Unsustainable productivity

Ben Thompson’s Stratechery blog had a recent series of posts on sustainability in App Store development, and the third part of the series focused particularly on productivity apps and how the nature of the App Store ecosystem has caused that category to implode.

I wrote a really long reply to him with some of my thoughts on the matter, something I’ve tweeted and blogged about before — and about part-way through the e-mail I realized it would be a pretty good blog on its own.

So I’m pasting it below in its e-mail form, with a few links and formatting added here and there.


Really enjoying the series on iOS productivity apps!

This has been a focus of mine in the last year, as my concern for the state of productivity apps on iOS prompted me to start teaching a one-day iPad Productivity class at CocoaConf, in which we cover UIDocument, autosave, iCloud, inter-app document exchange, printing, etc. I’ll be teaching that two more times this year, at CocoaConfs Portland and Columbus.

These classes generally draw well, as attendees generally haven’t had a chance to learn on the job with paying gigs that use these features of iOS. I think you’re clearly right that the iOS ecosystem is not currently compatible with the long-term development of productivity apps. And I think there’s a few other factors we should both consider and dismiss.

You don’t mention piracy at all, and it’s interesting to note that productivity apps, like all one-time purchases, are distinctly imperiled by piracy. At this point, effectively all iOS apps are stripped of their DRM and made available to jailbreakers, no matter how trivial the app (I have a hobbyist music-library game that sells five copies worldwide each quarter, yet when I Google it, most of the top-10 hits are cracked downloads). Anyone developing a productivity app for one-time sale must resign him- or herself to widespread piracy.

By contrast, in-app purchase seems somewhat piracy-resistant because a properly-implemented purchase requires two phone-homes to Apple: one by Store Kit in the app, the second from a server under the developer’s control to validate the purchase receipt with Apple’s I-AP validation webservice. Even though it’s been shown that the first stage can be tricked (with a combination of proxy server and forged certificates IIRC), it’s not clear that the second can be faked on a widespread basis. And of course, free apps don’t have piracy implications at all, because they have a different revenue model.

That said, it’s not like piracy is unique to iOS or any other platform. Practically any Mac app you’d care to run is available in a cracked version and again, Google is all too happy to set you up. Yet the productivity category on Mac is far more healthy than it is on iOS, despite the Mac install base now being far smaller than iOS. Considering how few iOS devices are actually jailbroken, I don’t think piracy merits that much blame for the collapse of the platform’s productivity category.

You and others mention this frequently as a crucial step for long-term sustainability of productivity apps. I think it might help some, but I also think the importance of the issue is overstated. Some developers have worked around this problem by releasing a wholly new version of their app and offering everyone — upgraders and new customers alike — a deeply-discounted price for the first month, equivalent to what the upgrade price would have been. This may leave some full-price sales on the floor, but as a work-around, it’s not bad.

Yet it’s clearly not sufficient to make productivity apps sustainable, and I don’t think the difference between this technique and genuine upgrade pricing would be enough to turn things around for productivity apps.

My own belief is that the market has been poisoned by the race to the bottom and that customers are so used to free-to-play and 99c apps that charging sustainable one-time prices (possibly in the $20 and up range) is toxic to an overwhelming percentage of potential customers. As I mentioned on my blog, I was reviewing the design of a Mac app with a client earlier this year and remarked that it would be wonderful as a touch UI on the iPad. The client said he’d love to do it, but experience proved he couldn’t charge the price he’d need to cover the development costs. Of a port. To iPad, which has a bigger install base than OS X. Ouch.

Speaking of the Mac, for the first time since leaving the Java fold in 2008, I currently have more Mac consulting work lined up than iOS. Talking with other developers here in Michigan, we’re seeing a number of clients press “pause” on their iOS work so they can divert resources to catch up their Android versions. And this is despite the fact that iOS 7 virtually demands developers update their apps for the radical new appearance. So far, there’s not a big demand to update apps for iOS 7 that we’ve seen — maybe clients don’t know what’s coming.

Or maybe they don’t care. It’s also possible that a lot of apps are fly-by-night products of the gold-rush mentality, and do not justify the development costs of an iOS 7 update, so they’ll just languish in their current state indefinitely. Heck, I’m doing this with my own apps: they don’t earn enough to merit updating them, so I should probably just pull them the store.

What if this happened in a big way? Moreover, what if Apple got serious about purging dead apps? There are already apps that don’t even run in iOS 6 — my kids are bummed that Jelly Car 2 crashes at launch on iOS 6, and it’s appalling that Disney Mobile still offers it for sale without fixing it — and it’s likely that more will break in iOS 7. And many of those that don’t break will look like ass on the new OS, particularly those that tried to create their own UI elements to resemble the earlier iOS appearance.

Apple likely wouldn’t want the PR hit of the number of apps in store going down instead of up, but it would likely be healthy for the app ecosystem as a whole for Apple to eject apps that don’t target iOS 7 by, say, this time next year. Apple already has minimum requirements for updates, but that practice overlooks abandoned apps.

And if the store started shrinking, that might help to put a new focus on sustainability. It might be a way of getting customers to understand that unsustainable prices are just that: unsustainable. The price of “everything should be free” is “you get what you pay for”, and that means a significant contraction of the App Store.

It would be tough medicine, a PR blow that Apple likely wouldn’t enjoy, and tough on us developers who’ve generally had more work than we can handle even during a grueling recession, but a smaller App Store ecosystem, purged of gold-rush abandonware, might put the focus back on the OmniGraffles and Textastics and other apps that deliver real value and earn their price.

Thanks for your time!

–Chris Adamson

Comment (1)

  1. […] Unsustainable Productivity post despaired pretty badly for the future of one-time purchases in the iOS App Store, and […]

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