C4 notes: Developers cool towards iPhone projects

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If you looked around the room at the C4 independent developers conference this past weekend, you’d certainly see no lack of iPhones—it seemed like every attendee had at least one. But just because the indie developer crew were all packing Apple’s handset for personal use doesn’t mean that their professional opinions were quite as enthusiastic.

At last year’s conference, the ire of developers was focused largely on Apple’s enforcement of what was often referred to as the "[expletive] NDA," the non-disclosure agreement that essentially acted as a gag order. Apple ended up dropping that restriction in October of last year, but things still aren’t rosy in iPhone-land. Very few of the conference presentations were directly focused on developing for the iPhone—strangely enough, more attention was given to the comparatively venerable AppleScript than Apple's young upstart device.

While most of the developers I talked to at the conference were positive about the iPhone’s technological capababilities, almost all had issues with the business side of the platform. More than one told me that they weren’t actively developing any programs for the iPhone, having come to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth the time and energy that they could be spending on more profitable projects on the Mac side.

Why the lack of love? The reasons are varied, but many tie back to a central thread—Apple’s emphasis on control. It’s hardly surprising that that might raise the hackles of independent developers, who are used to running their businesses as they see fit—as one presentation put it frankly, "we're all control freaks." The App Store puts all the power in Apple’s hands, determining when developers can release updates, what they have to charge, and in many cases even how they market their apps. For independent developers, it’s like handing their baby over for someone else to raise.

Developing an iPhone app is no less intensive than creating an application for the Mac. Even though Apple handles distribution, plenty of time is still required for programming, testing, and supporting the product. That’s a big investment for a shop that’s comprised of a handful of people—or, often enough, just one—where time spent working on developing one product usually means time spent not working on another product.

The problem is that the prices in the App Store, which tend towards the lower end, make it harder to recoup the investment put into developing the program in the first place. Sure, there have been over two billion downloads from the App Store, but remember there’s more than 85,000 apps available. Even if your 99 cent application gets downloaded 10,000 times, after Apple’s 30 percent cut that’s just $7,000 in revenue—not profit, mind you, just revenue—and if you spent the last six months of your life working on that application, you better hope you’re still working a day job if you want to cover living expenses.

One developer I talked to said his company budgeted very strictly on their most recent iPhone project, devoting one month to design and one month to building it. Their previous project, an ambitious game, had yet to break even, despite being prominently featured on several Web sites. That’s tough, especially since apps often follow the pattern of garnering their highest sales around their launch.

Still, not all developers were keen to give up on the fight for the iPhone as a platform. Just as many were keen to see the App Store improved and fixed, and most had suggestions to give. At the top of that list was still improving the approval process, both in terms of speed and in terms of transparency. Some suggested that they would be willing to pay a higher fee than the $99 Apple charges to sign up for the iPhone developer program, especially if it came with a higher degree of service and control.

More than one developer suggested implementing demo versions of applications that allow prospective customers to download and try out programs before deciding whether or not to buy them. Not only would that make customers more willing to shell out for more expensive applications, developers suggested, but it also might help them avoid paying money for poor apps.

Another popular suggestion was allowing for upgrade pricing. Right now the only options are to roll out updates for free—a potentially expensive proposition for developers who spend substantial time coding new features—or creating an entirely new version of the app, potentially angering existing customers who have to shell out all over again. Giving developers the ability to let existing owners upgrade for less than the full price would potentially strike a balance between the two extremes.

But with the power still in the hands of Apple, many developers were pessimistic about the chances of real change. As one developer pointed out, there were plenty of people happy to take his place if he left the App Store, meaning little incentive for Apple to worry about upsetting developers.

That's not to say that it wouldn't hurt Apple, especially when the serious developers give way to the hordes of less substantive apps. Apple needs to realize that the foundation of the iPhone platform is based less on those looking to make a quick buck and more on those looking to make a living.

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