UPDATED: Fixed a math error on page 4 by using actual math. Also added some final thoughts for potential app developers.
2008 was a long time ago. Like 2012, it was an election year. George W. Bush was President, and -- at least before July 10, 2008 -- there was no such thing as an App Store. Until that summer, the closest thing to an iPhone app you could get your hands on was a bookmarked Web site in Mobile Safari.
But then came the iPhone 3G (there was no iPhone 3) and the App Store. The software business changed forever.
That was before I wrote for ZDNet. It was a quiet summer back in 2008. I was between side-projects, and I thought it would be fun to develop for Apple's new phone. Like those who participate in Google's 20-percent time program, I like to work on a side-project in addition to my mainstream work. These side-projects -- usually writing books or programming -- help me keep my chops up, allow me to explore new technologies, and give me a broader perspective on a wide range of topics.
So back then, in mid-August 2008, I decided my side-project was going to be iPhone programming. It'd be interesting, I'd keep my programming skilz up, and -- besides -- it might make some real money.
In the next few pages, I'll tell you about the 40 apps I wrote and published on the iPhone App Store in the space of a month, the challenges of being an early developer, the whopping $7K I made over four years, the scammers who copied my work, the complete lack of Apple support, and the statement Apple made that the official White House photo of then President Bush was "obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory".
You see, after four years, I've finally decided not to renew my iPhone developer agreement. As of last Wednesday, I am officially no longer an iPhone developer and my apps are no longer available for sale. This frees me up to tell you about the early days of iPhone development -- and the one month, way back in 2008, that I devoted to the cause.
There once was a day when all I owned were Macs, but that was back when the elder George Bush was President. By August of 2008, I hadn't owned a Mac for well over a decade. I was strictly a Windows user.
But if I was going to develop for the iPhone, I had to have a Mac. Xcode only ran on the Mac platform, and that meant I needed to get a Mac. I also needed to get an iPhone, because -- although Xcode had a rudimentary simulator -- testing on the device is really the way to go.
So I bought an "early 2008", aluminum-body 24" iMac for $1,799 at the local Best Buy. If you add in additional RAM and tax, the total came to about $2,000 (not counting the phone and service). I needed a phone anyway, and I wound up getting years of use and annoyance out of the iPhone 3G I purchased.
In addition to the iMac, I also had to buy into the Apple developer program. That was $99. I renewed it three times, so call that investment another $396. I didn't buy any development tools or books at the time, because Apple explicitly would not allow any books, courses, or training resources to be made available.
So, my total out-of-pocket investment (not counting my time, the phone, or AT&T service) was about $2,400.
My initial plan was to build a pocket server monitor app, one that would let system administrators see the running status of all their servers at a glance. It was going to scan SMTP, http, ping, SQL, and a variety of other heartbeats. But that was a relatively big project and I didn't want to start on something big before I got my feet wet.
More to the point, Apple was exceedingly capricious about what it would allow in the app store and what it would not. I didn't want to invest weeks (or months) of my life into building a piece of software that Apple could, at a whim, kill.
At the time, the App Store had been only open about a month, and Apple gave very few indications of what it would accept and what it would not, so I opted to donate a very short amount of time to the project. I gave myself no more than a week to learn and produce my first app. And I gave myself just one month for the entire project.
I settled on something incredibly silly and easy: DaysTo Christmas. This came about in a conversation with my wife. I was talking about the server monitor app, and I told her I'd probably code a test app, the cutesy iPhone equivalent of "Hello, world." I said, "Heck, it could be something as simple as, you know, days to Christmas or something."
She actually liked the idea. She likes Christmas, so she encouraged me to code it. So I did. I wrote DaysTo Christmas, which presents a screen with ... wait for it ... the number of days until Christmas. I know. Silly. But I priced it at $0.99. For a buck, it was worth a lark.
Keep reading. Next up is the one that got rejected ... and more.
The next two apps were DaysTo Baby and DaysTo Anniversary. These required the addition of a calendar screen, but that was just a little additional code. By now, the app development process consisted of creating a cute image for the screen, and copying the code for each new app, customizing for dates. I also had to design the app icons, and my wife (who's been a writer and editor for years) wrote the descriptive copy for the iTunes store (more on that in a while).
I did more holidays, like DaysTo Halloween, DaysTo Hanukkah, DaysTo Valentine's Day, DaysTo Thanksgiving, and DaysTo Cinco de Mayo. I didn't plan on doing any marketing, so I just wanted things that would show up in App Store search results.
Within a week of the apps appearing on the store (which took an average of 13 days), I started getting requests. A woman asked me to do DaysTo Divorce. A man serving in the Marines asked for DaysTo Discharge. And the head of a major movie studio (yes, you'd recognize it) begged me to do DaysTo Retirement. He had had it with that gig.
Others included DaysTo BBQ, DaysTo Concert, DaysTo Interview, DaysTo Taxes, DaysTo Presentation, DaysTo Spring Break ... you get the idea. Not exactly rocket science.
