Road to Riches or Hopeless Quagmire?
February 13, 2009 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Despite lukewarm reviews Ethan Nichols' iPhone game iShoot has earned him enough money to allow him to quit his day job. A recent article makes iPhone software development sound like something anyone can do, and software developers as young as nine-years-old have Apple approved games in Apple's App Store.

However, according to many developers things are not as rosy as they appear on the surface. Some have challenged Apple's decisions on which apps are and are not approved for sale, and others have accused fellow developers of manipulating the review system. Initially developers were preventing from even discussing these issues by a mandatory NDA, which after much criticism Apple later repealed.
posted by Bango Skank (49 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
I develop for the iPhone. Honestly, the NDA was annoying but pretty widely ignored, the review process is not onerous if you use common sense, and the tools are incredibly well put together. Apple's 30% cut is fairly painless compared to other software distribution platforms, and the barrier to entry is extremely low, too.

I've read plenty of complaints, but honestly find them all to be pretty silly - the situation for everyone from lone basement programmers to large corporate endeavors may not be perfect but it's about as good as it gets in this industry. The iTunes integration stops the rampant casual piracy which plagues other mobile platforms.

Also, if that nine-year-old actually CODED the app rather than told someone else what he wanted I will eat my hat. It's great PR but I highly doubt it's actually true no matter how precocious the kid is - as well laid out as the SDK might be, the iPhone just isn't that easy to develop for.
posted by Ryvar at 9:40 AM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


iShoot is clearly a copy/rip-off of the old DOS game Scorched Earth.
posted by smackfu at 9:40 AM on February 13, 2009


NDA? Review process?? 30% cut?!?

There goes the last remaining vestige of longing I had for the iPhone. I'm just waiting for the next hardware generation of Openmoko phones.
posted by DU at 9:42 AM on February 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd. And the crowd is what ranks apps on the iPhone, which results in more views and downloads, and more popularity. Repeat.

I think if there were no localized and controlled storefront, it would be back to traditional distribution, resulting in companies with more money and more marketing know-how getting ahead. But the market is still flushed with simple, timewaster games, where it's easier to pay $2.99 to see what the fuss is about instead of searching for a proper, in-depth review and deciding if you should look further. And if it sucks, buy the next worms (or scorched earth) clone.

If that guy is almost a millionaire, Apple is rolling in it. I wonder how much the software pre-testers and approvers get paid?
posted by filthy light thief at 9:43 AM on February 13, 2009


NDA? Review process?? 30% cut?!?

Isn't there a $100 fee to become a developer in the first place too?
posted by smackfu at 9:47 AM on February 13, 2009


Also, if that nine-year-old actually CODED the app rather than told someone else what he wanted I will eat my hat.

He posted the source code to the Apple IIGS version. With a couple tutorials, some setup help from dad and the oodles of free time that kids have, it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do.

I was writing simple basic programs on the C64 around that age. They weren't as visually impressive maybe, but I didn't have easy to use 2D rendering packages like these kids do. (also, get off my lawn)
posted by Gary at 10:16 AM on February 13, 2009 [2 favorites]


With a couple tutorials, some setup help from dad and the oodles of free time that kids have, it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do.

That makes sense, although it's always hard to tell how much impact the parents have in those sorts of situations.

I don't write iPhone apps but speaking as someone who wrote shareware as a teenager, Apple seems to be making things a lot easier for non-professional programmers to get into writing and selling software. Back when I did it, actually writing the software was the easy part. The hard part was setting up a payment system, handling distribution, getting listed on shareware lists and included in magazine demo discs, etc. By far the most annoying part for me was support though (people never RTFM), which I don't think would be any easier today.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:28 AM on February 13, 2009


And jailbreaking an iPhone constitutes copyright infringement and a DMCA violation, says Apple.
posted by DreamerFi at 10:33 AM on February 13, 2009


As a developer, I can't see dedicating any significant resources to iPhone games/apps as things now stand. Apple's rejections are too often seemingly inconsistent and arbitrary.

