Here are some of the mobile apps I’ve developed over the years. All of these are deserving of a refresh and are mostly here for historic purposes. So, I suppose I can only put off upgrading these to the
iPhone 4 iPhone 5 iPhone 6 iPhone 7 iPhone8 iPhone X for just so long.
History: Before there was an App Store on the iPhone, there were web apps. These web pages were custom made for the Safari browser on the iPhone. Developers would usually submit their web app’s URL for inclusion in the Apple directory. My first web app was Elegant Words, and it was chosen as an Apple Staff Pick!
When it become an option, I migrated Elegant Words to the App Store and I enjoyed being on there during first week of the App store grand opening. Since those were the days of several possible App Stores, and very little published metric information, I was on a mission to understand this new landscape. I published apps for the iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Palm, and Nokia, gaining insight into how the same app would perform across the different markets, while also experimenting with cross-platform development techniques.
Most of the apps I developed are shown here, except for a few games and apps I sometimes worked on under consulting contracts.
App Store Dynamics: A lot of my early app development was geared around performing experiments to understand this new space. I experimented with subcontracting the development (expensive with quality challenges) and outside designers (great, but expensive). I experimented with how an app on the iPhone would compare to the same app on Android, Nokia, Microsoft Phone, and Blackberry (more downloads on the Android, but 10% of iPhone sales – distribution channel is everything). And I experimented with creating some low-key branding.
At the end of the day, the success of the iPhone led to a flood of developers that rapidly changed the dynamics of success. The business models that were feasible in the early days of the App Store, didn’t work one year later. I’ll always cherish those early days in the iPhone ecosystem, it gave me my first real experience in marketing to consumers and exploring a truly new marketplace. In the beginning, it was mostly about showing up. In the end, it was about distribution & marketing.
Technology: I made three significant pushes to streamline the app development process. I wanted to spend more time designing and refining the app, and less time futzing with the dull app bookkeeping. And early iPhone development with super dull. Hey – pointers! – I didn’t miss you.
Generic Framework: I experimented with making my own framework for making a generic app. It handled things like help screens, image resizing, and common utilities. Importantly, it made the basics easy. Remember, in the early days there was literally no public sharing of tricks and zero public libraries. At the end of the day, making a good framework is difficult, and it takes a lot of work do it well. It is hard to for an independent developer to justify the effort, and once the Apple gag order was lifted, much of the motivation went away.
Much of my work culminated in what I thought was a cool conference talk I gave at the annual BlackBerry conference on cross-platform solutions.
Fun Fact: I posted my conference slides to SlideShare.com and at one brief point it was the their most shared presentation that day, which I thought was super cool.
Insight on Effort vs. Reward: My most profitable apps had zero correlation to the amount of work needed to develop them. Nightlight was my biggest seller, even though it was easy to make and had only moderate utility. The most valuable app (in terms of utility vs. development effort) was Cash or Click (not shown). By scanning a barcode, it instantly let you compare the price of an item in your hand against Amazon’s price, and either let you put the item into your physical shopping cart (Cash), or one-click order it via Amazon (Click). I loved this app and used it all the time. It was easy to develop and very useful, but in a world where discoverability had become paramount, Cash or Click’s utility wasn’t enough to make it a success. Marketability and discoverability had become as important as utility.
On Piracy: Elegant Words was in the App Store on day 4. Even back then, I had about an equal number of real purchases vs. pirated downloads.
Fun Fact: Wallet Zero was my most downloaded app, making it to the Top 50 in the Lifestyle category.
Biggest Passed-Up Opportunity: Wallet Zero was a great app that is still in use today, but it could have been turned into a stand-alone business. Card Star, it’s closest competitor, eventually turned itself into a (seemingly) successful venture and was eventually purchased by Constant Contact. Even at the time, the Wallet Zero team (there were two of us) clearly saw the bigger business opportunity but we weren’t prepared for the personal commitments of going down such a route. No regrets, but it is fun to think about how things could have been different. To this day, I’m surprised at how long that window of opportunity stayed open. Winn Dixie sent us a Cease and Desist over Wallet Zero, which was flattering, frustrating, and a little scary.
Biggest Regret: A few of these apps, such as Wallet Zero, Nightlight, PowerNap, and Cash or Click, would probably be successful today if I had merely maintained them and put in modest upgrades. I’m fairly confident that Wallet Zero could have had a good life as a modest side-project. I think there are a few lessons here:
- Just because one your ideas is worthy of turning into a big business, doesn’t mean it has to be big-or-nothing. Side-projects are fun, noble, and potentially more profitable than those other businesses.
- Just because your little project can’t be turned into a venture backed start-up, doesn’t mean it can’t be an enjoyable, and profitable, side project.
- Slow and steady wins the race. It is all about sustainability. It has to be fun, or else you’ll give up. It has to be non-stressful, or else you’ll avoid it. And it has to fit into a balanced life. No idea, company, or side project, is worth the erosion friends and family that must accompany yucky projects or endless sprints.
The (partial) Roster
Wallet Zero: zero clutter, zero worries, convenient savings. Take all of those barcoded keychain cards and wallet card, and make them disappear into your phone.
PowerNap: Forty Winks Anywhere. Take a short nap without fear of oversleeping. The power is in its simplicity.
Nightlight: Gracefully lighting the night. A simple but effective nightlight that automatically shuts down when its time to sleep. Perfect for when visiting a strange hotel and need a little light before getting into bed. It is elegant.