Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why Not to Make an iPhone App

When I tell business owners that I make iPhone, iPad, and Android apps, one of the first questions I hear is:

Is it worth it to make an iPhone app for my business?

I've been thinking about it a lot recently, and I think that the answer is usually NO. Your business probably doesn't need an iPhone app.

This sometimes feels a bit awkward. I think many people want an excuse to make an iPhone app, because apps seem clever or high-tech. Lets look at some of the difficulties in creating an app.


You might have a clear vision of what your app would look like, but you also need a clear idea of what your app should do. If you can't explain exactly how the app functions, you probably shouldn't try making one.

All sorts of concepts may or may not work as an app. One way for them to find out is to write a detailed story about what the app would do from a user's perspective.

A sword fighter might write about his app idea:
As the user, I would tap the iFence app and first see a menu titled "I want to..." followed by a list of choices: 
defend myself from bullies, 
impress women, 
attack ships and steal gold, 
extinguish multiple candles impractically but dramatically, 
have a good costume for halloween 
When I tap a choice, a screen will appear which explains whether a sword fighter could help with the situation. In some cases the app will tell me "No, we can't help you with that, that's a bad idea. Please don't try." In other cases, the app will respond "Oh yeah, we can teach you to do that" and then explain how, and provide a way to contact a sword fighter.
After writing down the concept from the user's perspective it's possible to ask questions like "Would it be easy for the user to do this without an app?", or "How likely is it that somebody would look in the app store for a solution to the problem this app solves?"

If you can't do that, or if you can't explain how your app would be different from those apps already in the store, you may not be ready to get an iPhone app developed.


Developing an iPhone app is expensive. Unless you regularly exercise in a swimming pool full of cash, you might find the market rate for contract iOS app development a tad high. I don't have a statistically significant data set, but the rates I've heard are often numbers like $120, $136, $150, or $175 per hour. These are rates for one or two developers working from home or a small office.

If you contract with a team that has an office filling an entire floor of a high-rise and buys lots of ads online and in magazines, expect to pay more. You can find some data about how much it costs to develop an iPhone app here.

More complex iPhone apps typically involve a team of experienced designers and developers working a significant number of hours. Experienced mobile developers are not cheap, and they are often not easy to find or hire. I've personally interviewed several alleged iPhone developers who seemed unfamiliar with basic development practices. Buyer beware.

Also consider design. Although sometimes a developer is a decent designer, it isn't uncommon to have a dedicated designer working on the graphic elements and overall look of an app. Just because your website has graphics doesn't mean they will be suitable for the iPhone; graphics for the iPhone have specific technical requirements and different expected appearances. Mobile designers cost money too.

There are cheaper mobile developers on the low end of the market, but be sure to talk to their clients and see what kind of apps they have in the store. I have heard in one case of a "cheap" shop who failed to deliver a useful product after six months of development and many thousands of dollars of client money spent. The client had to switch developers to get the job done; who knows if they will ever recover money from the developer who failed.*


Expense isn't the only reason an iPhone app might not make business sense. If you have limited resources, you may wish to focus your efforts on a product that will work on PCs, Android devices, ChromeBooks,  MacBooks, and so on -- probably a web app. The market for iPhone apps is large, but web apps have an even larger audience.

Are you really sure that your customers will want to use your service on the go? Will they benefit from the extra features possible in a mobile app? If you already have a web version of your software, what do your analytics tell you about mobile browser usage? Are many of your customers trying to use your app from an iPhone? Are they spending much time on it?

If you already have a customer base and they don't seem to need an iPhone app, be sure that you couldn't better spend your time working on a different project.


iPhone apps have support costs.You may not like getting one star reviews on the app store, or emails from unhappy customers, but it will happen if your app is popular enough. 

iPhone apps will require updates. You will almost certainly change your feature set, and Apple will change their devices. The risk of Apple breaking your app is low, but the risk of you adding a feature or needing an app update is high.

The chances that your users will find a bug in the app is high also. Even fancy, completely competent software developers create apps with flaws. It happens to everybody -- even Apple releases software updates to fix bugs.

Expect to spend some time and money keeping your app up to date. Version one is unlikely to be your last version -- unless your app is a flop.

Market Research

iPhone app market demand is opaque. You might make an app that there is very little demand for. Unfortunately, I know no way of seeing what customers are searching for in the app store. BatTracker Pro might be awesome, but unless someone is searching for bat tracking software, or your app gets featured, you won't make much money.

Online at least, you can research what folks are searching for on google, and you can try Adwords placements without actually having invested much. With the App store, there is some expectation of a nice-looking, well featured app even for version one. An ugly "coming soon" app will almost certainly be rejected by Apple, and will get low scores in the App store.

I have not seen evidence backing this up, but iOS developers seem to believe that releasing a low-rated app initially will hurt your success even after the app has been cleaned up and polished to look and perform like a porsche. I'm not sure if it's true, but it certainly discourages me from releasing an unattractive product for the purpose of market research.

Rejection Risk

Your app might get rejected or banned. Check out the review review guidelines (someone re-published the review guidelines here, but they may not be up to date) Although the app store rules are far more clear than they were in the beginning, there is always a chance that your app might get rejected from the store. You might even be lucky enough to add to the list of banned categories (e.g. fart apps).

Unless your app is cutting-edge from the rules perspective, this is unlikely to keep you out of the app store. Still, it's worth considering the possibility of rejection. Finding apps with similar features to your own is at least some evidence that Apple is likely to accept yours.


I've given you a few reasons why developing an iPhone app might not be as romantic as it initially seems. It mostly boils down to time and money. Or you might call it opportunity cost and expense. Could you spend your limited resources on a project with a higher rate of return?

iPhone apps are no guarantee of financial success; I've had a hand in at least two apps that only bring in tens of dollars per month in revenue. I suspect that better marketing and market research would have helped.

To make money in the App store, good execution and good marketing are a requirement. Just being there won't cut it. In many cases, a "boring" old web app works just as well, if not better, than an iPhone app at generating revenue. This is especially true if you research the demand in advanced of building a product.

Despite these warnings, there are many good reasons you should consider making an iPhone app. As an iPhone, iPad, and Android developer, I'm passionate about mobile apps. I make a living by developing iPhone apps for myself and my clients. There are opportunities to be had in the app stores, but they do require up-front market research and planning to make them a hit. 

*Note that I'm not saying problems can't happen at an expensive contract house. I've head whisperings of work on fixed-price jobs slowly trickled out to too many clients. Think about those construction projects on highways that never seem to have anybody working on them. Software is difficult, and software planning and management is even more difficult. Track records matter.

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