I can't find the link right now, but at least one developer resubmitted his previously rejected app unchanged and had it approved the second time. GABO, which was created by an experienced game designer and looks to be far more entertaining and substantial than 95% of the currently approved games, was rejected for being "unpleasant." Meanwhile, an author had to self-censor his e-book (a medical thriller clearly written for adults) by removing all instances of the word "fuck" to get it approved.

As a potential user, I see the iPhone as more of a tiny pocket-computer than just a cell phone (of which I already own too many). I've never before bought a computer on the condition that its manufacturer can dictate what apps I may/may not run on it, and I don't see any reason to start now. I'm a technical enough user to unlock/jailbreak a phone, but I don't want the hassle or the risk that I'll be denied warranty coverage for doing it.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 10:34 AM on February 13, 2009 [7 favorites]


I'm diving into this. Need the money, although buying a device and a MacBook and the developer fee did set me back over two grand. Will report back later, hopefully in Projects.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:52 AM on February 13, 2009


I love my G1
posted by rosswald at 10:58 AM on February 13, 2009


NDA? Review process?? 30% cut?!?

Isn't there a $100 fee to become a developer in the first place too?


The NDA, for those who bothered to read the parent post, was rescinded a couple months after launch.

The review process is a godsend - AppStore is choked enough already without having to worry about people who can't be bothered to code to Apple's UI standards or people who'd purposefully upload broken or even malicious apps. The $100 fee is similarly helpful here for much the same reason Metafilter's $5 cover is - it keeps out the assholes and the idiots.

The 30% cut compared to other primary distribution channels available to game developers (Steam, XBox Live Arcade, brick-and-mortar) is extremely favorable. With World of Goo facing a piracy rate of *over 90%*, the benefits of a closed platform for developers of casual games should be immediately obvious.

There really isn't a better distribution channel for mobile/casual games than the iPhone, right now. I realize this sounds a bit fanboyish, but as someone working on his own casual game that he'd rather not see pirated that's a fairly straightforward conclusion after an honest assessment of what's available to me.
posted by Ryvar at 11:10 AM on February 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


iShoot is clearly a copy/rip-off of the old DOS game Scorched Earth.

Yep, and there have been other ripoffs of it over the years. But it's nice to be able to play it on the iPhone.

He posted the source code to the Apple IIGS version.

Yeah, see, this is fairly straightforward coding he's doing here. My wife downloaded the app for my daughter to play with -- it's not elaborate, it just draws stuff when you write on it. I think we were writing similar things for the TRS-80 when we were 9 or 10.

The kid's not a genius, but he was willing to stick to it until he got something he liked.
posted by dw at 11:15 AM on February 13, 2009


I wonder how much the software pre-testers and approvers get paid?

They probably do alright, 40 to 60k a year. Assuming your talking about the spec. testers who have a little more responsibility than game testers.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:25 AM on February 13, 2009


The review process is a godsend - AppStore is choked enough already without having to worry about people who can't be bothered to code to Apple's UI standards or people who'd purposefully upload broken or even malicious apps.

Do they really do that much review though? I've seen some pretty crappy looking iPhone software.
posted by smackfu at 11:28 AM on February 13, 2009


I'm seven years old, and I'm writing this from my hand-coded browser on an operating system I wrote from scratch.

Oooo, look! A kitty!
posted by blue_beetle at 11:29 AM on February 13, 2009


Does anyone want to loan me an iPhone and a MacBook for three months? We can split the app profits 50/50. I swear.
posted by trueluk at 11:32 AM on February 13, 2009


Do they really do that much review though? I've seen some pretty crappy looking iPhone software.

