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Pulled!

It’s iOS 7 GM Day! Apple is calling on developers to submit their iOS 7-enhanced updates!

And instead, I just pulled my two apps from the App Store.

OK, too much drama. But the fact is, I haven’t updated my stuff in years, it makes no economic sense to, and the stuff is too obviously dated to keep selling.

Most of my work in the last few years has been for clients, released by them, and that stuff’s all fine, though I do think it’s interesting that nobody I’ve worked with over the last three years seems to be doing an iOS 7 update. Some have UIs so customized that the iOS appearance changes wouldn’t be noticable anyways. Others rolled the dice on the App Store Gold Rush, didn’t see the returns they hoped for, and have walked away from their apps.

With my own apps, I had no illusions about “striking it rich”, though I did hope to cover my development expenses. Didn’t work out, but led to client work, so I can’t complain.

My first app, released with zero fanfare because I considered it a warm-up, was “Don’t You Know Your Own Tunes”, and was yet another music quiz based on the contents of your music collection. This one was distinguished by a “flippy cell” animation, and some novel modes for challenges, like identifying missing tracks in a list of songs on an album, or asking which of five songs you’d listened to in the last week.

Don't You Know Your Own Tunes screenshot

My main app was a much bigger deal, so maybe a little more painful when it failed to pay for the two months I put in writing it. Road Tip was an app for finding your favorite restaurants, hotels, and fuel brands while driving on long trips. It focused on a very specific scenario — driving on limited-access freeways (interstates of course, but basically anything with exits worked) — and focused on the specifics of that problem. Meaning that:

  • It figured out what direction you’re going and only searches ahead of you, instead of just doing a radius search and finding stuff behind you or five miles off the freeway
  • It figured out where the freeway went, and only searched near exits on that freeway, so again you’d only get EZ-on/EZ-off results
  • It dealt with two scenarios: either you want to know which exits are ahead of you (and how far they are) so you can pick one and see what services it has, or you want to know all services of a given type and how far it will take you to get to a specific brand (e.g., how far until I can get to a Jack In the Box?)
  • It allowed you to set favorite brands either in the Settings app (back when that was a thing) or upon finding a brand you like in a search result, and had a mode allowing you to search for favorites on your way
  • It had an extremely minimal UI and was meant for one-thumb operation, due to the high likelihood of the user using it while driving, whether or not that’s a good idea

I know, I’m selling it pretty hard, so it should come as no surprise that the reviews were generally poor. “Expensive app for free info”, says one, which is rich considering it cost $2.99, and there’s nothing free about the data Road Tip worked with. MapKit, in its original Google-powered form, only provided map graphics and knew nothing about the underlying geographic data. Even what you might think of as a common “directions” API doesn’t provide the answers that Road Tip needed, like “what road am I on”, “is it a freeway”, “where does it go”, “what exits are along that path”, and “what businesses are near those exits”.

To get that kind of data, I had to seek out a third-party service, and chose MapQuest for their mobile-compatible terms of service and their very deep API. It still meant I had to do a lot of work on my own: for example, MapQuest doesn’t have an API that answers the question of “where does this road go”, so I had to develop some logic to find “road segments” of specific types, and then assemble them together to build a data model of the freeway. I’m actually pretty proud of some of this code for solving a hard, non-obvious problem. (I guess I’d be willing to sell it, if this is a problem someone else has and doesn’t want to burn their own time and money on. Send me an e-mail!)

And speaking of problems, well, good data isn’t free. I had to pay MapQuest to keep Road Tip running. And that’s the beginning of the fatal flaws that have killed the app.

Since people could keep using this app indefinitely, I could be on the hook to MapQuest for service fees indefinitely. So I set the app up under a subscription model: the purchase price gets you three months, and then a year’s service is $5. That way, while my liabilities to MapQuest scaled with usage, so did my ability to pay them.

Unfortunately, since the app’s release, this kind of model has been explicitly forbidden by Apple’s App Store Guidelines:

11.9 Apps containing “rental” content or services that expire after a limited time will be rejected

So, aside from the fact that I hadn’t recouped my initial development costs, I couldn’t submit an update because the entire economic model of the app would now cause it to be rejected.

Could I switch to a “buy once, use forever” model like Apple wants me to? I could perhaps renegotiate with MapQuest and operate under a different license. They do have terms for free use of licensed data, capped at 5,000 calls a day. That’s a lot, but the way Road Tip works, the logic to figure out where the road goes, where the exits are, and what’s around them burn a lot of queries. One “services” search can burn 20 queries by the time it’s done. That means 250 people can use Road Tip once a day before it hits the free limit.

Option 2 is the enterprise license, at $2,500 a year for uncapped use. This solves the problem if I can scale. However, Road Tip has made a total of $2,500 since its release in 2009. This year, it’s made a little over $300.

Option 3 would be to renegotiate and give MapQuest some share of what I make (they’d probably want half), rather than a flat $2,500. Possible, and would allow me to ditch the subscription model that has prevented me from updating the app. But there’s no way it would ever be worth my time just to catch up on the obvious updates the app needs; it was never updated for Retina (though it’s mostly text and vector art, so you might never know), never updated for iPhone 5 and the four-inch screen, and never updated for iOS 7’s graphic overhaul or the changes to in-app purchase validation.

To top it off, MapQuest is changing their API at the end of the year, meaning that all my calls to the webservice will stop working.

It’s pretty obvious that despite my affection for what I accomplished with the app, I’m never going to blow my own time and money updating it, and that makes it irresponsible to leave it on the store. By pulling it now, anyone who just bought it will still get their three months of service before the the MapQuest API change kills it, and as for the one-year upgraders… there really aren’t very many, and I think I know most of them personally (AppViz tells me I’ve sold less than ten upgrades in the last three months). If you’re really heartbroken, and I can validate your upgrade on the server, I’ll send you five bucks, OK?

So, yeah, time to call it a day. I kind of regret not having any stuff under my own name on the store anymore, but maybe that’s the nudge I need to pop out something simple when the time and opportunity is right. I know I’ve done sample apps for books and conferences that have equivalents in the store, so maybe it wouldn’t hurt to just throw those up on the store as freebies someday.

After all, to move forward, you sometimes need to clean house. I’d like to think that’s what I’m doing here. Onwards.

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