We love to write about iPhones – the apps in particular. There are now more than 100,000 iPhone applications available to download on the App Store on iTunes, and creating and marketing these programs has become a kind of a cottage industry for software developers. There are plenty of companies out there creating apps for large corporations, but there are also lots of individuals out there who come up with an idea for an app, build it themselves and market it all on their own. They’re all hoping that their app will hit the big time, that hundreds of thousands of people will download it and that they’ll rake in the dough (like these guys).
So, I started to wonder, what does it take to make an iPhone app on your own? I decided to ask the only guy I know who’s ever built one. Simon Watson is the resident smart guy in my family. He’s my soon-to-be brother-in-law, he lives in London and recently released an iPhone app of his own creation on iTunes. It’s called Chromixa and it’s a puzzle game that has players combine colors to create specific shapes.
Here’s our e-mail conversation about this process.
Mike: So, Simon, in exchange for my blessing of your impending marriage to my sister, I’d like you to answer a few questions about your iPhone app.
Simon: Seems fair.
Mike: How long did the process take from start to finish?
Simon: It's tricky to say as, for me, it's purely a spare-time activity that has to be fitted around a busy full-time job. I would say it's taken a year from having the idea to seeing Chromixa go on sale in the App Store. I dread to think how many evenings and weekends it's taken. If I was working on it full-time, then I reckon 2-3 months would be about right for this particular game.
Mike: I like how you Brits say ‘reckon.’ In America, where iPhones were invented, the word ‘reckon’ is only used in the Old West. Like, “I reckon we’re gonna have to get a posse together.” Anyway, back to iPhone apps. You're a pretty technically adept guy, but what kind of technical skills are necessary for someone who wants to do this?
Simon: Having some experience of computer programming is a definite advantage. Apple provides great tools (Mac-only) but, like everything, there's a learning curve. For developers who are experienced with C, C++, C#, Java then a simple iPhone app can be created in a couple of days. For complete novices, I'd say it's better to learn the basics of programming before diving in to the iPhone. That said, with so much to learn, motivation is important so if a budding developer is singularly focused on the iPhone, then you can just jump into the deep end and learn to swim the hard way!
Mike: Is there a lot of support online for people looking to do this kind of thing?
Simon: There's now a lot of great Web sites aimed at iPhone developers, offering tutorials and discussion groups. As good as Apple's documentation is, sometimes there's no substitute for hearing other developers' real-world experiences. The bottom line is that you need a Mac, $99 to join Apple's developer program, a clear idea of what you want to achieve and a lot of patience! Personally, I found the discussion forums at iPhone Dev SDK incredibly useful, along with some excellent video tutorials at 71Squared. Apple's own developer site can be found here.
Mike: So, what’s the first step?
Simon: Step 1 has to be having a good idea! There's so many existing iPhone apps that it's important to try and do something different, ideally unique. For Chromixa, I first created a rough proof-of-concept so I could assess if the game idea was actually fun to play.
Mike: What’s a proof of concept?
Simon: For me, a proof of concept is the best way to decide if an idea is worth investing my time in. After having the idea for Chromixa, I wanted some reassurance that it would result a game which was actually fun to play, and would create enough variety in the puzzles. So, I put together a simple prototype with three puzzles of varying difficulty. This is also a great way to get early feedback from people you trust to determine if it's likely to be popular.
Mike: OK, so you’re confident you have a good idea. What’s next?
Simon: With the proof of concept done, I took time to sketch out how the game would work in terms of menus, controls, scoring points etc. There was a lot of programming to turn the rough concept into a professional-looking game with polished presentation. The standard of iPhone games is getting ever higher, and customers expect a lot for their $1. I paid a composer to create the music but managed to handle all the graphics myself. Once it was almost finished I used the iBetaTest Web site to find would-be testers. I had 10 people testing my game for several weeks and their feedback was invaluable. It's easy to lose perspective, so having unbiased views is important.
Mike: If memory serves, you also reached out to me to serve as one of your testers. Did my feedback make it into the final version of the game?
Simon: It sure did. As I recall, you identified a couple of bugs (puzzle shapes being dragged off the screen, and the phone lock not being disabled during the tutorial video), as well as helping me tweak the order of puzzles to ensure a smoother increase in difficulty. And, of course, once I realized how easily you picked up the concept, I realized it was ready for the masses ;-)
Mike: How nice of you to say. OK. So you have a good idea. You’ve built the prototype, tested it and made changes. Next?
Simon: The final stage was to translate the game into a few other languages and submit to Apple. Their review process has had a lot of criticism but, for me, it was pretty painless - around 10 days until it was on sale.
Mike: Why has the review process gotten a lot of criticism?
