App Power: An Experiment

It’s time to conduct a little real-world experiment.

We’ve all (maybe?) heard the stories: brilliant young developer writes an iPhone app, puts it up for sale on the App Store, becomes a millionaire overnight. Now I’m not delusional enough to think that that could happen to me — I’m not brilliant enough, nor do I have the time/money to dedicate to marketing (the part they probably left out) — but the prospects are certainly alluring, and I think it’s time to put it to the test.

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up development on my first iPhone app, Signals (iTunes link). Signals is a reference for rail signals (the colored lights they have overhead/next to train tracks): you tap the little pictures of colored lights on the screen to change their color, optionally making them blink using the buttons on the bottom row, and Signals tells you what that configuration of lights means (tap on the name or the “Info” button in the bottom right corner to pull up the full description). It’s currently available for free in the App Store, and looks a little something like this.

So why on earth did I write an app for looking up train signals? Well, basically, because I felt like it. :P Every once in awhile, I get hit with an inexplicable desire to learn more about a certain subject. Last month, I wanted to understand how train signals worked, so I started learning, and eventually decided to compile my research into an app in order to get my feet wet with the whole App Store process.

The app hasn’t had many downloads (from what I can tell: iTunes Connect reports are somewhat difficult to follow), and that makes sense: not only is the app incredibly special-purpose, but until now, I didn’t tell anyone I released it, with the exception of a few close friends. If anyone thought that publishing an app on the App Store was a magic ticket to success, that simply isn’t the case.

However, the fact that the app has been downloaded — about 15 downloads per week since release — does indicate that simply being on the App Store generates a little magic mojo. The App Store is a powerful tool, and it strikes me that it’s much easier to leverage than other sales arenas.

Update 1/13/10: I just checked some App Sales figures using AppViz (decent app, not terrific UI-wise, but does the job), and Signals has been downloaded 207 times as of 11 January. More than I suspected, curiously enough. :)

Thus, I have compiled a hypothesis. I believe that, if you can create an iPhone app that is…

  • Of more-than-marginal utility to a decent sector of the population (ie, not niche)
  • Priced right at that “gee, this app is cool, and $___ is nothing! I’ll buy it!” price point
  • Sexy

… the App Store puts your software in the hands of enough users that the marketing effort you have to expend is next to nil.

And like any good hypothesis, it needs to be testable.

The Test Case

I have an idea for an app that I think is both relatively cool, and relatively useful to a decent number of people (no, I’m not telling just yet :P). I’m going to price it around $1.99, and I’m going to market it exclusively by posting it on my website, my blog, and shooting out a few tweets: the rest is up to the App Store and its user base.

The goal: I have a very dear friend who’s studying abroad in Granada this semester, and I’d love to go visit her. Unfortunately, not only is international airfare outrageously expensive (seriously, BOS-LAX is about 2,700 miles, BOS-LHR is about 3,200 miles, it shouldn’t cost $400 more), but I also have a handful of extra courses to pay for which have left me in a bit of debt. Therefore, my goal is to earn $10,000 over the course of the next two months exclusively through the sale of my application on the App Store.

If you do the math, not accounting for taxes but accounting for Apple’s 30% cut, that works out to close to 7,200 sales, which, judging by many of the reports I’ve seen from other developers, isn’t entirely too ambitious a target. Can I make the magic of the App Store work for me? I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out.

Look for my new app (name and purpose to be announced in the near future) coming within the next few weeks. :)

Oh, and as a side note to fans of software under the {13bold} label, namely Bluebird and Bowtie, never fear! These two little apps have seen more development action in the past two weeks alone than they have in almost all of last year, and new versions of the apps will be available in a very big way within the next couple of months. :)


  1. Joe

    Joe said…

    Neat experiment, looking forward to hearing more about it. As for the Bluebird/Bowtie stuff, take your time. If people get impatient over freeware, screw them for being inappreciative.

    10 Jan 2010 at 9:12pm
  2. kiwidesign

    kiwidesign said…

    not to be trivial but… nice to hear about {13bold} stuff :)

    also interesting approach to the App Store mechanics, I’ll keep an eye on the blog ;)

    10 Jan 2010 at 9:22pm
  3. Matt @ DVQ

    Matt @ DVQ said…

    I hope this works for you Matt.

    Really glad, to hear about Bowtie.

    10 Jan 2010 at 9:53pm
  4. Short Thoughts: App Power: The Submission said…

    [...] App Power: The Submission Note: this article is part of a series of articles on my real-world App Store experiment. The first one was App Power: An Experiment. [...]

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  6. Short Thoughts: App Power: The First Week said…

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