Difference between app business and app development

A few days ago, I went to a BlackBerry developer meetup session hosted by my friend. Being primarily a .NET developer, I thought I’d broaden my horizons and learn what the BlackBerry platform was about.

It was a little bit of a show-and-tell. It turns out that the next version of BlackBerry is going to be out soon, and the session was sort of a “getting developers to develop for the BlackBerry 10” thing.

I’m not really going to go into the details of the new BlackBerry nor its development platform. I am going to talk about apps, since it’s the in-thing currently. Here are the markets I know of:

  • Apple’s app market on the iPhone and iPad
  • Microsoft’s app market on Windows phones and the to-be-released Windows 8
  • Google and its Android phone app market
  • RIM (Research In Motion) and its BlackBerry app market

I’m using “app market” in the general sense. There are probably other app markets, but the ones listed should be in the top few in terms of audience size.

What I learnt at the session

I’m not a BlackBerry developer, so I mainly kept quiet and listened. However, as the presentations went on, and I asked questions, something hit me. I approached app development differently from the developers present, including the presenters.

Preemptive disclaimer: The developers are probably very good at their work. The following are my opinions after being self-employed for over a year and studying business and related materials for longer than that. I’m not putting those developers down.

Here we go. These developers were interested in the technical aspects of BlackBerry development, whether it be the hardware specs of the BlackBerry, or the tools used for BlackBerry development.

I asked my friend who’s a consultant for RIM about the BlackBerry, and he told me a bunch of specs on the new BlackBerry. Now I’m a programmer, but I don’t get real excited about stats.

Let me put it to you this way. Most consumers will have their eyes glazed over when you tell them some piece of hardware has X gigabytes of storage and so on. Apple, just said the iPod can hold 1000 songs.

Get the picture?

The developers were interested in what they could do on the new BlackBerry. I was interested in what consumers could do on the new BlackBerry. That difference is what makes you money. If you don’t like the idea of monetary gains, then think of the popularity of your app. Think of widespread acceptance and downloads of your apps.

File selection

One developer asked my friend (who’s presenting at that moment) to go to a particular website and click a button there. Nothing happened. I asked that developer what’s supposed to happen.

He said you’re supposed to have a pop-up to select files. The first thought I had was security. And even if file selection is allowed, and assuming the user knows what he’s doing, what kind of files were allowed and why would it even be useful?

Sure, you could select photos for upload, or business documents for transfer. But I believe the app should handle the file selection interface, which makes it seamless for the user.

Designing for the consumer

But that question is really the heart of what most (or all) of the developers there were concerned about. They want to know what’s the storage capacity, the screen size, what tools to use for development, how to debug your applications and so on.

These are all valid questions and concerns. And I understand that some people are really into the technical aspects.

So what kind of questions did I ask?

I asked if videos can be taken. How’s the quality of a video playback? How’s the quality of the audio? Is there a YouTube app?

On the train or buses, people plug in earphones and either watch videos or play games or text communicate (either messaging or Twitter or Facebook or whatnot) on their mobile devices. The technical aspects are useful. I just think coming up with an app that people would want to use is priority one. The app doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to either be useful or entertaining.

So I basically asked questions that consumers are more concerned about. And the new BlackBerry from what I’m told, is targeting the consumer market. It makes sense that BlackBerry developers should also be concerned about similar topics.

There were questions on the price of licensing. It’s free to upload apps, but there’s a fee for certification. From some research I did, the revenue sharing scheme is the standard 30/70, with 70% of the revenue going to the developer.

Here’s the funny thing. No one asked about making money stuff. Not about how to do in-app purchases, or the kinds of prices used (although the developers are free to set their own price), or how to get paid. Maybe they already know, and I’m the only one in the dark (I’m not a BlackBerry developer).

I look at the apps from the perspective of both a business owner and a developer. Maybe that’s why I stopped fretting about technical difficulties. Because the instant a human user uses your software, you’ll find out the real and important difficulties.

The Biz of Apps

I finally wrote an article that’s related to technology. You can read about it in the September 2010 issue of my online magazine (or e-zine if you prefer). Here are some excerpts:

It all started when a friend asked me, “Hey dude, you’re a programmer. Why don’t you create an iPhone app and sell it?” Something in my gut already told me it’s not a worthwhile investment of effort at that point in time. I trust my intuition a lot; it saves a lot of brain cycles spent deciding.

I wrote specifically about iPhone/iPad apps, but the concepts can be transplanted to other mobile devices. The app business appears to be increasingly lucrative, particularly when Apple is making their iPod/iPhone/iPad so attractive as a consumer device. It is popular because the mobile device (not just those from Apple) is ubiquitous. Practically everyone who has disposable income (and even those without…) has a mobile phone (is the word “mobile” even needed? Some of these Generation Y people (no offense if you’re one) might not even know what a dial-tone telephone is). And that is a lot of round brackets…

I explained some of the decisions I made for not developing an iPhone app. Here’s a terrible reason:

Developers wait an average of 4.78 days for app approval

Other (mobile) (phone) app markets probably have a quicker approval period.

I gave some suggestions for leveraging that app you have, because if you’re selling it at 99 cents per user, you’re not going to retire at the ripe old age of 23, lounge at the beach recliner staring at the softly lapping waves and sip piña coladas. I’m just saying… And raising the price is not the answer (not in the long term anyway).

With an investment of US$ 999 for the MacBook, and a yearly subscription of US$ 99, I’m out by US$ 1098. If I’m selling a 99 cent app, I need 1585 downloads to break even (remember that Apple takes a 30% cut). And then I need 143 downloads every year thereafter to break even for the yearly subscription cost. I will need to continue creating apps to alleviate that. And I’m not even making a profit, just trying to break even.

You can read the whole article in my magazine Singularity.

P.S. I don’t write a lot of technology articles because I’m not really interested in the latest gadgets and technology advancements. Another reason is I’m only one person, keeping up with all that there is, is tiring. I just feel my time can be put to a better use. That said, I will write them if they’re still relevant when Time washes a few months on the “latest and greatest”.