I did think about the idea of combining the apps into one bigger DaysTo app, with all the events. But the letters I got from buyers indicated that they really grooved on just being able to hit the icon and see the one thing they were strongly looking forward to. Pinpoint apps -- apps that do exactly one specific thing -- are often very popular with users, and I didn't want to build something cumbersome with a huge list of selections just because it was technically possible.
The one that got rejected
Before I tell you more about my career as an App developer, let me tell you about the one that got away. I wrote DaysOf Bush -- the one app that Apple wouldn't accept.
DaysOf Bush was an app that calculated the days until the end of the Bush administration. As a picture, I used the official White House photo of the then-President (sadly, I can't seem to find a screen shot of the app). The descriptive copy recognized that some people loved President Bush and others didn't -- as is the case with all partisan politics:
Whether you love him or you love to hate him, simply tap the icon and you'll immediately know how many more days of George W. Bush's presidency you'll be savoring or enduring.
Enjoy the heightened sense of anticipation or bitter sweetness, making this unique time in history just that much more fun.
Interestingly, I couldn't get this into the App Store. The key sentences in Apple's rejection were:
Applications must not contain any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.), or other content or materials that in Apple's reasonable judgement may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.
Defaming, demeaning, or attacking particular political representatives is considered inappropriate.
While I didn't think Apple's criticism (especially since I used Mr. Bush's official White House photo) was particularly appropriate -- and, for the record, I still haven't decided on whether I favor Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney in 2012 -- I also didn't care enough to make this app a major battle. I apparently didn't even care enough to save a screen shot.
The major takeaway for me was that it wasn't worth risking a lot of time coding if I couldn't be sure the finished app would be accepted.
Apple's miserable support
When you code iPhone apps, at least back then, you code in Objective-C. I've coded in many different dialects of C, and I can handle them all. But I don't particularly like Objective-C (it's a lot like someone welded two separate programming languages together and forgot to grind down the rough edges), and I don't particularly like using the Mac. Together, that meant that programming iPhone apps wasn't particularly enjoyable.
Shortly after I'd released my 40 apps, Apple released an update to Xcode. You need to understand something. When you pay your hundred bucks for developer status, Apple explicitly advertises that you'll get two support incidents, where Apple claims it will actually provide you with support.
When I upgraded Xcode, my provisioning credentials were somehow corrupted during the upgrade. These are the software keys you need to compile and upload apps to the App Store. No amount of reinstalling or rebuilding the development environment would fix the credentials.
So I contacted Apple developer support through the appropriate channels. Even though I'd bought support incidents, Apple never replied. Ever. My support dashboard did indicate support incidents had been used. I think the first one triggered when I asked for help and never got any. The second one seemed to trigger when I then tried to tell them that I'd never gotten any help from my first support request.
So, I wasn't able to build more apps. Frankly, by then, I was pretty disgusted with the whole process -- more on that on the next page. App building wasn't my mainstream gig, and while I could have eventually gotten the problem solved (I have extremely good problem-solving skills) I didn't care to spend any more time on the problem.
Even though I've bought and paid for a total of eight support incidents, Apple has never -- not once -- responded to a single support request. This becomes even more of an issue, as you'll see on the next page.
Even worse, Apple -- at the time -- had some sort of weird restriction where you violated your development agreement if you published anything about iPhone development. No courses, no books, no forums, no nothing. There were a few underground forums out there, but there really wasn't much in the way of professional peer support.
It was ridiculous. But it didn't seem to matter to Apple nor its legion of app developers.
There's more to this story. We're headed for the bad and the ugly.
Right after Apple accepted the products into the App Store, it got a lot less fun.
I was hoping for a simple, enjoyable experiment. Coding can be quite fulfilling, and building a few simple apps -- while not particularly challenging -- could have made for a pleasant experience. But no.
At the time, Apple allowed anyone to comment in the App Store about an app -- even if the person posting the comments hadn't purchased or downloaded the app. This was early in the App Store's life. There were less than 15,000 apps total.
Even so, some fanboys (and possibly other developers) decided that my simple, pinpoint applications were horrible affronts to iPhone users everywhere. They started down-voting the apps and leaving highly abusive comments.
What started as fun quickly turned ugly. My wife (who wrote all the ad copy) and I quickly lost a taste for the game.
Apple eventually only permitted users who'd bought the apps to comment on the apps. But even though they added this restriction, Apple didn't initially reset the review ratings or remove the nastiness. It took quite some time for those abusive comments to fall off the system.
I knew that customers were happy. First, most of my apps would eventually wind up with 4+-star reviews. We got emails like the one that requested DaysTo Retirement. And there were a lot of pleasant comments posted -- once you had to buy the app to comment.
And then the scammers got into the game.
You need to understand that my apps were silly. They weren't particularly important and -- as I'll show on the next page -- they're not the biggest moneymakers in the world. Even so, there were people out there willing to clone them.
And I'm not talking about just the concept. After all, a countdown is a countdown is a countdown. Sure, mine were the first on the App Store with a cute picture on the display, but my apps were not exactly the pinnacle of innovation.
But then, after enduring Apple's vaunted evaluation process, after seeing how the company claimed it would turn down anything that wasn't suitable for Apple customers' delicate little hands or even more delicate sensibilities, Apple let a total ripoff of at least one of my apps sit in the App Store.
