When does an app 'hobbyist' become an app developer?

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

Say what you will about app developers in the U.K., but they certainly can't be accused of taking themselves too seriously.

Last week Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) released the results of a survey it conducted with responses from 400 people about the creation of mobile apps and what some of the challenges in that process are. Most of the data isn't that surprising. For the most part, U.K. developers say they're optimistic about the possibilities of mobile computing. Nearly half of them have been at this for less than five years, and the majority see demand for new skill sets. What stood out to me, however, was the fact that more than 80 people from the sample didn't see themselves as developers but rather as hobbyists: "The research also underscores how the term 'developer' is no longer limited to just the more traditional technical developer community. Instead it now comprises a wider ecosystem of professionals, hobbyists and individuals responsible for marketing, who are also involved in the creation of applications and software.'

Of course, there have been a number of other studies which suggest developers are working on apps on the side or that they don't see this as a full-time career option. But to specifically call yourself a hobbyist implies something more to me. It means you're in this because you love it and you don't necessarily expect that motivation to change anytime soon. In other words, becoming a hit in the app stores, generating revenue though ads or in-app purchases or increasing "engagement" in some way is not on the agenda. With a hobby, the stakes are lower than they are for a business, for a genuine startup.

If we define a developer as someone who at least hopes to make some money or develop a roster of customers, when does that business become a "studio"? From many conversations I've had with players in this space, I would say "developer" generally means a person or startup that has the potential to be a modestly successful business, while a studio is more likely to have either a consistent stream of products/customers/revenues and/or the accoutrements of a slightly more successful firm, like a marketing plan and regular office hours. Maybe being a studio means you're working with more than one person, or are doing well enough to have hired some staff. There are no real rules about this, and it probably makes it a lot harder for not only Microsoft but also the hundreds of other firms that are trying to pitch SDKs, analytics tools and other products to an audience that might pay for them.

Why do these distinctions matter? I think because hobbyists, in some cases, may be describing themselves as such to give themselves more room to experiment and fail without being judged in the same way a startup is by prospective investors. This is a healthy thing, and as more hobbyists achieve the kind of things that would better define them as "real" developers, I hope they keep that mindset. That, and their insatiable love of innovating on a mobile device. --Shane