Earlier this year, Apple released its list of top iPhone apps at the one billion download mark. Downloads just hit two billion, making Apple’s “All-Time” Top Apps label even sillier than it was at the time — but that aside, it’s a very interesting list and there are a lot of good lessons to be learned from it.
We know that developers of some top apps have earned from $350,000 (Pocket God) to $800,000 (iShoot). Some have probably earned much more. It’s difficult to estimate income even if the number of downloads is known, because app pricing bounces around a lot. Koi Pond has been downloaded about 900,000 times and Enigmo over 800,000. Even at, say, a dollar a time, that’s very good money.
How to get access to this giant cash cow? Here are some tips, based on our analysis of Apple’s twenty top paid apps:
Get in early
The iPhone 3G came out in July 2008. Almost half of the top apps had been released by August. The rest were all out by the end of 2008, except one that came out in January 2009.
Timing is everything. Of course, some of this is just a matter of physical reality — if you sell 5,000 apps a day for 100 days, that’s 500,000 sales; if you only have 5 days, you can only reach 25,000. But there’s more to it than that. There are simply so many apps now (over 50,000) that it’s very difficult to be seen. Apps that came out early, and gained traction, had a huge advantage over competitors, and that kind of advantage is often maintained long-term.
Entertain the masses
If you want to save the planet, enlighten humanity or improve people’s health, you’ll get your reward in heaven, but you won’t have a winning iPhone app. Every one of the top paid apps is a toy of some kind. Fourteen are in the Games category, 4 Entertainment and 2 Music.
Interestingly, this entertainment is generally not mindless. Most of the games are complex, requiring skill and concentration, and quite a few have many permutations or constant updates (Pocket God). Complex games include Pocket God, Fieldrunners, Texas Hold’em Poker and Monopoly. The simpler games, like the memory matching game Bejeweled 2 or the skateboard app Touchgrind, still require skill and concentration.
Only a few, like Koi Pond, require little mental effort, but even this one has many options and constant movement. Nearly all the apps have great graphics and plenty of movement.
There were only 2 entirely silly and pointless apps, namely the simulated beer app, iBeer, and the self-explanatory iFart Mobile.
There’s a surprise in every package
Ocarina, the ancient flute simulation, is a real surprise. Who would have thought an obscure musical instrument would have ranked so high? The app developers are just as interesting — a high-flying crowd of musicians and computer scientists from places like Stanford and Princeton. Could it be that there is still a place for real quality and innovation on the Internet? Happy thought.
Develop for the device
Using the accelerometer seems to increase an app’s chances of success. Most of the top paid apps are accelerometer-intensive, or use other novel or unique iPhone features.
The message here is that successful app developers take advantage of the device’s novel or unique functionality. The iPhone is mobile, it has a touchscreen, it has an accelerometer. Develop for the device! Apps that act as though they’re on a regular desktop computer are likely to be less successful.
Have the right background
It really helps to be an experienced software developer, preferably with a background in Internet games. Most of the companies and individuals who distinguished themselves have a long track record in this market. In some cases, it was just a matter of taking an existing business model and making the logical leap to iPhone apps. In others, the app was the start of the business and in some cases it could also be the end of the road.
Don’t be a one-hit wonder
Four of the top paid apps were orphans or close, with only 1 to 2 apps per developer. Far more common, though, were developers with stables of 3 to 10 apps. Only 1 developer had more than 10 apps. Successful developers leveraged existing products and apps, building on one to create others – but adapting an app to make very similar spin-offs (iBeer, iMilk, iSoda, Magic Wallet), while smart, seems a little too opportunistic. The app developers that have developed several unique, compelling games are far more likely to have multiple successes.
In fact, 3 companies (Freeverse, Pangea Software, Electronic Arts) each had 2 top-twenty apps. All 3 are big or biggish companies, implying that it takes significant resources to product a winning app.
Don’t be too hung up on price
The de facto standard iPhone app price is $0.99. This level was quickly established in the App Store as the place where most buyers seemed happy. Possibly it’s due to the standard cost of iTunes music.
In any case, most of the winning apps command better prices, with 13 of the 20 priced from $1.99 up, and 4 of them commanding the majestic (for iPhone apps) price of $4.99 on the day we did the analysis.
You don’t need Lite or Free teaser apps
Here’s a very interesting factoid. Only 2 of the top twenty apps (iHunt and iShoot) have a free or lite version, at least at the time of writing. Both developers are individuals rather than companies, and it’s interesting that the bigger outfits don’t see the need for teasers. The implication is that if it’s worth buying, people will pay for it.
The freebie iShoot Lite had 2.4 million downloads in January, and there were 320,000 paid downloads. So it’s quite possible that the free app drove sales of the paid app — but it’s also possible that there might have been more paid downloads had the free app not been available.
You don’t have to be a huge company (although it helps)
Could it be that success in iPhone apps depends on having massive, sophisticated, expensive marketing strategies? Not necessarily.
