True confessions of a former iPhone developer

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.

TOPICS: Apple, Apps, Smartphones, SMBs

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.

The investment

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. 

See also: Apple's lost decade, HyperCard, and what might NOT have been
if Apple then was like Apple is today

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.

See also: The two reasons I avoided Android
and finally upgraded to the relatively boring iPhone 4S

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.

The products

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.

Topics: Apple, Apps, Smartphones, SMBs


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Did you actually write 40 Apps, or just write one app.

    And change the graphics o it to suit a different "X". This whole "Days till "X"", would seem to get silly after a short while, ad Many probably saw your listings, and thought "tacky"
    Troll Hunter J
    • 40 apps... sort of

      Each is a separate app, meaning a separate bundle of resources uploaded to the App Store. In reality, there were two variants of code and resources: one for the single-screen app format and one for the two-screen format.

      To produce these, I cloned one of those formats, wrote an appropriate date calculation function, if necessary, added the pretty pictures, and called it a day.

      So, if you're asking if I did the heavy lifting to write 40 unique code bases, no, of course not. I spent just a month on the whole project. But if you're asking if there were 40 apps on the App Store that Apple separately accounted for and different users bought, yes there were.

      I thought I was quite clear on that in the main article.
      David Gewirtz
      • David, please correct one miscalculation:

        You say developers get 30% of the money paid by buyers, but this is a reverse case actually. Developers get 70%, so if you got $7000 it means that buyers paid $10000 overall.
        • Oops...did that before coffee

          Yeah, you're right. I'll clean that up. Thanks.
          David Gewirtz
      • What surprised me the most that I did not realize

        "Now that I've let my developer status lapse, these apps are no longer available on the App Store" That Apple requires you to continue to pay them to remain "a developer", (on top of their 30% cut) to continue to make the App available in the App Store.

        Is this normal in the programming world?
        John Zern
        • Depends on what you mean by 'the normal world'

          Normally you write an app and package it - then send it to stores at OEM pricing (the 70% price). They pay you up front then try to sell your product at a proft (adding on the extra 30% - although in the real world these percentages are entirely variable). So once you've sold it to the reseller, you're out of the loop.

          This is generally true even for 'download only' apps, although exactly how depends on whether you're hosting it yourself or you have some other company do the hosting and marketing.

          But tying this to 'developer fees' or 'developer status' is not the norm outside of specialised markets like Apple or Google...
          The Werewolf!
          • Or Microsoft...

            wouldn't want to leave the newest company to copy the Apple model, would you?
          • And a new screen identity, we see.

            what is this? 14 or 15 now?
            William Farrel
        • Better than terrestrial distribution

          Back in the day, when software was sold through retail stores like Egghead, you'd sell your software to a distributor (like Ingram) at a 60-65% discount off SRP. So you'd get 35-40% of the retail price. If you sold directly to a small store, you might get 60% of the SRP. In either case, Apple's 70% is more generous rate and is comparable with other distribution channels.

          Now, also, back then, you didn't have to pay to get distribution (technically), but you also had to buy your inventory (printing boxes and duplicating disks was darned expensive) and -- here's where it got bad -- many distributors demanded (and Best Buy and the like probably still do, your supermarket does) something called a "slotting fee". This was essentially a fee to buy shelf space in their store.

          So, they'd take a big discount and then require you to essentially rent space in their store.

          I have no problem with Apple's discount rate or their $99/year fee. My problem is they are completely unhelpful and unresponsive. Even in the worst days of predatory retail, you could get a call returned.
          David Gewirtz
          • Selective customer service...

            Do you suppose they put you in a triage of sorts? (i.e. Don't bother to help those that are making simple one-off, and mostly unprofitable apps)

            Or is it too speculative to assume that if you were a Rovio, you would get bumped to the front of the support line?
          • relevance?

            How much does this matter?
          • Spot on

            For many years I was involved with producing and selling small apps and extensions. It was hard work, global distribution pre-Internet a difficult proposition.

            Back then our good ideas were cloned as well. Much like the patent lawsuits of today it is difficult to defend copyright in multiple jurisdictions for the small player.

            Apple's App store has revolutionised the software distribution model. David's experience with dealing with Apple and their developer program very similar to my experiences with ADC many years before ( to be fair MSDN is no better for the individual developer).

            Copyright theft is what really hurts, I sympathise with David. I've had weeks of work on a workaround appear in competitor's solutions briefly after my products release.

            Whilst some things get easier, many challenges remain the same. A Mac mini might have been a better purchase for David upon reflection.
            Richard Flude
          • And sometimes you're forced to be an Apple developer

            I had no desire to publish iOS apps. We work in a variety of languages, but they are either Windows or server based. Our own software product develops HTML eLearning in a WYSIWYG environment, but is written in .Net.

            When we developed an eLearning module on Bushfire Safety for a government organisation we made sure that it was in standard HTML/Javascript and used either Flash or HTML 5 to run the synchronised audio/video. Then we start testing - no problem on PC or Mac or any tablet or smartphone that provided these features - except for iOS.

            iOS has a lovely little "feature" that prevents you from running audio or video in HTML 5 directly (no autorun on and tags). This is supposedly deliberate to prevent you racking up data charges, but in reality, it forces anyone who develops standard HTML modules that use audio and video to become an Apple developer, use Apple's second rate development environment on a Mac, wrap their standard HTML 5 app in a webview, turn off two switches and voila! You now have your same application, except in can only be downloaded from the iPnone store.

            Now mine was a free app, but I did have to pay to be an Apple developer and rent a Mac - all for a HTML app that runs on everything else - Android and Windows smartphones/tablets - including Win 8.

            I await each verison of iOS in the hope they've finally implemented full HTML 5.
          • WTB comments editor

            it removed the less than and greateer than signs form my text.

            the bracketed text should read

            (no autorun on the audio and video tags)

            This comment system is slower, buggier and provides a lot less features than the previous ones.
          • HTML5 itself isn't complete..

            We're going to be waiting a few years before we get a "full" implementation on the desktops as well.

            The intention of HTML5 is good, but in the end, it's the same old story wrapped in a prettier package. At the most basic level, there's really no difference between "plug in" and "built in" except for who's responsible for maintaining that bit of code.

            "Standards" aren't really standards when you have to have browser and platform specific code just because one interpretation of the standard is different than another's.

            I've encountered some challenges like the one you cited. To be honest, from a usability standpoint, it's probably a good idea to hide playing of media behind a user prompt anyway. But I do agree that Apple shouldn't be enforcing this at the browser level. Or, they should come to some compromise. iOS knows if you're connecting via wifi or cellular. They *could* integrate that check into the browser experience when deciding if they should allow an auto-play type feature.
  • Probably the best article I've seen on a tech blog in months

    Seriously, I really thought it was informative and very interesting. Congrats on a well written piece.
    • Ditto

      I completely agree.........Calfee
    • Oh yeah!

      I hope Zdnet takes note. This is the kind of stuff we want to read not just opinionated fluff that is churned out in minutes. Brilliant article, and I guess the author is very well adjusted not to be pissed off by his experience.
  • The fact that he made $7K

    from a series of rebranded little countdown apps that required minimal effort really has me considering getting into iOS development.

    I agree the article was well written and David put some effort into full disclosure (e.g. admitting to getting sucked in and buying a more expensive Mac than was needed). However, from various articles about pirated apps, copycat apps and fake, malware infested apps on Android, at least some of the issues he outlined don't seem unique to Apple. Be curious to hear from other iOS developers on the support side of things.
    • early mover advantage

      you do realise that the majority of sales came before there was competition? that the same amount of effort now only yields the cost of a pizza a month? do you understand the concept of amortising investment?