Academics: If an app doesn't go viral, there's no point in making it

In written evidence to a UK Parliamentary committee, the UK's top computer scientists and academics claim mobile applications are not strong sources for money-making.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

That's the message from an expert panel of the UK Computing Research Committee.

In written evidence to a UK Parliamentary committee, the academics, computer scientists, and engineers told members of Parliament (MPs) that only a fraction of applications go on to become successful and cover the costs of development.


Formed in late 2000, the panel makes up members from the British Computer Society, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, and the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing.

With enough collective brain-power to melt the minds of the ordinary British people, it's fair to say they probably have some idea of what they are talking about.

When questioned on difficulties posed in commercialising research --- or making money out of the findings from university boffins --- the experts said:

"Software 'apps' can be marketed through App Stores, such as Apple Inc’s iTunes store, but competition is intense, individual apps sell typically for 99p, and almost no-one recovers the realistic costs of development."

In other words: even if you have a killer idea, the chances are it will be drowned out in the noise of the wider marketplace.

The experts went on to tell MPs that the likes of Google and Facebook were 'one-offs' and only pay for themselves over long periods of time. Offering products and services for free may generate popularity and fame, but won't pay for additional research:

"Some innovative software-based services have been commercialised extremely successfully --- Facebook and Google being the leading examples --- but the commercial model is extremely unusual, as it requires huge investment to provide free services so that a vast population of users is developed and monetised through advertising revenue and added-value services.

The panel went on to remind the committee that the UK "patented the floppy disk, virtual memory, several important programming languages, software development methods, electronic design tools, and several computer architectures."

But unlike chipmaker ARM, or enterprise software maker Autonomy, they said the "UK does not have the share of world markets in computing that our history of innovations would suggest could have been achieved."

The "Valley of Death" inquiry is the UK government's attempt in understanding how academics can reap the rewards from the research developed in its publicly funded universities. One of the major headaches for academics is attracting investment funding for projects that could ultimately lead to commercial, money-making ventures. One might think it's a no-brainer, but many enterprises fail to lift off the ground.

While many academics could turn their research into 'freemium' applications for Android and iPhone platforms, many simply can't. But even if they wanted to, from the evidence given it's unlikely they would do anyway.

Image credit: James Martin/CNET.


Editorial standards