As a mobile app developer, I spend a lot of time consulting companies with regards to why they should or should not (mostly should not) create a mobile application. Too often I see internet retailers and other brands with essentially no web presence or anything to offer wanting to jump on the mobile bandwagon. Mobile apps may be cool right now, but let’s face it: not everybody needs one.
I have made mobile applications for major game companies as well as small businesses. I have released a number of my own applications, some of which I would deem successful and which continue to provide my company / me with residual income each month. Through all of this, I have learned a lot about the ever-changing world that is the mobile app marketplace – for the iOS, Android and Blackberry alike.
The Single Biggest Mistake Companies Make
The first thing that most companies forget is that a mobile app needs to offer new value to the customers that the customer does not already have. I can already access most websites easily from my mobile phone, and I am much more likely to do so than I am to go arbitrarily download a new application. In short, it is best if the app can introduce a new feature that the company does not yet provide. Every company needs to ask themselves the following questions:
Are we prepared to do what it takes to support a mobile app, or are we trying to get something for nothing? Do we have a marketing budget and a strategy in mind? Do we know where the app is going? Are we willing to invest more time and money in the app post-launch to improve and maintain it, even if it is not yet profitable? Is this a core part of our business strategy or a “might as well” scenario?
Most people tend to assume that the very nature of having a mobile app will somehow make it successful. They have heard the stories of the fart-apps, the tip calculators and other seemingly pointless applications that have made boatloads of money in the AppStore. Unfortunately, the “wild west” days of the AppStore are over (if they even ever existed in the first place). Moreover, not all of these applications are not so simple and mindless as they may appear. For every successful fart-app, there are dozens if not hundreds of similar (or even identical) ideas that got lost in the store.
So, what makes the successful apps successful? Well, frankly, that’s too large of a question for the scope of this article (perhaps some other time…) but the point is that you cannot expect to succeed on an idea on its own. The implementation needs to be solid (a good user-interface and an app that functions well) and even then you would will not likely survive without marketing. There is an old adage in business that applies here: you need to be the first, the best or have the most money. If you come up with a new idea that solves a problem (you are the first), then you have a chance – until someone comes along that does it better… or they have such a large marketing budget that they simply blow you out of the water.
The Single Biggest Mistake Individuals Make
The other side of all this is that of new developers or just people “with an idea.” I cannot tell you how many emails / phone calls / etc. I have received that start with “so I have this idea for a mobile app…” I am sorry to be so blunt, but the vast majority of them are crap ideas or simply impossible. They come from everyone from teenagers and frat guys to established businessmen, but one thing is common: they failed to do their homework. One hour on Google could have saved us all some time, effort and emotion.
Furthermore, the truth is that developing a mobile app is usually not the cheap and fast endeavor that people have been led to believe it is. Sure, if you’re a single programmer or a lean startup you can create an app on a low budget without too much difficulty. But the ideas most people come up with and end up pitching are not only grandiose but lacking in overall direction. They do not have any concept of where they are eventually going or how they will get there. They amount to little more than a clone of an existing idea with some spin on it.
Just like in the tech entrepreneurship world in general, if you can summarize you idea as “Like [buzzword] except [barely-innovative feature]” and that is the extent of your pitch, then you are likely destined for failure.
My formal education was in interactive media and video game design. Games are, in some way, an entirely different beast. A simple clone of another game can be successful in its own right. However, the sad truth is that the vast majority of games get buried in the AppStore. There is simply too much noise out there.
It is obviously preferable to have a pre-established brand or IP (intellectual property) to work with. It is a little known fact, though, that many of the big game companies lost money (and perhaps are still losing money) in most of their major ports of games. Part of this has to do with the fact that the AppStore represented an entirely new marketplace that they did not know how to target. I know at least one story of a major game company that refused to lower the price of its products because management felt that it would cheapen the brand. What they did not realize was that their pricetag was unreasonable for the AppStore and it was far better to sell a million copies at $2 each than a hundred copies at $10 each. There is an exponential relationship between AppStore rank and sales, meaning that the leaders in any category are making many many many times the amount of money as their competitors further down the ranks – and this social proof of rank is a self-fulfilling prophecy that supports itself.
The Angry Birds of the world, amazing success stories such as they are, came about because of one (or a couple) small developers working from passion and interest. If some company / person had paid for Angry Birds to be made, it would have likely cost a LOT of money (and perhaps been ruined by bureaucracy). As you may know, Angry Birds did not make much money at all for the first few months after it was released. In short, even though it was an outlier that achieved great success, I doubt that it could have achieved this success if it was conceived by any other means.
All this said, the AppStore is changing the very face of the internet. While it may not make sense to simply clone a website into an app, there are plenty of good and innovative reasons to get into the mobile marketplace with a pre-existing brand.
Let’s take bloggers, for instance. Us bloggers have a brand which we are looking to disseminate to a wider audience, as well as further engage our existing audience. From a purely superficial point of view, an app which could provide a new distribution channel for the content we are already creating could be very useful to us. But what of the value to the user?
Well, as a traveler, there is one clear advantage a well-designed mobile app offers me: portability. Even slick WordPress plugins that give a blog a mobile-specific look are insufficient because they still have the inherent constraints of a website. That is, each time I want to read something new or click a link, I need an active internet connection. Even the Engadget mobile app has this problem. This may not be a big deal if you’re sitting on a park bench in the USA, but if you’re on a train/plane (or in France, like I am at the moment) then this is not a viable option. Furthermore, such “skins” are uninteresting. They look very “vanilla” and do little to engage me with the content. All they do is to take something that was previously unreadable and make it readable while eliminating the sense of branding and any uniqueness.
This is why I have coded an application for this blog that works on the iPhone and iPad (coming soon to the AppStore). Is it a great idea? I do not know. I am a single individual who made this app, as described above, so I can afford to experiment As a blogger I am curious if my message would be well served with new outlet channels. The app automatically downloads new blog posts & podcasts to make them available to the user (even without an interaction) and even lets users share content via Facebook. If I had products, like an eBook, to sell (which I do not) I could even sell it directly through the app so it could be read there. In the process of making this app I made a platform that could be used by other bloggers to create their own custom branded app for free. Again, this is just an idea, but one that may serve bloggers well.
Do you have an idea for a mobile app? Have you succeeded or failed with an app? Let me know below, or contact me directly. I always love discussing the mobile marketplace.