Tools of a new trade: Five tips for aspiring mobile app developers

Consumer enthusiasm for smartphone applications continues to surge, and with it grows developer interest in the mobile segment. Consider that prior to the release of Apple's top-selling iPad, developers across multiple platforms expressed overwhelming desire to create applications for the new tablet--according to a study conducted by software solutions provider Appcelerator, 90 percent of its developer partners are "very interested" in building an iPad app within the year, with balanced representation from iPhone and Android developers on the mobile side and PC, Mac and Linux developers on the desktop side. Not to mention that 25 percent of game developers are now building mobile titles, up from 12 percent just a year ago. According to Game Developer Research's 2009/2010 State of Game Development Survey, published in February, almost three quarters of the 800-plus videogame professionals surveyed who are creating mobile properties are targeting devices running Apple's iOS, a percentage more than twice the reported support for traditional handhelds like the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP.

It's not only experienced programmers entering the mobile segment, of course--aspiring developers from across the globe, across all walks of life and across all age ranges are seizing the opportunity as well. But whether you're a seasoned developer or an absolute beginner, it's vital to understand the challenges ahead--that's why each month, FierceDeveloper's Developer Workshop series culls advice from some of the mobile ecosystem's most intriguing and innovative minds, and passes along their hard-earned wisdom to the community at large. Here are five lessons every developer should follow.

The user experience is the most important thing.

"Focus on ease of use and ubiquity... Make something that can work across many devices, and that's easy to use. There are lots of great mobile applications out there, but many of them are very constrained. That approach doesn't allow you to build a broader service or a successful company." --Thwapr CTO Eric Hoffert

Intuitive, consumer-friendly smartphones like Apple's iPhone have dramatically improved the overall mobile experience--their easy-to-grasp user interfaces have made next-generation devices more accessible and less daunting for subscribers of all ages, translating to increasing smartphone penetration and exploding application usage. But many applications still pose challenges for consumers, whether due to poor design, buggy software, bandwidth constraints or network issues. Either way, the most successful mobile applications are invariably those that are easiest for subscribers to use--apps that flourish within the context of the smartphone and its inherent limitations, e.g. screen sizes and navigation restrictions.

"Just because you have a good idea doesn't mean it's a great idea. Chances are there are people with the same idea as yours," says Tarver Games president Chris Cross. "It's the execution that matters. The game that grabs the audience will always win--it's how people experience the game that matters."

Target the iPhone platform.

"Focus on the iPhone--it has a large installed product base, and an app store that's already deployed. If you're competent and have a good idea, [Apple will] approve it--that is the best way to get into the marketplace, instead of trying to create products for multiple handsets." --Spark of Blue Software CEO Vincent Bitetti

Sure, there are more Symbian smartphones worldwide, more BlackBerry devices in the U.S. and Android is growing by leaps and bounds. Doesn't matter--Apple's iPhone remains the mobile operating system to beat. The numbers speak for themselves: At Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference in early June, CEO Steve Jobs announced there are now more than 100 million iOS-powered devices globally, along with 225,000 applications in the App Store--total iPhone developer revenues now top $1 billion, and that number is poised to explode with the forthcoming introduction of the new iAd mobile advertising network. According to Jobs, pre-launch iAd sales already exceed $60 million; developers earn 60 percent of iAd profits, adding another $36 million to their collective coffers.

It's true that Apple's App Store approval processes are arbitrary and inscrutable, and the company rules the iPhone ecosystem with an iron fist--woe is the application or segment of apps that offend Jobs' sensibilities or threaten Apple's commercial aspirations. But even so, the iPhone development opportunity is irresistible: Earlier this year, mobile ad network AdMob reported that iPhone users download more paid apps than other smartphone users, with 50 percent of iPhone owners purchasing at least one premium app per month, compared to 21 percent of Android users. (It's no surprise that according to Nielsen, 40 percent of iPhone users report incomes in excess of $100,000, compared to only 28 percent of Android users.)

It's not just about the app--it's also how you market it.

