Freedom and motivation

For the past three or so years I have spent much of my "spare time" designing and developing iOS apps. Yes, I've still worked on other web-related things, but the apps have received most of my attention.

During that time I've released three apps, a small handful of updates to each (although probably fewer than I would have liked), and have a fourth app partially developed. All up, the several hundred hours spent on those three released apps have netted me about $1,200.

That's not the problem. I didn't start developing apps with the goal of making money. You can read all the get-rich-quick articles you like, but the reality of app development is not that. I've got a full-time job as a web developer. That's where I make my money. That is what pays my bills. That is what buys my food.

Most of all I was using the apps as a learning platform to extend my knowledge beyond the world of general web development. And while that alone has been enough for a long time, it's not anymore. If I'm going to work on things outside of work hours I have to be enjoying it. That enjoyment isn't (currently) there.

So it is now close to five months since I last opened Xcode. That is the problem.

From today my existing iOS apps are free, and will likely remain that way at least until I next update them - something that I hope to do just as soon as I rediscover the drive and motivation to do so. It could be next month, it could be November. I don't know.

Criclive Watched NextGame

I've also removed the old Criclive 1.5 from the store, something I'd originally planned to do months ago, just never got around to it. Despite the large warning messages stating that it was discontinued, never going to receive any updates, and that there was a new, better version that they should be buying instead... yet, people were still buying it.

I didn't see any parallel sales of Criclive 2 so I doubt they were clicking on the in-app messages either. Perhaps an example of iOS users taking the path of least money (Criclive 1.5 was 99c, Criclive 2 was $1.99).

So why make the apps free?

The minimal returns don't justify the time and effort put into each app. I'm not ungrateful of the sales I've made, but the hours poured into each app are not offset by the 70c I get for the occasional sale.

Honestly, I'd rather see 500 people using my app and be making nothing, as opposed to have 50 using it and to have only made $35.

I don't need the couple of bucks it makes me each week, sales don't even cover the cost of my morning orange juice (I'm not a coffee drinker). I make more from the interest on my savings account - and interest rates on savings accounts suck.

Would proper advertising have brought more sales? Probably. Would those extra sales have offset the cost of advertising the apps in order to make those sales? Unlikely. There are just too many competing, cheaper (or free), products to think that mine were ever going to challenge. And I knew that going in.

Sure, that's a negative way to look at it. I'm feeling negative.

The average iOS user tends to be cheap, they'll pick the free alternative over the paid one, even if the free one looks like it was designed by blind man with no hands. Just look at a reasonably large percentage of the 'top charts' in the app store.

Of course that's an unfair generalisation, not all paid apps look better, some are far worse than their free ripoffs. Likewise some of the best apps are free, paid doesn't always mean better.

I know I'm guilty of avoiding paid apps because they're paid, you probably are too, but it is a decision usually driven by the lack of actual information they provide about the app, or a lack of proper screenshots, or poor design, or an ugly icon, or bad reviews rather than the actual price itself.

My apps are not unique, and I knew this when I started, there are literally dozens of competing apps that quite literally do the exact same thing, or more, or better. 99% of these apps are free, in the case of Criclive and NextGame most of these competing - free - apps are provided by either the sporting organisations themselves or by TV networks such as Fox or ESPN. In other words, they have actual marketing budgets to promote their apps, or more to the point they have budgets in general, or they can provide free apps without concern because they make their money elsewhere.

...they can provide free apps without concern because they make their money elsewhere...

For example, although NextGame doesn't currently cover these sports, the NBA and MLB can offer a free app for the basic things like scores and news headlines, because they then charge additional subscription fees for access to their streaming services. In Australia the NRL, AFL and Cricket Australia all do the same thing.

So, why pay a couple of bucks for the little app from a guy working away in his apartment late at night when you can get the official app directly from the relevant league for free. If I wasn't a developer building a 'competing' app I know which one I'd be downloading...

Could I have splattered advertising throughout my app in search of an extra buck, of course I could have. Did I ever consider it? No. Intrusive advertising also stops me buying/downloading apps. On the limited screen real-estate of a phone, any level of advertising is intrusive. You can keep telling yourself that the 80 pixels of gaudy flashing banner at the bottom of your app isn't annoying, but it is.

