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iPhone software sustainability and the death of Mac software

by John Casasanta
January 18, 201035 comments

sustainability

It’s been a while since we’ve posted sales figures for Convert. When things are going great, people often want to tell the world… and when things are going in the other direction, they tend to clam-up. This isn’t the case at all with Convert. We’ve just been a bit preoccupied with our most recent release, Voices.

One significant thing to note regarding Convert’s sales is that after our initial peak (because of our big marketing push for its launch), it’s been doing fairly consistent numbers after it had its run and subsequently fell off the Top 100. And those numbers are still very strong. For the past three months, we’ve averaged a net of over $21,000 per month (the 5-month net total is now just over $188,000 on 228,283 sales). It’s worth pointing out that Convert is now $1.99, versus the 99¢ intro price. After playing around with pricing for a bit, we found $1.99 to be the sweet spot for this particular app.

Convert weekly sales

When you compare that to typical independent Mac software, it simply obliterates it. I developed a Mac app that was relatively popular a few years ago. During its prime, I considered a good month to be one where I’d come away with $4,000 or so. These numbers are completely in-line with many other popular Mac apps (we know a lot of Mac developers and most are open with us about their sales figures). This is for an app that I’d venture to guess was in the top 100 or so of paid Mac shareware, based on where it ranked in popularity on various download sites. Conversely, for Convert, it’s likely not even ranking overall in the top 1,000 in the App Store right now, yet it’s been taking in over 5× what the Mac app did.

Granted, the most popular Mac apps typically sell significantly more than this but if you look at the numbers for the most popular iPhone apps, they blow away pretty much every Mac app.

Also, realize that this is by no means unique to Convert. Since the App Store opened, we’ve created numerous apps and most of the numbers have been in-line with what I’m presenting here. I suspect that Voices will have an even higher sustained rate once it settles down since it has many more users who were acquired in a much shorter time span. Word of mouth goes a long way in the App Store.

Is Mac software dead?

Compared to iPhone software, from our point of view, it is. Granted, there’s the occasional Mac app that makes some big waves, but these are far and few between. AppZapper, which has consistently been one of the most popular apps for the Mac, is a great example of this. It had a ton of buzz when our friends Austin and Brian released version 2.0 recently. Some of you’ll be quick to point out a few other apps that launched right around the same time and got some buzz, but these were barely blips compared to AppZapper if you were paying attention to Mac news sites, blogs, Twitter, etc.

Again, it’s important to keep in mind that apps that do as well as AppZapper are rare exceptions on the Mac, whereas on the iPhone, we’ve been seeing blockbuster hits on a very regular basis. And many of these hits have been put out by very small, independent developers.

So it’s just about money?

Nah. There’s no doubt that monetary success is a motivating factor with a software business, but this goes way beyond that…

For one, developing for the iPhone is a dream compared to developing for the Mac. Yeah, it’s Cocoa development for both iPhone and Mac, but many of the Mac SDKs are old and crufty compared to the shiny, new iPhone one. This means much quicker development time and greater programmer satisfaction. Many, many programmers I know never want to go back to Mac for this reason and usually cringe when they have to.

Beyond the technical aspects of it, for me, iPhone apps are just a lot more enjoyable to create compared to typical Mac app. They’re generally smaller, more focused, and inherently more fun. While the current state of Mac software has basically devolved to coming up with the next great email client (yawn), the iPhone has proven to be where all the coolest apps are at.

Another major factor is the “rock star” one… When you create Mac apps, you have little chance of having your apps in TV ads, Apple retail store promotions, WWDC promotions, on TV networks like CNN and CNBC, etc, etc, etc.

Like, really dead?

Well, no… I’m just being a tad dramatic. There’ll still be a Mac market for years to come. It’s just not one that we plan to be developing for. After all, we still have MacHeist and we don’t see that dying off anytime soon.

But there’s little doubt that the App Store economies are affecting other markets like the Mac. Mac software sales are down for just about every developer we’ve been talking with and while the poor economy is partly to blame for this, I definitely feel that the App Store is another major factor for it.

Why?

Phill and I had an in-depth discussion about this recently…

The App Store has proven to be a super-efficient distribution system. In a nutshell, you can earn a lot of money even with 99¢ apps because you can reach so many people. Conversely, the Mac shareware market has always comparatively been very inefficient. Developers depend on services like VersionTracker, MacUpdate, i use this, and even Apple’s own Mac OS X Downloads site, etc for small publicity/sales spikes. But all of these sites (including Apple’s) get far less attention than the App Store.

