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Opinion: The Top 5 iPhone Dirty Secrets

Susan Lambert of Avatarlabs, an iPhone developer, lets loose her five dirty secrets of the iPhone -- advice for developers and others still trying to get a handle on the explosive phenomenon.

Susan Lambert, Blogger

November 23, 2009

8 Min Read

So, Avatarlabs launched our very first app a little over one year ago. The app was Rhinoball, inspired by Walt Disney Pictures' Bolt. It is a free game where you play as the cute little feisty hamster, Rhino, in his intrepid rollerball, racing through the streets to find Bolt. It has since been downloaded over 1.5 million times (and counting). And in the last year, we've created over a dozen mobile applications for iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android phones. The iTunes App Store is less than two years old (consider that for a minute, it’s a toddler store!) and its growth has been staggering, changing the face of mobile, gaming and computers. We’ve recently developed our own in-house reporting tool for our apps and I learned a few things crunching our data (and just for the record, I am not a numbers or official data cruncher. I'm sort of a theoretical data general-izer. I like to pop-psychoanalyze data). There is a lot of talk in App Development -- from how to create apps to how to promote apps -- but here are my Top Five Dirty Secrets about App Development that no one is talking about (or at least not as much as they should). 1. Rampant Piracy We just figured it out recently when we compared our own analytics data to Apple downloads. Going along with what you may have just read on Gamasutra, more people are using our app than have officially downloaded. Duh! It never occurred to me that people would pirate apps, though it should not have been a surprise when you think about it. Software gets pirated. And it's difficult to protect against that piracy. But here's the other weird thing -- people are also pirating free apps. Not nearly as much as paid apps, but really? Why? Is this because they have jailbroken devices or just hate the iTunes store? Or would people just rather pirate than download for FREE? Who knows, but check out this info about Crackulous, Hackulous, and Appulous. Gamasutra reports that iPhone developer/distributor ngmoco has seen 50 to 90 percent piracy rates in the first week of a new game release. Most of our apps are free, but for one of our paid apps, we've seen significant piracy. And while we’re taking steps to prevent it, there’s not much we can do right now. And EVERY developer and distributor is facing this... and most are still not talking about it. Thank goodness Apple is now allowing in-app micropayments for free apps. This should significantly reduce piracy. And it should also shift the balance in the store from paid to free apps. Developers will offer the game for free, but keep most of the game locked up unless you power up to scale the paywall. Will this stop all the piracy? Probably not, but it may lessen the piracy. It will be interesting to see what other steps Apple may take to keep iPirates at bay. 2. iPod Touch Per our own reporting tool, over half the users of our apps are owners of iPod Touch devices. It depends on the app (One of our games which targets 8-12 year olds reports a 72 percent iPod Touch audience! Typically it's between 45 and 55 percent). iPod Touch is Apple's unstoppable secret weapon. It's iSmartbomb, flying under the radar. iPod Touch is THE new handheld game device. Don't want to deal with AT&T but want all the fun of the app store? Don't want to give up your Blackberry's keyboard? Are you one of the last remaining 13 year olds whose evil parents won’t give you a cellphone (aka, my stepson)? iPod Touch is the answer and I suspect it may be THE favorite Christmas present this year for kids of all ages. You can hate Apple because they’re beautiful, but don’t pretend the next iPhone killer is just around the corner, because you don’t just have to kill the iPhone, you have to kill the iPod. And everybody has been trying that since 2001. 3. If You Build It, They May Not Come The iTunes App Store Universe is expanding constantly. Getting noticed in this universe is a moving target challenge. The iTunes App Store now has over 100,000 Apps and over 2 billion downloads of those apps. Over 50 million iPhones and iPod Touch devices have been sold. This is no time to put your head in the sand. Promoting your app is more difficult than making your app. How do you launch an app, particularly, if you're making a free or low-cost version? If you are a brand and you want an app, you need to put some brand power into launching that app. Then you can get some traction. So, how do you compete? Ngmoco says it's "concept, quality and price." I would add dedication to launching your app, and a bit of luck. However, just because you can't necessarily hit it out of the park every time, doesn’t mean you shouldn't go up to bat. Sometimes it's good to get a single, double, or triple. And remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint. Your app can live for a long time in the store and if it's good and if you promote it and continue to serve your audience through that app, your audience will find you. But don’t build an app expecting to hit the top 10. Build a good app. Build several, in fact. If you’re a large brand, consider more than one app. The App store is great for niche marketing. 4. Everyone Hates the Yankees Because they're number one (they just won another World Series title, in case you didn't notice), everyone wants to see them fall. I learned this one when I worked at Disney Studios for (now former) head Dick Cook. Yes, yes, before you get too concerned, I know people LOVE Disney and they LOVE the Yankees and clearly, they LOVE the iPhone and iPod Touch. But the dirty secret (and it's not that much of a secret) is that they also hate them. They hate them for being so much better than everyone else. They hate them for almost having a monopoly on what they do (baseball, family entertainment, killer mobile device). I've been in many seminars, panels, etc. where it’s clear that the speakers don’t like that Apple is the king of mobile right now and no other part of mobile is as sexy (even if it has the numbers or growth potential). Literally one of speakers (and I won't say who) from a large mobile video company was dancing around the iPhone success and finally just blurted out, "I just don’t want to see Apple win." And it's true. The Yankees have won more World Series titles than any other team (by 250% if I do my math right, but don’t count on that) and there is a part of us that says, "Well, someone else should win once in a while. It's not fair. I hate them." The dirty secret is that much of the press and the publicity and competition and even people who love Apple and their iPhone also hate Apple and the iPhone. And it's true of developers most of all. We LOVE the iPhone and LOVE Apple. And they drive us absolutely crazy with hate and envy and frustration. Particularly the byzantine iTunes store and iPhone Developer Program, because it is frustrating to submit an app and get it rejected for a seemingly random reason. Secretly, we're all hoping someone will challenge the iPhone. Since it would be nice to go one month without worrying about the next big thing, I'm gonna tell dirty secret number 4.5. Don't worry about the next big thing this month. Cause this month and next month, it's the iTunes App store. Consider this: even though everyone hates them and wants to bring them down, they can't. The iTunes App Store is not a fad. Someday something better will come along. But not anytime soon. Don't wait. If you have not created an iPhone/iPod Touch website, then you need to make one. Then you need to consider if you need an iPhone app. 5. Not Everyone Needs an App. Even though we're app developers, we also believe this dirty secret is true. You first need to make sure your websites are super iPhone and mobile friendly (and may even need to create a special iPhone site -– we do that too, just FYI), but you also need to consider your overall marketing goals. You may not need an app. You should only create an app, if you can fill a need -- not for yourself, but for your audience. Utility apps are big right now. If you're marketing your product, TV show or movie, and you want an app, you also want to create an application that is useful. Consider what you have to offer the iPod Touch/iPhone user. We're a busy people, those of us with iPhones, and we need your help. I use apps to help me get through the day. Make me a useful app, something that saves me time, makes me laugh, helps me with my kids and I'll download your app. And don’t forget, entertaining ourselves is a need. Make sure everyone needs your app. If you won’t keep it on your iPhone, use it every day and show it off to friends, why would anyone else? So there you have it. The top five dirty secrets of app development that no one is talking about. I know there are more. Share your dirty secrets!

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