Not as much as I'd like, but enough to keep out the really godawful shit. If anything what dissatisfies me the most about the iPhone is how *low* the rejection rate is, for exactly that reason. The other thing I'd gripe about is the turnaround time of the review process given the relative lack of stringency.
posted by Ryvar at 11:34 AM on February 13, 2009


If anything what dissatisfies me the most about the iPhone is how *low* the rejection rate is, for exactly that reason.

From my own observations of the app store I think the rejection rate was MUCH higher in the beginning. My theory is that so many developers (and customers, fanbois, critics, etc) complained about it that they started approving more borderline stuff. Hopefully that pendulum will eventually come to rest somewhere in the middle.
posted by Bango Skank at 11:42 AM on February 13, 2009


Wait, you can only develop iPhone apps on a Mac? I'd have to switch OSes to develop for it?
posted by orthogonality at 11:56 AM on February 13, 2009


Have you tried developing for windows mobile from a mac lately?
posted by Wood at 12:00 PM on February 13, 2009


Ortho, yes. It's irritating but you do get all the cool tools. Xcode doesn't suck, although ObjC is marginal and I've seen better frameworks on a shotgun shack.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:01 PM on February 13, 2009


It has a lot in common with Worms, Armageddon as well.
posted by Chuffy at 12:01 PM on February 13, 2009


The App Store has been really disruptive to the mobile industry. As somebody who's been kicking around this space for a while, I'll offer these observations which may or may not be obvious depending on your POV:


* Owing to Apple's massive consumer brand appeal and the viscous competitive pressures in the US mobile market which drove AT&T's appetite for an exclusive distribution deal, Apple succeeded with the 1st gen iPhone launch in getting an unheard of concession from AT&T, namely the requirement that phones be activated and managed through iTunes. This was a shocking thing for AT&T to accept since there's long been a tug of war between operators and handset manufacturers for 'customer ownership' with the OpCos winning.

* And iTunes does more than manage software, it establishes a direct billing relationship between Apple and the iPhone owner. This set the stage for the explosive launch of the App store.

* The 30% cut Apple takes is far less than the traditional cut mobile operators have required to get distribution on the 'carrier deck' so potentially App store distribution is much more lucrative. In fact one mobile game company--Glu--has pointed to their slow embrace of the iPhone platform as a reason for faltering financial results.

* In the traditional carrier-centric model it was a truism that the 'deck placement' your app received was the single biggest determinator of revenue--the higher/better 'above the fold' placement the higher the revenue.

* In the App Store, for the most part, visibility is a function of sales (as opposed to cutting a deal to get good placement) so it's more meritocratic in that respect.

* Every single mobile developer I've spoken with has praised the iPhone as shockingly easy to develop for--much much easier than existing smartphone platforms or the Java/BREW world--and this has really lowered the barrier to entry for the 'guy in the garage.'

* The approval process is much faster than what a developer would have to go through in the carrier-centric model which involved having a business relationship with carriers--typically there's a single or couple of people who are gatekeepers and their bandwidth is constrained so they're just not going to deal with small shops at all (which led to a variety of licensing arrangements, more people with their hand in the cookie jar, and less revenue for developers).

* The boon in Apps, though, has resulted in a glut of apps, many of which aren't very high quality. This has led to a problem with 'discovery'--simply finding cool new stuff.

* The large number of apps and Apple's acceptance of free apps has also resulted in lots of downward price pressure--lots of free apps, increasingly with an ad-supported model which is something we haven't seen in mobile before but which is coming on strong.

* While it's long been true that you could buy apps for your Palm, Windows or Symbian smartphone there was no comparably seamless or successful experience. Now that the door to this business model is open all the major platform providers are trying to emulate it--Android, RIM, and if the informed rumors are true we should hear Nokia announce a similar marketplace next week at Mobile World Congress.
posted by donovan at 12:07 PM on February 13, 2009 [12 favorites]


Wait, you can only develop iPhone apps on a Mac? I'd have to switch OSes to develop for it?