In addition, payment systems are all over the place, versus the unified, simple, trusted one that the App Store uses. No matter what complaints some developers have about the App Store, and how “fundamentally broken” they think it is, it doesn’t take a wizard and/or genius to see that the distribution and sales of iPhone software dwarfs that of Mac software.

Because of the much smaller reach and resulting far lower number of Mac software sales compared to iPhone, developers have had to compensate by keeping prices at a much higher point. But this is also what’s kept the market down and now on a decline, unfortunately.

What if Apple did an App Store for Mac software?

I doubt they’d actually do it. Apple loves control and there’s no way that they can have total control over Mac software sales since the current distribution and sales methods are in place and well established. Besides, the market’s significantly smaller, so they’d be taking a little slice of the little pie.

What if someone else did an App Store for Mac software?

It’s been done and simply hasn’t taken off. All of the efforts have been by smaller, basically unknown players and for something on this scale, you really need some big guns to make it successful.

In the end, it’s your choice…

You’re obviously free to develop for whichever platform you want. Whether it’s Mac, iPhone, Windows, Android, rumored tablets, etc, you ultimately are the one to make that choice. Pick the one or ones that make you the happiest and go with it. All I know is that the one that makes me the happiest these days is the iPhone and we’re putting our efforts into that platform.



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35 comments

  1. Harlan
    5:59pm, January 18, 2010

    Popular Linux distributions have had “App Store”-like stores for Free and Open Source software that have thrived like crazy. Apple should take a hint from Linux.

  2. Jack Jansen
    6:05pm, January 18, 2010

    Very interesting!

    But what I’m wondering is: how big is the Mac-market for software bought “by people” (as opposed to “by companies”). Maybe the iPhone market is already that much bigger than the Mac market ever was?

    I’ve been hunting for figures, but I can’t seem to find any…

  3. Byron
    6:28pm, January 18, 2010

    @Harlan,

    could you please refer me to this Linux “App Store”? I’ve never heard of it before. Also, could you define “thrived”? Are you implying that software developers are making a living selling software on Linux?

  4. Grouik
    6:38pm, January 18, 2010

    I sell an app that connects to a web site to check and download an updated database when available. I use the devices UDID to uniquely identify users. What surprises me is that my stats differs from Apple’s ones by 60%! I only get around 40 paying users for every 100 new users logged by the web server. Apple argue that people often have multiple devices and can install my app on all of them. The amount of sales is not high enough and the app is online since a week, so I don’t think I’m victime of piracy (yet!) And more surprising, I’ve seen 4 people coming from the same (small) country in 2 days and none were never reported in AppStore stats…

    I would like to hear from people who have experienced the same results, or have ideas about this point.

    Thanks.

    –G.

  5. Jeremy
    6:41pm, January 18, 2010

    @Byron,

    @Harlan is speaking of Synaptic, the GUI for apt-get. It is like an “App Store” except it isn’t a store. There is no payment model built in. If the applications are free, then it works great, otherwise the company would have to sell access to their own apt-get repository which is clunky for end users because they then have to know how to add additional repositories.

    Just as a side note, Cydia (the Jail-broken App Store) uses apt-get as well.

  6. Tony Arnold
    6:59pm, January 18, 2010

    I sure hope you’re wrong. I love the Mac, and would hate to see all of the talent disappear to the iPhone.

    Good on you guys for having a nice slice of the pie – I’m definitely jealous of your sales figures.

  7. Sebastiaan van den Akker
    7:03pm, January 18, 2010

    Interesting article, enjoyable read. Makes me wonder though if it’s not time for Apple to Push the App Store on the Mac itself. Yeah, there are alot of established ways to get your app on the Mac, but they don’t work as well as the App Store. if there is one company who could pull this off, its Apple. Give away some free Apps, like Macheist to give a some promotion. I think customers are sick & tired of hunting down their apps via google, look at the success of the App Store. Linux users also use a central system, albeit not a store install their software on the machines, and uninstall. Apple though shouldn’t completely close it off like the App Store, but I think the Mac as platform could definitely use an App Store for further success.