Simon: I think there have been three main complaints:
- Time for reviews/updates - This has got better but it was taking several weeks at one point. It's frustrating for developers to have to wait 7-10 days for an update to be approved which fixes a bug.
- Lack of transparency - Apple has rejected apps for a host of reasons, and often hasn't given much feedback to the developer. To be fair, I think the huge success of the App Store took Apple by surprise and they've had to develop new processes. Developers need a set of consistent public guidelines so they know where they stand.
- Changing the rules - As the store has evolved, Apple has made some key changes. For example, only people who've paid for an app can review it, updates no longer put your app at the top of the 'most recent' list. Personally I think these changes are for the better but, inevitably, there are developers who it adversely affects.
I think there's been a lot of valid criticism but, so far, my personal experience has been positive. Hopefully Apple will listen to developers' feedback and address their concerns. In return, we need to accept that the App Store isn't perfect and is very much a work in progress.
Mike: Very diplomatic of you, Watson. So during the 10 days of review or thereafter, did you hear from Apple at all?
Simon: Not really. Once submitted, the app is in a 'waiting for review' state. After about five days, this changed to 'in review' and then a few days later it was on iTunes.
Mike: Your app is priced at $1.99. Many apps are free, others are 99 cents. Some are $6, $7 and even higher. How did you calculate the price of yours?
Simon: I did give it a lot of thought and tried all sorts of scientific analysis but, in the end, I just went with my gut instinct. Over the past year there's been a 'race to the bottom' for app pricing. The cheapest price point is $.99 and I felt that potential Chromixa buyers, the intelligent and refined group that they are, would be willing to pay a dollar more for something unique, beautiful and challenging. After all, it's less than you'd pay for an average coffee at Starbucks and it will give many hours of fun. There are a lot of games at the $1.99 and $2.99 price points so I'm in pretty good company. Time will tell if I made the right decision!
Mike: And does Apple get a cut of that?
Simon: Yes, they take 30% of the revenue. So, once I've paid 40% U.K. tax on what's left, I'll make about 80 cents per download. But, with a wedding to pay for next year, every little bit helps.
Mike: OK, so your app is now live on the App Store. It’s been up there for about a week or so. What do you have to do to make sure people know about it? (apart from your soon-to-be brother in law writing a story about it).
Simon: I think most developers would agree this is the toughest part. For all the effort that goes into creating the application itself, marketing is the key to financial success. The "build it and they will come" approach doesn't work for iPhone apps. With over 100,000 apps on the store, the problem is people finding yours amongst the thousands of others in the same category. In general, you want your app to be as easy to find with the smallest number of 'clicks' from the user. Ideally, this means being in the "top 10" list on the App Store homepage, or in the "top 20/25" chart within each category.
Mike: How do you your app to move up in Apple’s rankings?
Simon: Sales, sales, sales! Apple hasn't disclosed how it calculates an app's ranking, but some clever educated guesswork seems to show that it's a seven-day weighted average. In other words, it looks at your past seven days of sales, with greater emphasis on the most recent days. The general consensus is that you need your daily sales to be in the 1,000s to make the top 10 in the U.S., although it will be lower for other countries. It's all about creating momentum as once your app is ranked highly, more people will see it and buy it. Submitting the app to iPhone-related Web sites, posting on message boards, writing a blog, creating online videos and issuing a press release are all good places to start. Chromixa just got a nice review on an mobile gaming site in the U.K. and that kind of coverage really helps. Apple provides 50 “promo codes” with each app update, so you can send your app to journalists for free in the hope that they’ll review it. For some reason these “promo codes” only seem to work in the U.S. iTunes store but they're still the easiest way to let reviewers try your app for free.
Mike: So, how do you stand out from the rest of the pack?
Simon: Of course, most developers are doing the same things, so you need to find an interesting angle that will motivate others to give you coverage.
Mike: Like proposing to their sisters?! Now I get it. We’re all just pawns in your grand plan to sell iPhone apps, aren’t we? So help me, if you hurt her…
Simon: Chill. You e-mailed me about this article, remember?
Mike: Right. OK. Well, you were saying about attracting interest in the app…
Simon: Ideally, you want to start creating the buzz before the app is available so there's a good level of interest at launch. It's important to try and focus your efforts to get a week-long boost in sales to move the app up the rankings. Even seemingly trivial details like the app's icon and name can make a big difference, as these are all that users see on the App Store before they click for more details. Finally, I don't think there's any denying that there's a big element of luck involved. The odds are better than the lottery, but for every success story you hear, there are hundreds or thousands of also-rans who didn't make it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can be one of the lucky few!
Mike: OK, Simon. Some really good info here. Thanks. I give you my blessing to marry my sister.
Simon: Thanks. Super.
Mike: You’re welcome.
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