My retirement from mobile app development

12 Apr

A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. This picture shows my revenue from ad-supported Windows Phone 7 apps, day by day over the last week. The picture is generated by my Ad Tile Daily app which, I happen to think, is rather useful. If you like being depressed. Impressions are on the orange scale, and revenue is on the green one.

The above enormous revenue is across five applications (Antipodes, Band Namer, Company Namer, the Septic’s Freebie and Naismith’s Hiking Rule). It’s true that these apps aren’t the best selling ones in the world ever, but they’re not the worst either. For example, the Septic’s Freebie app is listed by as 2,000th of the 12,000 apps in the marketplace, and Band Namer is listed as 1,600th. The average review for the Septics app is 4.75 stars. Most of my apps are well into the top 50% of the marketplace. And I make about half a dollar per day.

Well, hey, enough about the ad-supported apps. I never made any money from ads on my web page either. What about the paid apps? That must be where the cash is!

Well, there’s the numbers. As you can see, these are clearly knocking the ad-supported apps into a cocked hat with their ballistic sales figures. However, I still do appear to be averaging below that $1 a day mark, which puts me just above the Central African Republic but slightly below Tanzania when using a pessimistic measure of per capita income.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I hang up my, erm, fingers and call an end to my mobile app developer days. What have I learned?

Lesson 1: The developer tools are superb. On Windows Phone, at least, the developer experience is truly great. I haven’t tried the other platforms. Aside from the slightly awkward combo of Visual Studio and Expression Blend, it’s extraordinarily easy to develop apps that are far and away better than anything else you’ve made, especially when it comes to the user interface.

Lesson 2: Developers are everywhere. Everyone’s heard that mobile apps are where all the money’s going to be soon, so developers are all over this like a rash. It’s wonderfully easy for people like me with day jobs to download the tools and get going over a beer one evening. It’s also wonderfully easy for large companies to pay a developer or two for six months to get an app running.

Dilbert, 12th Feb 2011

Lesson 3: Developers are halfwits. One thing the big companies and the hobbyists have in common is that neither of them have the faintest idea how their app is going to make any money. They just know that mobile apps are the next big thing, and that they’d be crazy to miss it. They price things ridiculously low, or just give them away free to save worrying about pricing. Because, man, right now only five people want an app for $1 to list postage stamps by decade. But once this mobile thing goes off like a rocket, there’ll be a thousand of them! Which is, oh yeah, a grand. When this really takes off, you could buy a computer!


Lesson 4: Customers won’t pay. Because us developers seem to be unable to divide required revenue by possible market size, the customers are in penny-pinching heaven. Two dollars for an app to balance my books, fill in my tax return, submit it to the IRS and deposit my refund? Two dollars? What, I’m made of money or something? People who would have gladly paid $60 for a game on a desktop computer won’t even download the trial of a mobile phone game because the full version costs $4. And they’re quite right, too – a simple scout around the marketplace will probably reveal another app that’s just as good for $1, because for every great developer who’s going to make $50 this year there’s another one who’s willing to make $20.

Lesson 5: Only the top apps get downloaded. There are basically two ways people are going to find your app. They’re going to crank up the app store, go to a category, and either view “new apps” or “top apps”. We all get our moment of glory on “new apps” – the presence of my Septic’s Freebie app there is what caused the giant spike in the above download chart. But after a couple of days you’re not so new any more, and so you’re going to need to appear in “top apps”. On all of the app stores, these top app lists are based upon some secret recipe of downloads and reviews. Once your app is into that top area of the list, it’s going to be almost impossible for it to ever leave. Oh, yeah, and it’s also going to be almost impossible to get a new one in there.

Lesson 6: Ignore outliers. We’ve all heard the stories about the guy who’s making a squillion dollars on an iPhone app he developed in two afternoons in his basement. Yes, he looks like you. But so does Andrew J. Whittaker Jr. of West Virginia, who won $314.9 million on the lottery in 2002. And so does Mr Roy Sullivan, a park ranger who’s been struck by lightning seven times. Ignore these outliers when you’re starting your mobile app, entering the lottery or playing golf in the rain. When I wrote my rotten book, I wasn’t sitting at the keyboard thinking of J.K. Rowling.

Oh yes, and speaking of books…

This is how much I got paid for sales of my good, old-fashioned, printed book in December last year. To save you doing any complex arithmetic, one month of sales for one paper book amounted to approximately ten times the sales of nine mobile phone apps over six months.

Don’t tell anyone, but I think I’m onto the next big thing.


Leave a Reply


  1. Kevin

    April 12, 2011 at 18:11

    I’m not sure exactly what one should take away from this post. Perhaps that if you don’t invest a modicum of effort into how people will experience your app, how they will discover it, the potential market or even whether it is a good idea – mysterious forces will not align to bestow riches upon you.

    On lesson 4 (customers won’t pay) : Pricing expectations for mobile apps are very low and both advertising and to make a fortune both direct revenue models necessitate more volume than an app that tells you what’s on the other side of the world (poorly at that).

    There are numerous methods that have proven successful for other developers, including, but not limited to: in-application content purchases, online services which the app supports and affiliate arrangements.

    On lesson 5 (only the top apps get downloaded) : This really betrays the extent to which you lack imagination. Other software products, and indeed many other businesses have somehow become profitable without being listed in a directory of ‘new’ and ‘top’ businesses. Indeed most successful apps don’t achieve great popularity though these means bur rather things such as:
    – word of mouth referral
    – marketing efforts
    – social hooks

    The world isn’t going to pony up a million dollars for an app to help them find their lost car, especially if the app’s name is Carlos and it’s icon is a fucking *wolf*.

  2. Boris

    April 15, 2011 at 23:37

    Kevin, obviously, you’ve never been to Iceland.

  3. Andy

    April 15, 2011 at 23:40

    How’s that t-shirt business going Kevin?

  4. V

    April 30, 2011 at 07:45

    About point no 4: Customers won’t pay.

    Also be aware that there are a lot of countries where WP devices have been launched through official channels (carriers), yet people cannot buy anything from the Marketplace. I’m sorry, but that’s just a retarded business decision. I live in Romania and I’m a WP7 owner and (mostly) happy user of the platform. But I’m enraged by the fact that MS doesn’t want to take my money. I had to change my LiveID location setting to UK just to be able to download trials and free apps… Taking this point into consideration, I think it’s generally better (for the users) to have add supported free apps. However, since most adds that pop up in app/game are targeted towards US, UK and maybe a few other countries, you won’t get many clicks from other parts of the world.

  5. Louella Stoudamire

    March 25, 2012 at 16:40

    I have to say that for the past couple of hours i have been hooked by the amazing articles on this blog. Keep up the great work.