Shooting to Software Stardom on the iPhone

MITCHELL WAITE could think of only one reason that Apple’s legal department would leave a voice message last February asking him to call back: he was about to be sued. Mr. Waite has a tiny software company bearing his name — it has no full-time employees — whose principal product is a field guide to birds called iBird Explorer, which runs on the iPhone and the iPod Touch.

He called back and discovered that his life was about to change no less than if the lottery authority had told him he’d won the big prize: Apple had decided to feature iBird in a television commercial.

IBird was one of three applications that appeared in the spot, and while it got only about seven seconds, that was all it needed to become the No. 1 “reference” app in the iPhone App Store, a software star among the 35,000-plus applications now crowding the store’s shelf. The iBird Explorer is offered in different versions, priced from $4.99 to $29.99.

“I look at it like Apple paid me $10 million to show my application on every single major network, every major television show — no, I can’t even put a figure on it,” Mr. Waite said.

It’s a delightful story, not only because it does not involve a lawsuit, but also because it does not involve promotion fees. Apple does not accept money from companies whose products are placed in its commercials or in the other prime real estate, the “Featured” section of the App Store.

This has earned Apple applause from software developers and backers. “Apple doesn’t want the money. It’s a level playing field,” said Matt Murphy, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. If Apple likes the app, he added, “it doesn’t matter if you’re a one-person or a 10,000-person company; they’ll put it in ‘New’ or ‘What’s Hot.’ ”

A developer easily gains entrance to that level playing field, by paying a nominal $99-a-year fee for the iPhone Developer Program. A completed app must secure Apple’s approval before it is put on sale in the App Store. It’s often a slow process and has drawn the ire of many developers. But the worst that Apple has been accused of is maddening opacity, not discrimination.

Apple takes a 30 percent cut of App Store sales, a paltry slice compared with that exacted by other online stores in the past. Those that distributed software for the Palm Pilot, for example, took 50 to 70 percent of sales as their cut, according to Jeff Scott, founder of, a Web site offering in-depth reviews of iPhone apps.

Apple also makes buying and downloading a snap; the app is dispatched wirelessly from the store to the iPhone and is ready to run in a few seconds.

The App Store’s very appeal, bringing in so many developers, has intensified a perennially vexing problem: How can a new software title come to the attention of prospective customers?

“For 99 bucks a year, Apple gives you the ability to sell software to millions,” Mr. Scott said. “They solved the distribution problem, but they did not solve the marketing problem for developers.”

Mr. Scott’s site,, offers a partial solution, but it reviews only hundreds of apps, not tens of thousands.

Apple can feature only a few apps, of course; “featuring” all would mean featuring none. The unfeatured are stuck in crowded quarters, placed into one of 20 categories. Only five apps can be displayed on the phone’s small screen at a time; unless an app clambers up the equivalent of a best-seller list to appear among the five visible on the first screen, the casual browser will probably not see it. As the number of apps grows, it becomes ever harder to break into even the top 100 in a category.

Neil Young, C.E.O. of Ngmoco, a publisher of iPhone games, said his company watched closely what happened to the 5,000 titles added after the App Store passed the 25,000-title milestone.

“Only 40 of 5,000 made it into the top 100,” Mr. Young said. “It’s very difficult for an app to rise above the noise.”

He credited recommendations among gaming enthusiasts, from one friend to the next, as important to the success of his company’s titles.

In April, Apple celebrated the one billionth download from the App Store in only nine months. For all of its success with the store, however, Apple remains most interested in using third-party software to sell its hardware. Mr. Waite said an Apple liaison told him, “We pick apps not for how well they’re selling — we pick apps that will sell more iPhones and iPod Touches because they show off the best features or are something you can’t getelsewhere.”

Fitting that bill is Mr. Waite’s iBird application, which turns the iPhone into an always-in-hand field guide replete with bird calls that a printed field guide cannot provide.

Tens of thousands of iPhone App developers will never get that life-changing call from Apple and will never get within sight of a top-five list.

“In many ways, developing a program is like writing a book,” said Jeffrey Tarter, the founding editor of a developers’ newsletter, Softletter. “You say, ‘I’m going to make something first of all that I like. Then I’ll worry about how to make money.’ ”

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail:
via NY Times

No comments: