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

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, 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?