"Focus on executing your marketing strategy as much as you do on the development cycle. You're not going to get noticed unless you have something stunningly innovative. Promotion and innovation are the recipe for success. It's work--it's hard work. If you want to be successful, prepare for the hardest work you've done in your life. And the most rewarding." --People Operating Technology co-founder Jason Petralia

With each new application that enters Apple's App Store, Google's Android Market or Research In Motion's BlackBerry App World, it becomes that much tougher for rival apps to get noticed, regardless of their overall quality. That means marketing muscle is becoming increasingly critical as discoverability becomes more and more difficult--a trend that favors deep-pocketed mainstream media powers, established software providers and established game franchises, of course, not emerging developers with no track record or brand recognition. So it's imperative that developers leverage the same creativity that galvanized the creation of their app to promote its release--developers without the funds to hire an official PR mouthpiece are doing the work themselves, making the rounds of local networking events, mailing review copies to technology blogs and introducing guerrilla promotional campaigns to pique consumer interest.

Case in point: Pint Sized Mobile, creator of the iPhone card game Card Ninja. "One thing we did that's slightly outside of the box is we created a series of promotional cards with some of the visual images from the game, and we handed them out at technology events around [New York City]," recalls Pint Sized Mobile co-founder Jonathan Bertfield. "It's guerrilla marketing. I still give out those cards whenever I see someone using an iPhone in real life."

A successful launch campaign can translate to enduring app success, according to Booyah CEO Keith Lee, the mastermind behind the popular MyTown social location solution. "It's important to carefully coordinate everything you do--the number one goal for your app is to get visibility, so you need to think strategically," Lee says. "Focus on getting your advertising, press and reviews to all land in a four- to five-day span. If everything is spread over two or three weeks, you don't get that sustained frequency of downloads--you don't get that lift you need to chart. Because once you hit the charts, the app takes care of itself."

Patience and persistence are essentials.

"Have patience. Don't expect it all to happen right at once. Mobile devices are ever-changing--you've got to roll with the punches, do your best to approach it calmly and rationally, and pay attention to every detail you can." --Monkeyland Industries co-founder Pete Metzger

For every breakout success story like Lima Sky--creators of the bestselling iPhone game Doodle Jump, which surpassed the 3 million App Store download milestone this March--there are dozens, even hundreds of mobile developers whose applications fail to return even a small profit. But the App Store is a lot like the lottery: You can't win if you don't play. There is no proven formula or template for designing a blockbuster application, but most developers agree experience is key--and that the lessons learned building and marketing an unsuccessful app can be invaluable the next time around.

"Don't be surprised if your first game doesn't make it," says Dave Castelnuovo, founder and CEO of Bolt Creative, the firm behind the smash iPhone franchise Pocket God. "Take as many shots at the goal as you can, and you'll get there."

Developers looking to maximize their chances of scoring a hit right out of the box should look to prevailing consumer trends. Although news and entertainment applications represent the majority of total smartphone app downloads, productivity tools like mapping, business and enterprise solutions now generate 59 percent of all smartphone software revenues, according to data issued in mid-June by market intelligence firm In-Stat. And while Apple's iPhone operating system continues to dominate both premium and free application downloads, In-Stat notes that downloads across Google's rival Android platform are growing at the fastest overall rate.

Don't give up--after all, the smartphone era is just beginning.

"It's not even the bottom of the first inning yet. The amount of opportunity that will open up is incredible. Smartphones are going to take over as the dominant Internet device. So whatever you do, don't get off the mobile platform." --Geodelic founder and CEO Rahul Sonnad

Although the sheer volume of mobile applications already on the market can seem daunting, the segment is still wide open for developers with original ideas executed with creativity and care. Mobile application downloads across all handsets worldwide are poised to grow from 7 billion in 2009 to almost 50 billion in 2012--a year-over-year growth rate of 92 percent--according to a recent report compiled by consulting firm Chetan Sharma Consulting and commissioned by independent app store GetJar. At current projections, the global mobile apps economy will generate sales of $17.5 billion by 2012, surpassing world music trade organization IFPI's projections for CD sales that same year ($13.83 billion).

But make no mistake: The mobile industry exists in a state of constant flux. Among the biggest challenges facing developers is how to navigate AT&T's recent decision to retire its $29.99 per month unlimited data pricing plan in favor of offering new subscribers a tiered model based on usage (a move since copied by British operator O2, with other service providers likely to follow). AT&T's actions appear likely to impact the creation of games, location-based services and other applications that consume significant bandwidth or require constant refreshing--some pundits speculate subscribers will begin closely monitoring and fretting about their data consumption, limiting application use or delaying impulse app purchases, and that developers will respond in kind by scaling back their apps and eschewing more robust features. Time will tell whether it's the end of an era--or simply the beginning of another.

Tools of a new trade: Five tips for aspiring mobile app developers