Market Moves: Translating fun into profit with Android

The first step in bringing an application to the Android Market is, well, choosing and writing the application. Luckily I already had one sitting around: Re-Translate.

The first step in bringing an application to the Android Market is, well, choosing and writing the application. Luckily I already had one sitting around: Re-Translate. In this article I'll talk about where the app came from, considerations when turning a free app into a paid one, and setting a price.

When I was writing Hello, Android, I needed an example for the networking chapter. I've been watching the evolution of machine translation for years, ever since the Alta Vista Bablefish project and earlier,

and poor translations have always been a source for amusement. What if, I thought, I let users type in a phrase in English, translated it into some other language, then back to English? The results would surely be hilarious, and it would be a great way to demonstrate web services.

It turns out I was right about the second part, but not so much about the first part. The problem was that the Google Translate API I used was just too darned good. I had to try a bunch of phrases before I hit upon one that was remotely funny. I remember the phrase; it was: "Don't run with scissors". Re-translated through Japanese and back to English it became "Scissors to avoid execution". Ha! I took screen shots, updated the book, and marked that one as done. Little did I know, Google had other ideas. I'm not sure if someone at Google read my draft and reported the problem translation or what, but about a month later, with a deadline looming, I was re-checking all the examples and noticed they had fixed it! Now it came back with "Please do not run with scissors". Not perfect, but pretty close. And not funny at all. Uh oh. After several tense minutes trying to find something Google would screw up on again, I found a new phrase. No, I'm not going to repeat it here, because I don't want them to "fix" it again. You'll just have to read the book to find out, or come up with your own.

In any case, when the Android Market opened for free applications I published the Translate example there to get some experience using the Market. Surprisingly, the program turned out to be quite popular. According to the Market Console, it's been installed 34,449 times, but that actually understates the real number because their install count has been reset a couple of times. Hundreds of people rated and commented on it, and dozens of people sent email. Encouraged by the feedback, I started to make changes that went beyond the example in the book, such as adding cut-and-paste support. I renamed it to "(Re-)Translate" so it wouldn't be confused with a couple of other translation programs. I was recently even approached by a handset manufacturer who wants to pre-install the program on their upcoming Android phone!

Now that the Market supports paid applications, I'm once again turning to the translate program. The first question I had was, should I just start charging for what was previously a free program? Many people have tried to do that in the past (before Android) and every single one of them have had to endure a firestorm of criticism. I didn't want to have to go through that! So I decided to leave the free version untouched. I did rename it to "(Re-)Translate Lite", however, to distinguish it from the paid, or "Pro", version. There is no single convention for the name, but on the iPhone App Store I found several precedents for the Lite/Pro split so that's what I'm using.

Many developers support a free version with advertisements displayed in the program. I might do that in the future just to see how it's done, but for now I'm planning on keeping it simple. The Lite version will do what it does now, and the Pro version will have some extra features people have been asking for. The plan is to only put new features in the Pro version, giving people a little reason to upgrade besides just "supporting the developer".

What about the price? $0.99 is by far the most popular price on the iPhone (aside from free), but I've read several accounts of developers struggling to make a profit with that number. The creator of the iShoot game seems pretty happy with $2.99 (reportedly he made $600k in one month and quit his day job), so that's what I'm going to start with. If necessary I can try playing with the price later to see what effect that has on sales.

So there you have it. Re-Translate Lite is on the Market now for free, and Re-Translate has been published for $2.99. Note that I dropped the "Pro" and the parentheses so that it looks better on the Home screen. As soon as Google flips the switch for paid applications later this week, you'll be able to check it out for yourself.

There's more to the story, of course, such as setting up a Google Checkout merchant account, handling upgrades, and using the Market console, but I'll leave that for another post.