There’s no question that it helps to be Internet savvy and have deep pockets, but the winning app developers were an encouraging mix of sizes and types.
Four of the 17 developers are big multinational companies — Apple itself (Texas Hold’em), Electronic Arts (TETRIS, Monopoly), Activision (Crash Bandicoot) and SEGA (Super Monkey Ball). Then there are a bunch of mid-sized companies and, happily, also 7 small groups and 4 individuals.
iFart Mobile is an interesting story. It was developed by an Internet marketing guru who understood how to work the system and get incredible publicity by producing a pointless app that he must have known would easily generate controversy, laughter and interest.
The Internet mythology of smart guys working evenings or weekends, or out of the garage, and hitting the jackpot, lives on. The little guys in this group are John Moffett (iHunt), Ethan Nicholas (iShoot) and, so far as we can tell, Shinya Kasatani (Pocket Guitar). These guys might not be the next Steve Jobs, but they have been successful to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, just a dollar or two at a time. Pretty impressive.
Controversy is useful, but by no means essential
iFart Mobile in particular, and to a lesser extent iBeer and iHunt, are quite controversial and almost certainly gained a lot of publicity because of this. You can almost view the controversy in the ratings — while most of the 20 top apps have a dominant rating of 5 stars, gradually dropping down, these 3 controversial apps had large numbers of ratings for both 5 stars and 1 star. So this distribution of rating might not hurt an app, and might show a developer that the app has a lot of potential to create buzz.
The other top apps did not seem designed to attract controversy and this obviously didn’t hurt them.
Five-star ratings are neither essential nor possible for top apps
You can’t please all of the people all of the time — so the more ratings there are, the lower the odds of a 5 or even 4.5 star average. None of the top apps had 5 stars and most had 3 to 4 stars. iHunt had only 2.5 stars, because a lot of people hated it.
It takes a LOT of downloads to develop a lot of ratings
Although probably millions of people collectively downloaded the 20 top apps, the highest number of ratings (Fieldrunners) was 1,479 and the lowest (Pocket God) was 226. Most users don’t provide ratings, and even fewer write reviews.
Given that people like to be part of a happy herd, it’s almost certain that savvy developers actively promote positive ratings and reviews.
The theme doesn’t have to be classic or familiar
Classics like Texas Hold’em, Monopoly and TETRIS (all developed by public companies) did feature in the 20 top apps. The other apps were sometimes familiar, sometimes not, but none of them really adapted a big-name, well-known game. Pocket Guitar, of course, used a well-loved instrument with great success. But to balance that, Ocarina catapulted an obscure ancient flute to fame.
There are many, many, many iPhone games with themes not dissimilar to the top games. There are dozens of guitar simulations. There are 5 other iFart apps. So just having a good idea isn’t enough.
The iFart apps are an interesting illustration. Almost uniformly, they have not developed a following, and the comments are mainly negative — not because they’re vulgar and silly, but because they’re not very well executed and users don’t like them.
Working with many companies over the years and the explosion of mobile as an incredible way to reach consumers I generally hear the same thing “we know we need to be in the mobile space but how do we do it?” For the most part the answer has been to build an app. Whether it is a grandma, teenager or a stay at home mom chances are the word “app” has entered their vocabulary on some level. Thank you Apple and yes I do “have an app for that.”
While there are so many factors relating to the mobile space I thought I would tackle at least one of them. Should a company build an app or just go with a mobile web? My answer is yes but probably not for the reasons you think.
First a business should have a mobile web site. While the percentage of traffic hitting the site via mobile is relatively small now all of the clients I have spoken to have seen the traffic increase dramatically year over year and in some cases month over month. This means that if you do not have a website optimized for mobile then your customers are not getting a great experience, thus hurting your company. The other thing to understand is why are they hitting your site via mobile? Mobile traffic does not generally follow the same pattern as PC browsing. People are on the move, have limited time and limited screen size so they are going for very different things. For instance, many of my retail clients see competitive pricing searches verses deep product information lookups. This is because your potential customer is at another retail location and wants to see if it is cheaper at your location. Bad mobile web = lost revenue.
That being said it might sound like I am advocating against mobile apps which, I am not. Apps are a very powerful mobile engagement mechanic and having your app located on the most personal thing a person owns is a huge advantage. Customers who have an app for a particular retailer are usually two to three times more profitable for that retailer than their other customers who do not. Why? Partly because they are engaged on a personal level with that business.
All that being said I believe the largest issue with whether to go app verse mobile web is more based on cost and the functionality which is needed for the app. The major issue with app development is the money you will need to pour into a minimum of 2 operating systems (iOS and Android) for reach and need to address users of Blackberry, WP7 and feature phone which do make up a smaller portion but still significant reach among consumers. Then add the additional development costs you will spend to need to optimize the app for tablets (iPad, Android, Playbook) and it gets to be a lot. A lot of time and a lot of money to be more specific.
