seems very likely that extensions will be the way apps are delivered to the Apple Watch. Build a simple today widget with a very simple UI and limited interactivity. Now strap your iDevice to your wrist and you’re up and running. ;-) At least that should give you a sense of WatchKit Glances and Actionable Notifications. Native WatchKit apps will coming later as well, opening up more possibilities.

One of the more intriguing hardware aspects of the Apple Watch is the large button below the crown. It was barely mentioned in the keynote and the only thing it appears to do is bring up the communication feature on the watch. Apple must really think that will be an important aspect of using the Apple Watch. Don’t we have enough ways to send messages from person to person on our iPhones? Is it a game changer to be tapped on your wrist instead of having your phone buzz in your pocket? It’s probably one of many things that you cannot theorize about; you have to try it out in real life. Which is why all of us developer will line up and by an Apple Watch as soon as it goes on sale.

Why is it called Apple Watch and not the much rumored iWatch name? I think it’s obvious. Apple is one of the most valued brand names on the planet. It’s synonymous with fine design and high quality. The letter ‘i’ does not connote any of those qualities. An iWatch would be placed in the same mental category as Swatch.

Wait, There’s More

Apple really played up this event like few other events. It appears that Apple sees the Apple Watch as a seminal product for the company. However I have a hard time seeing Apple Inc. hanging its future on becoming a watchmaker, even if it is the coolest watchmaker on the planet. With all the build up and all people they have hired in the last year, there has to be more. I’m guessing that this is just their first foray into wearable computers. Just like Apple introduced the iPhone before the iPad because people immediately understood what a phone is; people have an existing mental model for a watch. I can see how there could be future, specialized variations of the watch concept. For example a medical device with more sensors. And there could be computers without a display that act as accessories in the Watch/iDevice ecosystem.

In Closing

With these new announcements, iOS 8 and all the new stuff released at WWDC it’s been quite a year for app entrepreneurs. And we probably have one more event later this year for the traditional iPad refresh before the holiday season. I wish Apple would take a breather now and just focus on execution and fixing the cracks in the existing tools and infrastructure before unleashing another avalanche of new cool stuff. But I doubt that will happen.

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May 31

The App Business is what many people would call a perfect location independent business. You can do your work from almost anywhere in the world. That’s the theory at least. My wonderful wife challenged me to put this theory to the test. So for the past several months we’ve been traveling around New Zealand and Australia.

It’s been a fantastic trip! And for the most part the location independence worked out really well. Time zone differences were a challenge. Especially after the southern hemisphere switched to winter time when the northern hemisphere changed to summer time. Phone calls with customers in Europe were difficult to schedule at a convenient time. But having a few very early morning and late evening calls is a small price to pay while traveling the world.

I’ve learned a lot about staying connected with mobile phones, and finding decent Internet speed and reliability in remote locations. I will be writing more about this in the future. I even got a peek at the ‘dark side’ by picking up a cheap Android phone and used it as my main phone for several weeks.

Long travels is a good time to catch up on reading. If you liked my earlier recommendation of Daniel Suarez books, then you are going to love the Singularity Series by William Hertling. Both authors write about technology dystopias in the near future. They both have a strong technical background so the stories are absolutely believable. As a tech geek it always bugs me when authors use computers to make leaps that you know are not feasible.

(Note: I just noticed that there is a #AmazonVacation campaign going on at the moment. I guess the goal is to boycott Amazon so that the Department of Justice can sue Apple again to restore competition in the ebook market. Or something like that. So if you don’t want to click on the Amazon links above, here’s a link to the iBookstore instead.)

Anyway, great books if you find yourself on a airplane ride in the near future. Like if you’re going to WWDC.

I will of course be in San Francisco next week attending both WWDC and the fantastic AltConf. Hope to see you there!

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Jan 31

Ouriel Ohayon of AppsFire watches the App Store for trends like a hawk. Recently he noticed that a single indie developer had the #1, #2 and #6 top positions on Top Free iPhone Apps.

The #1 app is called Flappy Bird and is a not so subtle variation on Tiny Wings. Or as Georgia at iMore puts it: “the game which is what remains when you suck the fun and joy out of Tiny Wings”. Ouch. But since when does the App Store reward fantastic games that hard core games love? For proof, look no further than Candy Crush and the many successful IAP games.

How does an indie developer beat out Candy Crush and other publishers who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per day to maintain their top positions in the App Store?

Elaine Heney of Chocolate Lab Apps appears to be the only one who has managed to get an interview with the developer Dong Nguyen. In the interview Dong Nguyen claims that he did not “use any promotional methods”.

Carter Thomas has analyzed the historic rankings of Flappy Bird and the other two apps, and his conclusion is that something fishy is going on.

Paying for downloads is nothing new in the App Store economy. The top free to play games do this all the time. A crucial component to make such a campaign profitable is that your app is finely tuned to extract the most money from the players. The big guys have this down to a science. But even with all that in-house knowledge, a common strategy is to launch the app in a smaller market (e.g. Australia or Canada) to tweak and tune the IAPs before launching on a larger scale.