This developer didn't just copy the concept. These bastards copied our product copy. Word for word, the description my wife wrote with great care, they just stole. Here's what we wrote. Note the date:
I'm not pissed because my silly little product was ripped off. I'm pissed because this scammer hurt my wife's feelings. She was really upset the day we found this thing. Here's what the scammer wrote. The only difference was the creep couldn't be bothered to insert line breaks.
So I contacted Apple and asked for the infringing app to be removed -- or at least require the description to be changed. I contacted Apple's legal group. I contacted Developer Support. Remember those eight support incidents I was supposedly provided as part of my $396 dollars worth of developer program fees?
No answer. Not from developer support. Not from Apple legal. Just dead silence.
So much for Apple's holier-than-thou approach to app management. That counterfeit app is still on the app store to this day. In fact, there's an entire array of Days To Christmas clone apps on the app store.
Frankly, Apple may claim it has more than 500,000 apps on the App Store, but the vast majority are garbage -- counterfeits, clones, and other trash Apple doesn't seem to be willing to lift a finger to clean up.
In fact, here's my estimate. Given the 16 or so clones of my one DaysTo Christmas app, I'd guess that for every "real" app, there are something like 10-20 bad clones. Apple's 500,000 apps claim? My guess is there are probably less than 30,000 apps of anything resembling quality.
Is this the post-PC world you folks really want?
Go on to the next page. That's the money page.
The bottom line
Over the years, I've been asked how much I made on my iPhone apps. Before I answer, I want to be clear on a few simple parameters:
- My plan was to put in only a month on the experiment, back in 2008
- I haven't spent a minute or dollar marketing or promoting these products
- They each sold for less than a buck
- I stopped all work on all the apps a long time ago
- DaysTo Election was the only app I ever updated (in 2008), from the 2008 to the 2012 Election Day
- Now that I've let my developer status lapse, these apps are no longer available on the App Store
In other words, I've been about as irresponsible and apathetic a marketer in this dog-eat-dog business as you can possibly be.
That said, I made -- exactly -- $7,014.77 over the course of four years. This number is based on records of EFT bank deposits from Apple, rather than Apple's sales reports. When I first started selling apps, I wrote a database program in FileMaker that read the format of Apple's reports and produced all sorts of useful summaries. But when Apple changed that format two or three times in the first few months, I decided I didn't care enough to keep fiddling with the report maker.
Developers get a 70% royalty on apps, so that means about 10,000 DaysTo apps were sold. If this were the days before 99-cent apps, 10 thousand plus users would be something to crow about for a software company. Now, it's just a number squarely in "meh" territory.
Our first few monthly payments were almost enough to pay our health insurance for those months. After that, they dropped to paying the cable bill. For the last six months, they pretty much paid for one pizza delivery order a month. Here's the chart that details it all:
My return on investment is a little harder to calculate because that depends on whether you consider the overpriced iMac I purchased to be a special-purpose development tool or a general-purpose device.
Granted, since that month of development, I've used the iMac as a backup server, so it's had some use. On the other hand, I could have used a $300 PC as a backup server. The PC would have taken less desk space than the iMac, as well. To be fair, I could have chosen a far cheaper Mac mini back when I was buying the iMac, but I wanted a decent development machine (and I probably fell, just a little bit, for the iMac's pizzazz).
So, let's just consider the extra expense for the computer a wash. Let's just say I spent $396 on the developer program and netted -- over four years -- $7,014.77. That's a total profit of $6,618.77.
Not bad for a month's work.
Where am I spending my side-project time right now? Well, I'm writing WordPress plug-ins. I'm porting the content management system I wrote in the early 2000s from UserLand Frontier to WordPress, so I'm doing a lot of coding in PHP.
Frankly, while I don't have much side-project time these days, I'm having a heck of a lot more fun coding PHP on Windows than I ever did writing Objective-C on the primitive Snow Leopard version of Mac OS X. Back then, you couldn't even resize the Mac's windows from all four corners.
So there you go. My true confessions as a (now) former iPhone developer. No, I never even bothered with developing apps for the iPad.
Update: Some final thoughts for potential iPhone developers
I've noticed in the comments some thoughts by people who might want to develop apps themselves. Let me caution you on a few things. Most app developers work a LOT harder than I did to promote their products. This was a side-project, not my main work, and so I pretty much purposely ignored any promotion. I, first, wanted to see what would happen just showing up in search on iTunes, and second, didn't really have that much interest in going back into the software business.
If you build a product and you promote and nuture it, there's a chance you'll do well selling it.
Don't think you can produce tiny, little pinpoint apps today and they'll do well or even be noticed. When I introduced these, it was possible to explore the app store and be aware of every app there. There were only about 15,000 apps total. Today, there's half a million. So my numbers (whether you think they're good or bad) won't track with yours.
Remember a simple lesson: good products combined with a good market and good marketing (and a lot of nuturing) is good business. It's certainly possible to make a business from apps on the app store. That was not my goal, but I don't want to dissuade anyone who wants to go that route.
No matter what you choose to do, good luck!