True confessions of a former iPhone developer

Summary:As of last Wednesday, I am officially no longer an iPhone developer -- which frees me up to tell you about my sordid experiences as an iPhone developer.

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.

See also: Migrating a massive legacy CMS system to WordPress

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!


Topics: Apple, Smartphones, SMBs, Developer


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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