On the flip side, Google's Android is (mostly) Java and the agreement is more open. But then, you don't have the Google App Store where you can shill your stuff, either.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:29 PM on February 13, 2009


I was figuring their approval process Apple has must be really streamlined to have ushered that much software through the door, shovelware or not.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:30 PM on February 13, 2009


Dude, call me when I can write a background process. I had a dozen different ideas that were simply un-implementable without a jailbreak, since you cannot write apps that don't require direct user interaction.

Think about that. Nothing that responds to the environment. Nothing that runs while asleep. Nothing that runs while you're doing anything else on the phone. Want to write a location aware app that knows when you get home? Don't bother. Want an app that does X once every Y hours? Forget it.

This is a critical FAIL for the ancillary hacker market; there are tons of us that want to make apps that do minor things FOR the user without requiring them to preside over that operation. We don't have the time or resources (or sometimes inclination, since we get enough of that scope of effort in our day jobs) to build a full blown app.

Now Apple as stated their reasoning for this but I am totally unimpressed. We've had process/resource quotas for decades in out operating systems, so I don't really buy the whole performance argument. I suspect the UI wizards just haven't figured out a way for the user to manage multiple tasks at a time yet.

Maybe they'll get to it about the same time they figure out how I can send SMS picture messages... though I'm not optimistic.
posted by butterstick at 1:01 PM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sounds like iPhone users might like an app that helps them sift through apps.
posted by notyou at 1:03 PM on February 13, 2009


Android's market is getting paid apps next week in the US, which is good. It will be interesting to see the crossover.
posted by rosswald at 1:05 PM on February 13, 2009


Maybe they'll get to it about the same time they figure out how I can send SMS picture messages

It's not that they can't "figure it out" it's that Apple's chosen not to implement this feature. Mmmm . . . why would they do that? Maybe because multimedia messaging is an operator-driven service and MMS capabilities on the iPhone would be sending revenue to their operator partner? Nah, that'd mean business tactics trumped technology and we know that never happens . . .
posted by donovan at 1:44 PM on February 13, 2009


I do iPhone development as well, and agree with most of Ryvar's comments in this thread.

I'd also point out that most — not all, but most — of the objections to the process are made by people who do not develop for the platform, and that these folks are just repeating what they read on Slashdot or the nearest equivalent.

The worst problem that Apple has to deal with, from my own perspective, is that they do not make it easy to find the better product.

For one, the layout of the App Store makes it difficult to filter the wheat from the chaff. Applications cannot be placed into multiple categories. Application pages can't be customized, which makes most applications look generic and unappealing.

Secondly, the review system process is broken. It calculates incorrect results, which pushes down average scores. The addition of ranking-on-removal also biases application scores downwards.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:46 PM on February 13, 2009


The thing is, a 30% cut is probably far less then the cost of managing your own distribution, payment processing, and marketing. If you're in the App store it's super easy to sell an app to someone. They just click the icon, it gets installed and you get paid.

Compare that to traditional software sales: People have to enter their credit card information into an un-trusted website, they have to download code that could blow up their computer, and piracy is pretty easy.

For a small app with no marketing budget, I'd bet you'd make far more money then you would trying to distribute your apps yourself and hoping people pay for them. And since you can actually make money selling software so cheaply, piracy is a non-issue because why would anyone pirate software to save $1? (Although I suppose I could see pirates bundling packages of App store stuff for jailbroken phones)

---

I'm actually thinking of getting into writing software for Android phones, but right now Google doesn't have an actual app store that takes money. When they do, that will be awesome. An open platform phone, which users can purchase unlocked and use on any network, that users can run any software on, and do whatever they want to with, unlike the locked-down piece of junk that is the iPhone.

But from a developers point of view the iPhone is great. Except that you have to learn objective-C and the real risk of having your app rejected after putting in a lot of time on it.

There's also the question of how well medium-popularity apps actually do. I knwo the top apps make decent money, but what about the mid-list?

And jailbreaking an iPhone constitutes copyright infringement and a DMCA violation, says Apple.

