Will Mobile Apps Live Up to the Hype? A View from the iPhone Trenches

5/7/09

I could not be more bullish about smartphones as a platform. The center of gravity in computing is shifting, and the mobile device in your pocket will play a greater and greater role in your life in ways that the non-dreamers among us never thought possible. As the capabilities of these devices increase, there are tremendous implications, not only for what one can do on the device, but also for the systems that can be built around the device—both for consumer and enterprise applications.

Questions from skeptics about how big the market for smartphone applications can be are not what keep me up at night. This skepticism may have some validity for the novelty apps that are so prevalent in Apple’s App Store today, but not for the robust mobile software and integrated systems that we will see emerging on and around smartphones in the coming months and years. There is no question this is only the beginning of what will be a seismic shift in computing and information systems.

What does keep me up at night are the short-term hurdles of being an early application developer on one these emerging platforms. It should be noted that my experience to date—building the RunKeeper fitness tracking application—has been on the iPhone only, so that is the only platform I can speak to with first-hand experience. You hear everyone talking about how the App Store has changed the game so dramatically, and the good news is that everyone is right! There is no doubt that without the App Store, my company wouldn’t be here today. We would have been mired in some multi-year slog to try to get our application onto the carrier decks, and would have run out of money long before our apps ever saw the light of day. Instead, we went from concept to a first release that was revenue-generating in 35 countries in 6 weeks (literally), and with zero outside capital. That never could have happened before the App Store came along.

But it isn’t all smooth sailing. For all of the areas where the App Store is ahead of its time, there are other areas where it is still in need of substantial improvement.

  • Transparency. Apple, if you reject our app, please tell us why! And even more importantly, tell us what we need to do to fix it, so we don’t have to read your mind.
  • Consistency. If you reject our app, reject it for both our free and premium versions. But don’t reject it for one version and approve it for the other, because then we are really confused.
  • Thoroughness. If you reject our app, test the whole thing and tell us every reason why you plan to reject it. If you tell us one reason, and then we fix it only to find there were three other reasons why you planned on rejecting it all along, we’d prefer to know all of those in one shot instead of one at a time (with a 1-2 week approval process in between each rejection).
  • Accessibility. If you reject our app for a reason we don’t agree with, give us some sort of appeals process or a way to state our case. Or at least give us people with relevant knowledge to speak with who can help us determine the best way to proceed.
  • Flexibility. If we make a mistake and push a build that we shouldn’t have, let us revert back to the most recent version instead of pulling the app from the store altogether. This all-or-nothing system creates undue stress, both on developers and on users, especially as more robust apps get built with more mission-critical functions.

While these are serious issues, I don’t want to seem overly negative. The opportunities that the App Store has created for entrepreneurs far outweigh the hurdles and frustrations. I just see such huge potential—both with Apple’s App Store, and with smartphones in general—that I am impatient for these wrinkles to be ironed out so this potential can be realized.

I believe the companies that survive these early phases will be the ones best positioned to thrive as these issues get resolved and the smartphone revolution takes hold. The key is to maintain your seat at the table, focus on your business, and make sure you don’t run out of cash along the way.

Jason Jacobs is the founder and CEO of FitnessKeeper, the creator of the RunKeeper Free and RunKeeper Pro iPhone applications. Follow @

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  • http://www.sorth.com Stephen Orth

    Amen brother. Your post captures my thoughts to the T. As an independent iPhone app developer, I too have become increasingly frustrated with the hypocrisy that is the App Store approval process. Case in point: I recently submitted a “Lite” version of my time-tracking and billing application, Timewerks, along with a new update to the paid version. The paid version was approved in a matter of days, but the Lite version was rejected due to an icon that Apple claimed was too similar to one of their system icons. However, that same icon has been shipping in the paid version since September and has gone through many feature updates/approvals. I’m still waiting for the Lite version to be approved after changing the icon…. the process must change.

  • dude

    WAHHHH WAAAHHHHH WAAHHHH!

  • Noel

    Can you please explain any strategy or tips you might have to make sure you’re app gets approved? Thanks!

  • dave

    while I agree with every point you have made, the dude has a point. you can cry until you are blue in the face, as others before you have done, and nothing will change.

    for there to be change, Apple has to _admit_ that there is a problem. and once they admit to something, they are responsible for solving the problem. right now they continue to remain silent, almost as if to remain unaccountable, but I hope that changes by the time the WWDC rolls around.

  • http://www.runkeeper.com Jason Jacobs

    Dave,
    Thanks for your comment. I think a distinction needs to be made between crying and speaking openly about issues that people may or may not know exist.

    We’re certainly not waiting around for everything to be perfect in app developer-land, we are hard at work building the business. The point is that there are still issues, and that people need to be aware of these issues when evaluating the mobile applications landscape.

    Even with these issues, the opportunity is already tremendous. So you can only imagine what will happen when these issues are forced out of the system as the smartphone market matures and by increasing competitive pressures.

    Apple may have a huge lead right now, but if they get complacent, there is no doubt that someone else will eventually fill the void. One way or another, the smartphone market is poised for massive growth, and the mobile apps that are enabled by these smartphones are in for a fun ride!

    Jason

  • Bob

    I’m starting to work on other platforms? Why? Apple dings my app for bogus reasons. So I fix it and then wait a week for a response. This has happened four times and each reason is more bogus than the first. What do I do with the time in between? Work on the Blackberry and Android versions.

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