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App Store 5th anniversary: Veteran developers talk about the App Store then and now


As I was browsing through the lists of apps that TUAW team members bought in the opening days of the App Store, I was amazed at how many of these first-generation apps are still under active development. Yes, some apps have been shuttered, and some developers have departed the App Store, but a surprising number of indie devs are still going strong five years later.

We reached out to a few of these veteran coders and asked them how the App Store has changed in the past five years.

John Haney from Apps from Outer Space, Flashlight. app

I rode the initial wave of excitement when just putting an app on the App Store was enough for everyone to see it. When the App Store launched, making apps was a hobby for me. In the five years since, mobile app development has become my career and I am an independent developer and contractor. Apple providing the App Store has literally changed the course my life and I'm ecstatic to celebrate this milestone.

Glenda Adams from Maverick Software, More Cowbell! app

I remember when the App Store first launched, there was so much uncertainty and excitement. How many apps would people buy, what could you charge for an app, how would it all work? At first you couldn't get daily download counts from Apple, so you had no idea until the end of the month how well your app did. But it was so much fun, a completely undeveloped country to explore. I was a Mac game programmer for years, but had moved into management and stopped programming. The iPhone and the App Store brought me back when I decided to write a couple [of] games for the store launch, in my spare time away from my day job.

More Cowbell started purely as a joke -- we were at a summer picnic at the company I worked at, Aspyr Media, and I was talking with my engineers, playing with our iPhones. The idea of a cowbell app came from somewhere, and it was so funny I went home and wrote it that afternoon. It was just so simple, and stupidly funny. Perfect for the App Store in those early days. I put it in the store on a lark, and was shocked how it went viral. It had 200,000 downloads the first month (all free, but I didn't care). Then it was mentioned in Wired, and on CNN, and for the crowning achievement, became a question on Jeopardy.

After the success of More Cowbell, I continued making apps, focusing on kids apps, and had my first money-making hit, More Toast. The App Store was still pretty wide open, and not overrun with knock-offs and bad apps just out to make a buck. I could come up with a cute or fun idea, write it in a few weeks and let it loose in the wild to see how people liked it. This eventually led to our biggest hit, Cupcakes!, a toy baking/decorating app that really started the whole kids food apps trend. It peaked at the #2 app in the world one weekend, and after I ended up making more money from doing apps at home than my day job, I left to just design & write apps on my own.

The last couple years have seen a radical change in the store. There are just so many apps, and so many knock-offs of every app you can imagine. It's virtually impossible to get traction, unless you just luck out (or get featured by Apple). And the shift to freemium and aggressive monetization has really hurt small developers. Unless you are just ruthless in badgering the customer to buy stuff, charging for consumable coins/points/berries, it's difficult to stay ahead of the game. But we keep at it, coming up with new ideas and trying new types of games.

James Addyman from JamSoft, Hangman. app

Back in 2008 when the App Store was still young, it was so much easier to be noticed on the app store, owing to the relatively small amount of apps. Hangman quickly became a popular app, reaching #1 in the UK top free apps for a brief moment. It has since then tapered off, but continues to be a favourite with families and children.

Now in 2013 it is a much different story. The App Store is extremely crowded and there are so many fantastic apps that it is difficult to get noticed. My new app, Whose Tweet is it Anyway, is getting no-where near the same kind of attention as Hangman did. In this climate great user experience and design accounts for so much, on top of the social and conventional advertising required for an app to make it big. The users really care about their favourite apps and it shows.

Personally, I think the App Store is one of the best things to happen to the tech world in the last 5 years. It has given me and many other developers jobs doing the things we love most.

Indy Khare from Bump Technologies, co-founder and developer of Scribble

I've since been working as a mobile lead at Bump Technologies so I've had a chance to be in the thick of things the whole time.

Over time, the App Store has loosened a lot of restrictions that would have made our lives a lot easier 5 years ago when we were building zintin and Scribble. Particularly in terms of background modes, APIs allowed and proper age restrictions. With the maturation of the App Store also came the crowds. Building some of the apps we did early on and getting the same type of traction so quickly is a lot harder now. There are definitely advantages to being early and a lot of fun to be had learning about something completely new.

I also wrote a blog post not too long ago looking back at the industry in general over the last five years.

Ted Slupesky from Plasq, Comic Touch

The first day of the App Store was an exciting day and felt like the beginning of a new era. Over the years we've seen that side of our business grow into a very important component of what we do. Dealing with the App Store from the development side isn't always pleasant, especially the random-seeming review process, but it clearly works great for our iPhone and iPad customers.

Matthew Crandall from Appy, Inc, Liars Poker

"The App Store has gone from being a mystery of rejections and app experiments to a highly desirable, curated marketplace. With a constant, rapid increase in users and developer payout, the App Store has has been settled by companies like Microsoft, Google, and Adobe but has remained a place where small companies and individuals can compete with Goliaths. It continues to be a place of innovation and new product types. It is how we make our dent in the universe. I look forward to the next five years.

Jon Zweig from AdColony, developer of Break app by Jirbo

I'm not sure if you know about AdColony, but we actually started off as "Jirbo" and were part of the very first launch companies for the App Store, back in July 2008. We had 15 apps of the first 500 apps every launched on the App Store, 14 of which were various casual games, like Break, which you mentioned.

The App Store has changed immensely in the past 5 years, mainly with discoverability. Early on as a developer, it was a gold rush, the wild west if you will, as everyone with an iPhone was downloaded everything they could get their fingers on, given the limited number of apps available. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for those early developers like Jirbo who were fortunate enough to be part of the launch. I'll never forget shaking Steve Jobs hand just off stage at the launch of the App Store at Moscone West in San Francisco, and it glowing smile. Right after that I rushed back to start seeing how many people were downloading Jirbo apps and was astounded!

Five years later the landscape is much different. With almost 1 Million apps on the App Store, discoverability is the key question. In 2011 Jirbo pivoted to become AdColony in order to do 2 things : 1) Solve the discoverability problem by running short video clips of apps within other apps to give users the highest quality message about a particular app and 2) Bridge the gap between Television Dollars on Madison Avenue and Los Angeles to the App Ecosystem centered in Silicon Valley. Today, as a result of those early years on the app store starting in July 2008 we are well on our way to achieving that goal.

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