Don't blame Apple if you become a one-app-wonder

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

Forget about becoming an overnight success. It only took Barry Meade about three hours to enjoy the kind of mobile app popularity that most developers only dream of achieving.

Meade is from Fireproof Studios, the creators of the No. 1 Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store game The Room, where players are given a series of puzzle boxes they have to crack open. More than 5 million downloads later, it has allowed Meade and his team to stop doing as much work for commercial clients and instead focus on their own projects. Meade was among a group of iOS developers who were interviewed on-air as part a BBC Radio series called The Bottom Line, and he was the first to admit that The Room's triumph was not necessarily part of some grand business plan.

"We had no money, zero, for marketing or PR," he said. As you might have guessed, it was all due to Apple promoting The Room as a featured game. "We have no reason to think that's ever going to happen again."

I kept coming back to that last comment long after the radio program ended. There are probably many developers who would be more than satisfied with having a hit like The Room, but how many of them want more than that? Much like in the pop music industry, where reaching the top of the charts is no indication of a long-term career, to what extent are developers really thinking about a plan not just for their apps but for themselves as creators? My sense in meeting with and talking to many of them over the past year tells me that few are looking much beyond their next app, if that.

It might seem unfair to blame Apple for this, but the degree to which it can make or break an app clearly leaves some developers feeling as though there's not much point in taking an active role in promotion. During the BBC program, one of the developers (it wasn't always clear who was talking, said, "It's very hard to plan or reason about how to launch," describing the App Store as a "Darwinian place," and Apple as a sort of "benign police state."

You could argue that radio stations played a role not unlike Apple's during the early heyday of rock music, leaving musical artists in a similarly helpless situation. If the DJs decided not to play your next record, that could be the end of the show as far as your career went. In the app space, however, I think it's still a little bit different. Apple might be able to engineer a one-hit wonder by virtue of making it a featured app, but developers can continue to tweak and improve an app--it's more than just remixing a pop song. They can also learn a lot more from ratings, recommendations and social feedback from customers than a pop star ever could. Then, they can use that to create something that continues to build an audience, even if it never reaches the heights of its predecessors.

Maybe instead of just hoping and praying that the Apple gods smile on their apps, developers could imagine instead what life would be like if they did. Then, they should imagine what their next step would be. The earlier you figure that out, the better your chances that you'll need less and less of Apple's help in the long run.--Shane