But not in reality.
posted by delmoi at 2:14 PM on February 13, 2009


Dude, call me when I can write a background process. I had a dozen different ideas that were simply un-implementable without a jailbreak, since you cannot write apps that don't require direct user interaction.

You can write background processes for Android, FYI. And you can write in Java, which more people know.
posted by delmoi at 2:16 PM on February 13, 2009


(Although I suppose I could see pirates bundling packages of App store stuff for jailbroken phones)

I just did a search on a certain Swedish torrent site. It's already happening. Cracking iPhone apps has recently become a one-click process.

Of course, piracy can only be done by those with jailbroken phones, who may be too small in number to matter. The most popular torrent I was able to locate has 136 seeders and 221 leechers at the moment, which seems fairly low relative to the number of iPhone users out there.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 2:44 PM on February 13, 2009


Oregon Trail comes to the iPhone February 28

If iShoot made $500k, I can only begin to imagine the cash that this will bring in. I'd wager at least 80% of iPhone users are the same type that wax nostalgic for this game, myself included.
posted by cosmic osmo at 2:45 PM on February 13, 2009


Sounds like iPhone users might like an app that helps them sift through apps.

There's at least one already: App Sniper.
posted by Bango Skank at 4:17 PM on February 13, 2009


On the flip side, Google's Android is (mostly) Java and the agreement is more open. But then, you don't have the Google App Store where you can shill your stuff, either.

Hmm? Android has an app store and they've already started accepting paid apps though the paid apps section hasn't launched for end users just yet.

The real benefit though is that you can always distribute Android software on your own if you want, which you can't do with the iPhone. (Also, you can get fully unlocked versions of Android phones, modify the OS, whatever you want).
posted by wildcrdj at 5:57 PM on February 13, 2009


Sounds like iPhone users might like an app that helps them sift through apps.

I believe there are already several. I have a hard time keeping track of them...
posted by heathkit at 6:50 PM on February 13, 2009


Apple is repeating the same damn mistake they made in the 80s with the Apple II series and the original Mac. They're pushing yet another closed platform. Android is going to clean up in the marketplace in the next few years, just like IBM PC clones did back then.

Yeah, I know: user experience, design, blah blah blah. It doesn't matter. The incredibly varied marketplace that open development for the Android opens up will completely change the mobile software ecosystem. Oh, there will be crap. There will be an unbelievable amount of crap out there for it. But Sturgeon's law and all that. ANYBODY with access to a relatively decent PC can develop for Android. I need to pay around $1k just to get the hardware to develop for an iPhone. Some crazy bastard is going to develop the Android's VisiCalc, and then: Boom!

And then there's the unfortunate uncertainty concerning Jobs' health. Steve Jobs is responsible for ushering in this new era of open mobile development, I give him full credit for that. It made Android possible, along with who knows what else is coming. His vision and drive created a great product. But he can't control everything, and his desire to control everything is going to lose him this war.
posted by formless at 8:02 PM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always liked Scorched Earth, and most of the variations, and I'm sure I'd like this too had I an iPhone, but my carrier doesn't sell them. A variation on SE is Scorched Earth 3D, which puts the original into modern graphics and is pretty good, imo, due to the added challenge.
posted by Zack_Replica at 8:04 PM on February 13, 2009


Compare that to traditional software sales

Yeah, but why would you do that. There is variations of this same type of App store for other products to compare it to.

The fact that iShoot made as much money as it did is interesting to me. I'm not familiar with the app store, but is there any quality stuff on there that didn't make money like it should've? I would guess that it would take a bit of luck to do well on there.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:41 PM on February 13, 2009


Apple is repeating the same damn mistake they made in the 80s with the Apple II series and the original Mac. They're pushing yet another closed platform. Android is going to clean up in the marketplace in the next few years, just like IBM PC clones did back then.