Flappy Bird has none of these characteristics. The only monetization is AdMob banners. This is hardly an optimized monetization strategy.

The darker side of paying for downloads is using bots to inflate your numbers. Since Flappy Bird is ranked high in 50 stores around the world at the same time, it would require an immense botnet to achieve this. The larger your efforts to cheat are, the larger your risk of being exposed becomes. It seems unlikely to me that an indie developer would get his hands on such a weapon.

Many people have pointed out that the reviews in the App Store for Flappy Bird look fake. But when did people suddenly start writing quality reviews in the App Store? Another explanation could be that there’s a meme on Twitter where people try to one-up each other with writing and finding wacky reviews for Flappy Bird.

I’m not going to pass any judgement because we don’t know all the facts.

In my mind the most suspicious part is how did the other two apps climb to the top of the App Store when there is no cross promotion of these apps in Flappy Bird. Do that many people really make an effort to go to the App Store and search for other apps by the same developer and download them?

If there was anything shady going on in the sudden rise to the top, then it’s a sad day. Yet another way to game the App Store. Or as some people would say: business as usual in the app economy. If there is one, I hope Apple finds and closes that loophole quickly.

If this is genuinely a viral super nova for Dong Nguyen, along the lines of Temple Run’s rise to fame a couple of years ago, then that makes me very happy. Congratulations to Dong Nguyen for hitting that perfect combination to make his apps go viral! This means that there is still hope for indie developers to hit it big time in the App Store without a mega budget.

written by Nick

Jan 17

In 2013 the App Store top charts where dominated by free apps with in-app purchases. This was especially true in the games category. Recently I’ve seen indie developers experimenting with freemium and paymium models in non-game apps. This is good.

Sunlit

Sunlit by Manton Reece is a traditional free with in-app purchases style app. The idea of the app is to collect your best photos into stories along with geo check-ins. (Seems like several similar services just launched around the same time. Must be an idea who’s time has come.)

The App Store listing shows that there is a $4.99 in-app purchase available for “unlimited stories”. Thankfully the app doesn’t beat you over the head with messages to pay. An upgrade message is shown when you try to create your third story. This is unobtrusive and elegant. There is also a small link to upgrade when you create a new story. This is great for fans who may not run into the limits of the free app, but still want to give you money. Well done.

Photos+

Justin Williams released his Photos+ app in December and he explained his business model in a blog post where he likened it to the auto industry. The idea is to sell a base model of the app. In the case of Photos+ it’s priced at $2.99. Then you can purhcase add-ons, i.e. new features, with in-app purchases. I think this is a really interesting model to get around the fact that you can’t charge for app upgrades.

In the current version of the Photos+ app there is supposedly one in-app purchase to add more sharing capabilities. But I can’t actually find it… Maybe it was something that didn’t make the 1.0 cut but was still mentioned in the help screens. Anyway, I still like the idea of this business model.

Side note: The app name “Photos+” is impossible to search for in the App Store. Totally unrelated apps like “Yahoo Weather” and “Match the Dots” are listed way before Photos+. It’s just another reminder of how really bad search is in the App Store. But given that this is the reality, don’t name your apps after a generic category, and avoid giving it a name that is similar to hundreds of other apps.

Summary

I’m bullish on the idea of freemium and paymium for non-game apps. The two apps above are just two examples that recently came to my attention. What interesting app business models have you come across recently?

written by Nick

Jan 10

This is a great idea. Start with the apps on your first home screen page. That should keep you busy for a few Fridays. Then go down your list of apps that you use every week. Also reward developers with a new or updated review when they update an app.

If you prefer to read other peoples’ reviews instead of writing your own, you can still help by clicking on the “Was his review helpful? Yes” link for the reviews that are truly helpful. (You can do this in the iTunes desktop app. Remember that one?) So few people seem do this up-voting, that just a few votes will have an impact.

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Jan 01

I have a small one-on-one coaching program for app entrepreneurs. I rarely publicize this program because I only have few slots available and most of the time the program is full, and has a waiting list.

In celebration of the new year, I’m making this program available to a few more applicants. This is the time to plan for your app business success in 2014, and I want to help you reach your goals.

Click here for more information on the coaching program and how to apply.

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Dec 27

If you’re tired of watching holiday themed movie reruns, you can now watch the iOS 7 Tech Talk Videos. These Tech Talks are like a very concentrated version of WWDC. Coming several months after WWDC Apple can assume that most developers by now have some experience developing for iOS 7, so they don’t have to start at the beginner level.