I built Criclive because I knew my first app should be something that I wanted to use. There are a ton of other apps that provide live cricket scores, most of them look like the punch line to an article titled "visually inept developer discovers bevel effect in Photoshop, you won't believe what happens next".

..."visually inept developer discovers bevel effect in Photoshop, you won't believe what happens next"...

All I wanted was live scores, and the desire to not feel like throwing up every time I checked them. So I built Criclive and, at least relative to my other apps, it has been reasonably successful.

Across two versions I've sold around 1,200 copies. I originally released it at $1.99 and sales were slow next to the free competitors. Sales picked up a bit once I dropped the price to 99c.

With the release of the new universal version - with full iPad compatibility - late last year, I put the price back up to $1.99. Because, seriously two bucks for an app that looks great on both iPhone and iPad is a steal.

Sales have been ok, they still haven't matched the first version, and they only come in drips and drops depending on what cricket is on around the world. Despite that, one or two sales every couple of days was enough for it to land, and stay, in the top 100 paid sports apps (in Australia) for several weeks after it's release.

One sale, yes just one, in India landed it in 9th spot on the top paid sports apps in India - I haven't sold a copy in India for three months, and it's still somehow ranked in the top 600 sports apps.

The market for sports apps appears to be a narrow one, confined largely to the free 'official' apps. You'd think selling a cricket app to Indians should be like shooting fish in a barrel, apparently not.

When I started work on Watched in early 2012, I'd already spent well over a month simply searching the web and the App Store looking for something similar, I found a couple that kind of did what I was looking for, but they weren't quite right. They either did too much, or not enough, or just looked like shit. I'll say it again, your app might be great but if the app - or its icon - look like crap then I'll pass, quickly.

Anyway I was about 6 months in, and the app was maybe 80% feature complete, when I started to notice other apps almost identical to what I was building. How I hadn't found them 6 months earlier I'm not entirely sure, they definitely existed, but I hadn't found them. That hurt motivation a lot, after a break of about a month I pressed on. I was still determined to finish and release the app.

Not necessarily because I wanted everyone to use it, but because I wanted the challenge and I wanted to use it. I still use it, every day.

I wanted, or perhaps needed, that challenge of building something I didn't know how to build. Watched was my biggest side-project since Hahlo half a dozen years earlier, it was a project that covered all bases. I was designing the app. Developing the app, and the API behind it. I wasn't using some pre-baked framework, it was all mine. I designed the database schema, and wrote the countless SQL queries that powered it. I designed the icons, I wrote the functions to access the various APIs that I sourced data from. I built the website to promote. And so on. It was all me. I was proud of that.

While I am still proud of that. I'm just not, right at this point in time, as motivated as I was two years ago.

The first version of Criclive took about 3 months to build, not bad for a first serious attempt at building an iOS app from scratch. Watched took almost a year to get the first version completed, and another 9 or so for the first major update (which was a near complete rewrite).

By contrast I sped through the development of NextGame in about two and half weeks, submitted it to the App Store (expecting it to get rejected, as you do), and a couple of hours later it was approved and on sale.

Since the release I've sold 33 copies of NextGame, for the grand earnings of $22.17. Or about $1.20 for every day that I spent working on it...

I knew the chances of NextGame making anything were slim due to my own poor timing and other competing products, but even still the lack of sales still hurt the confidence and motivation to continue pursuing it. Anyone who says that their app not selling well doesn't hurt them is lying.

I'm still working around the mental burnout which was partly capped off by the rushed development process of NextGame. I'll write more about that at another time, once I can find the right words. As it is, it has taken me a month just to piece this post together, which is also why it is a little all over the place.

So, I'll go from making a little from my iOS apps to making nothing. Perhaps this nothing brings in more users, and the arrival of more users may trigger the return of the interest, drive and motivation that I had when I built them. Maybe then I'll get back to improving these existing apps and developing new ones. I'm not done with the world of app development, not yet.

Until then, the apps are free.