How was the apple II a closed platform? Did they prevent people from making clones? (Now that I think about it, I don't recall any Apple II clones, and it seems like it would have been a viable market, anyone know why there weren't any?)
posted by delmoi at 9:39 PM on February 13, 2009


I was looking at the Android site a couple weeks ago and it looked like they'd be accepting paid apps soon. If they've set a date, that's great. I've been working on a web project for a while but I might take a break and do something for android. You can actually download the SDK and develop for the phone without even buying anything. You do need to pay a $25 developer fee.
posted by delmoi at 10:01 PM on February 13, 2009


formless: Yeah, I know: user experience, design, blah blah blah. It doesn't matter. The incredibly varied marketplace that open development for the Android opens up will completely change the mobile software ecosystem. Oh, there will be crap. There will be an unbelievable amount of crap out there for it. But Sturgeon's law and all that. ANYBODY with access to a relatively decent PC can develop for Android. I need to pay around $1k just to get the hardware to develop for an iPhone. Some crazy bastard is going to develop the Android's VisiCalc, and then: Boom!

I really hope so. Paying for good software is one thing, but nothing annoys me more than getting charged for some sort of app that has 20+ superior and free versions (5 of which are open source) on the computer. As long as bored programmers in the world, there's no excuse for charging for tetris. You just know someone would crank out a free version within 48 hours of it becoming possible to do so.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:32 PM on February 13, 2009


Steve Jobs is responsible for ushering in this new era of open mobile development, I give him full credit for that. It made Android possible, along with who knows what else is coming.

Here in Canada they managed to push our mobile data plan from a complete joke to something expensive but still affordable. If only for that reason, I hope Apple makes the right choices and can stick around a little longer.
posted by Gary at 1:47 AM on February 14, 2009


I need to pay around $1k just to get the hardware to develop for an iPhone

Not really true, you can get an iPhone at the regular price just like anyone else, but putting that to the side for a moment, I don't think I would want to buy an Android application that was written without being tested on an Android phone. So if I was a responsible and capable developer making an effort to write a quality product that customers would want to buy, I'd probably want to spend $600 on an Android-capable developer phone.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:02 AM on February 14, 2009


DU: Please dissuade yourself of the notion that OpenMoko is remotely viable. The hardware, software, and community are all total dogshit.

Their most recent hardware uses an ancient GPRS modem (2KB/s!), the audio chip has hardware bugs, the GPS takes 10 minutes to get a fix, and it has no real power management support at all. It's actually slower than the first-generation turd despite having a higher clockrate and using even more power (all due to a royally stupid architecture). The drivers aren't even all open source!

As for the software, they've barely written a dialer, and just barely have X working. They've had some ok attempts at building a set of libraries for a consistent suite of applications, but they've ditched several due to infighting. The only software I've seen people demonstrate is just normal desktop X apps with a standard onscreen keyboard.

The developer community is ridiculous, there's no way any of them actually use their 'product' to place and receive telephone calls, or do anything related to wireless. Almost all of the the work that's been done is just them wanking about their "freedoms" on mailing lists.

There are a half-dozen valid (and varied) Linux cellphone development environments out there, but OpenMoko is absolutely not one of them. It's a disaster.
posted by blasdelf at 4:00 AM on February 14, 2009


How was the apple II a closed platform? Did they prevent people from making clones? (Now that I think about it, I don't recall any Apple II clones, and it seems like it would have been a viable market, anyone know why there weren't any?)

There actually were clones. Franklin Computer made an Apple II clone, and Apple filed suit. It was actually the first successful software copyright suit in the US.

So yeah, it wasn't a viable market, because Apple killed any competition, through IP law. And now we have the DMCA being invoked for the iPhone.
posted by formless at 8:57 AM on February 14, 2009


I think this old argument about Apple's mistake (not licensing) in the 80s would have a lot more weight if you could still buy an IBM PC today.
posted by pascal at 9:17 AM on February 14, 2009


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