You should watch the “App Store Distribution and Marketing for Apps” video. It provides general advice on app marketing, from Apple’s perspective. (Keep in mind that when it comes to the App Store, Apple always has the best interest of Apple in mind. Which may not necessarily be in the best interest of indie developers and small app businesses.) The video also shows email addresses for the App Store marketing team. If you don’t already have a personal contact on the team, you should make a note of these addresses. When you release a new app that you think is worthy of being featured in the App Store, you should let them know. Of course they can only promote a very small number of apps, so the odds are not in your favor. But the odds are even worse if you don’t tell them about your app in the first place. Showing Apple that you have a marketing plan outside of the App Store helps to get their attention. In addition to the usual “only on iOS” and using the latest iOS technologies.

The marketing video also mentions the “App Store Code Program”. This was the first time I heard about this program. It’s a way to give away your paid app to a large number of people. It’s not designed for when you run out of promo codes and you need a dozen more. Instead think 100,000+ redemption codes. Think big!

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Dec 16

Per their annual tradition, Apple will shut down iTunes Connect over the Christmas holiday. This year the dates are December 21-27.

During this time period you cannot and should not

  • Login to iTunes Connect.
  • Update your app descriptions. Make sure you add any special holiday or sales messages ahead of time.
  • Change app prices. Furthermore, do not schedule any price changes to occur during this week as that will remove your app from sale until the 28th.
  • Don’t submit any last minute app changes. If you make a mistake the expedited review option will not be available to you, and you’ll sit on the sidelines during the lucrative holiday sales season.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to make meta data changes. iTunes Connect is a vary large system spanning many time zones. Don’t rely on it working with perfect timing for you.

What still works

  • The App Store ranking lists are still updated during this period.

How to get your daily sales reports during the shutdown

  1. Log into iadworkbench.apple.com to establish your session.
  2. Then go to reportingitc.apple.com to get your sales data.

Update: This year I saw several app updates published during this time. Not sure if this means that the app review team is working as normal during this time, or if these were just a few apps that were left in the review queue and they wanted to clear it out.

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Dec 13

App Store Ranking Algorithm Change

Today MobileDevHQ reported that they are seeing unusually large changes in app rankings in the App Store for keywords that they are tracking. Usually this indicates the rollout of a new or tweaked algorithm in the App Store.

This change is not affecting the way apps are ranked in the top lists, which are based primarily on the number of downloads for each app. The change is related to the order apps are shown when you search the App Store using keywords.

MobileDevHQ and many others are still researching and analyzing the effects of this change in order to reverse-engineer Apple’s intent behind this. It’s still early, but it looks like matches against the app title is given lower weight. This limits the effectiveness of keyword stuffing your app title. This should hopefully reduce the amount of clutter you have to endure when browsing the App Store; something that is probably in Apple’s interest.

More dramatic changes are related to generic keywords like “travel”, “banking” and “music”. MobileDevHQ lists a few examples of banking apps from big banks that have seen their ranking change by over 50%.

What should you do as an App Business owner?

Check the rankings of your own apps and of your close competitors. (I recommend that you subscribe to a tracking service like MobileDevHQ or SensorTower to get this data automatically.) Check both results for your app titles and main keywords. Have you gone up or down in the rankings? Start doing some keyword research to see what changes you can make to improve your rankings. Since we can only change an app’s keywords in conjunction with submitting a new binary, I wouldn’t do that just yet. Since this change is very new, there is yet very little data to go on. Also we only have another week to submit apps before the holiday shutdown of iTunes Connect. Don’t rush out a new build and risk messing something up before the all important holiday sales season.

The AppsFire App To Be Removed From The App Store

AppsFire is one of the most popular app discovery apps directed towards consumers, and in my opinion one of the better designed apps in this category. Today Ouriel Ohayon announced that the company is pulling the app from the App Store to focus on their new service for developers.

One one hand I don’t like the focus on temporary sales that apps like AppsFire have, but they do drive a lot of downloads. AppsFire claims to have 12 million unique users and have driven 2 billion downloads/recommendations from their app since 2009.

If any of you readers have used the new AppsFire SDK, I would love to hear about your experience.

written by Nick

Nov 25

Apple has discouraged developers from annotating their screenshots in the App Store beyond just a plain screenshot. However many developers have found that it’s helpful (and profitable) to tell a story with their screenshots, explaining the main benefits of the app. And I have yet to hear of any app rejections due to annotated screenshots.
 
With the introduction of the Apple Store for iPad app, Apple decided to go with annotated screenshots for on of their own apps for the first time. They did it in an interesting, and unusual way, by showing an image of an iPad running the app below a headline that explains the benefit or feature shown in each screenshot.
 
You could argue that the UI of an app should be so self explanatory that a quick look at a screenshot conveys all the information you need to know about the app. But I think it can be very beneficial to use annotated screenshots in the App Store, when they’re done in a tasteful way. However, I wouldn’t use Apple’s approach of displaying the outline of the iPhone or iPad device as this takes up way too much real estate in the screenshot. And it also opens up a big minefield that you have to navigate when you use images of Apple’s products in your marketing. See the first link above for more details.
 
 

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