If the content and functionality for the app is relatively simple and which does not need to utilize many aspects of the “native” functions of the phone OS, I would suggest build using HTML5 (mobile web). For the most part you are building it once for all platforms and saving a whole lot of money doing it. One build, which can be used for your mobile website as well, and can be accessed with a much better user experience across almost all mobile devices.
Now here is the kicker. In the consumer space everything is about the “app” and getting that precious little icon on someone’s phone is a very powerful thing. If you go straight mobile web, in the minds of most consumers, you do not have an “app” thus you seem to be behind the times and if your competition does you run a strong risk of losing that customer long term.
To alleviate this issue and the consumer’s huge desire for apps, I would suggest creating some simple “native wrappers” for all of the major mobile OS’s. Wrappers are very inexpensive create and basically are a way you can “trick” the consumer into thinking they have an app. This could be as easy as an “app” that launches the browser, hides the address box etc and calls the HTML5 you have already created. The customer is able to download the app from an app store, place the icon on their mobile real estate and use it to their hearts content. From a business perspective you get the best of all worlds, significantly lower development costs, one central content management system and the halo effect of having an app in the market.
I would like to mention this does not work in all cases. If your app needs more complex functionality and using HTML5 affects the user experience then there might not be any choice but to go with a native application.
No matter how you slice it mobile is hear and companies need to move quickly to grab their spot. All of this feels so much like the internet boom we saw in the late nineties as companies tried to figure out how to deal with this new thing called the internet. Those who moved early and carefully prospered those who did not lost out. I would give examples but that was forever ago in tech time, I mean 10 years? Maybe if I could find my Palm Pilot I could tell you, I think had it written down in there.
Most businesses know the necessity of having a mobile presence for their company. But what they might not understand is, “just what is the difference between a native mobile application and a mobile web app and when do I choose one over the other?” At first-glance, it may be hard to distinguish a mobile web app / website from a native app because they can look a lot alike depending on which features you pick and choose. Deciding whether to choose a mobile-friendly web app vs a native mobile application depends on a variety of factors like: understanding who your target audience is, determining your budget, defining your business purpose, and identifying which features are most important to you. Learn these key differences between the two, and you’ll know which will serve your needs the best.
Accessibility – A mobile web app is made up of web pages which have been specially formatted to look good on handheld devices, like smartphones and tablets. This is accessed via the browser on the mobile device and requires mobile devices to have Internet connection. In addition, mobile websites are designed to take advantage of special mobile-specific features like location-based mapping and click-to-call features. Conversely, mobile apps which are also formatted for handheld devises and tablets must be downloaded from an app store and installed on your mobile device. A mobile app can work with or without the Internet depending on the features of the app.
Know Your Audience – How do you want to serve your target market? Make sure you understand your customers’ needs so you address them correctly. If you are a restaurant owner, your customer probably wants to be able to find you while traveling on the road, locate the nearest restaurant if you are a chain, make a reservation, view a menu, and see if there are any available coupons. On the flip side, if you want to develop a standalone app that works without the Internet or an interactive game, then an app is your best bet. Studies have shown Internet users prefer mobile browsers for shopping, searching and entertainment, whereas they prefer mobile apps for managing data, playing games, and using productive apps.
New Customer or Loyal Consumer – This actually plays a big factor in determining whether you want an app or a mobile-friendly website. If you have a new customer who wants to learn about your company, see your offerings, find directions, or place a call from their phone to your retail store or business, chances are they are not going to want to download an app on their phone to do this. Instead, they would usually prefer to access a mobile-friendly website to learn more or contact you. Loyal customers on the other hand (think local restaurant or coffee joint where your customer wants to place orders weekly or even daily while on the go) would find an app on their phone convenient and time-saving and wouldn’t hesitate to download it onto their mobile device because it’s useful to them.
Budget – It always comes down to dollars and how to get your best return on your investment. Basically, feature for feature, a mobile-friendly web application is usually the least expensive choice. That’s because typically a mobile web application takes less time to develop, maintain, and release; and usually the mobile web app is a stripped down version of an existing web application so much of the content is already in place.
So which is better, a native mobile app or a mobile web app? The best answer really depends on your end goals. If you want to develop an interactive game or need special features that only an app can address, then your choice will be to go with mobile application development. If you want to reach the biggest audience with mobile-friendly content or create a stream-lined version of your existing website, then a mobile web app / website is the logical choice. In lots of cases, you may decide that you need both, a mobile website to reach a large audience without having a ‘call to action’ requirement from your customers and a mobile app to handle a specially complex or value added component that can only be addressed with a customized mobile application. Generally speaking though, a mobile website should be considered your first step in developing a mobile presence, whereas an app is useful for developing an application for a very specific purpose that cannot be effectively accomplished via a web browser.