  8. Sebastiaan van den Akker
    7:05pm, January 18, 2010

    @ Harlan, exactly my point, but I didn’t see your comment when i wrote mine.

    @ Byron, its not really app store, but there is central system, like add and remove applications from within ubuntu (as an example) which make it relatively easy to add apps and remove them.

  9. sch
    7:07pm, January 18, 2010

    ‘rumored tablets’ is nothing but a confession, is it?

  10. Dave Nattriss
    7:24pm, January 18, 2010

    I would guesstimate that there either already are or are approaching as many active iPhone users as there are Mac OS users in the world, so from that viewpoint alone I don’t blame you for switching to the one that is a closed/captive market.

  11. Axian
    8:56pm, January 18, 2010

    I purchased both Classics and Convert for the iPhone. I’ve read 2 pages from Art of War, and converted couple of units in the past few months.

    Never used them again, yet they’re lingering on my phone.

    While both of these apps (I’m being careful calling them apps because I believe they’re more like widgets) are nicely designed, they provide terrible ROI for the customer.

    It’s the novelty of the app store. This thing is going to plateau soon.

    I’d much rather design desktop software and then branch out into mobile space by either replicating the experience or creating companion apps.

    There is only one company that defied conventional logic and successfully did the exact opposite – atebits (developer of Tweetie). Atebits is kind of an outlier in this space given that they a) jumped from mobile top desktop, b) successfully launched an upgrade to own software on the iPhone.

  12. Vishal
    9:57pm, January 18, 2010

    “What if Apple did an App Store for Mac software?”

    I think this is still a distinct possibility. Yes, Apple loves control, and yes, they won’t get it with the Mac platform… But– they may see a Mac App Store as an inroads into controlling the Mac software market. And a way of increasing the Mac software market in volume and sales (and making a nice cut in the process).

    I agree that the iPhone App Store and everything that came with it– payment via iTunes, seamless distribution OTA to the phone, etc has been the biggest factor in the success of the iPhone app market. I think we’ll eventually see the same thing happen for the Mac.

  13. Brian Ball
    11:30pm, January 18, 2010

    I agree that Convert isn’t as useful as say Voices or Tweetie, but the attention to detail is well worth the $0.99 just to own a piece of tappable art.

    Keep up the good work guys!

  14. mare
    11:34pm, January 18, 2010

    I noticed another (potentially scary) thing the other day. The other day I noticed that I thought a $15 shareware Mac application was expensive. The iPhone downward pricing spiral is already messing with my mind.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one.

  15. Samo
    2:40am, January 19, 2010

    I agree that the App Store model is a great thing for developers and iPhone apps can make a huge impact. But how many apps are there? 100k? How many “blockbusters” are there? If we’re speaking 1% or more, that would be impressive already, anything more and the App Store really is all this post makes it out to be.

    However, without having any “hard” numbers about the Desktop App landscape it’s pretty hard to compare these two. There are a lot of companies — more than just the one doing AppZapper which you plug here — that are doing quite well with their Apps. TextMate sold a lot, Panic, Realmac, Sofa, Delicious Monster, probably Bohemian Coding, too, Cultured Code did well with Things before they published it for the iPhone and I’m sure there list goes on and on.

    You’re right that the Desktop APIs would deserve some attention (probably has to do with Apple treating their desktop teams a bit like 2nd class citizens since the iPhone took off), but Mac software is not death yet. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who earn a lot of money with iPhone Apps already, I guess.

  16. Robert Stainsby
    4:05am, January 19, 2010

    Interesting article, with lots of good points. I have to disagree however that “developing for the iPhone is a dream compared to developing for the Mac”.

    You do much more in code versus Interface Builder for the phone. Mac Cocoa is mature & while it has its crufty bits, it covers all sorts of needs where you have to roll your own on the phone. And all those non-OO C APIs on the phone – yuk! Sure, there are plenty of Mac C APIs, but it’s a lot easier to avoid them than in iPhone OS.

    Quicker development time? Yes, the apps are simpler. Greater programmer satisfaction? Yes, you have a bigger audience. But as a nice, rounded developer platform, iPhone OS has a way to go to catch up to the Mac.

  17. PHP
    6:30am, January 19, 2010

    I am a part time developer, with very little time for developing, the family takes most of the time.

    I have had an app in the app store for 1.5 years or so, and I consistently makes around $100/month. It is nice to see the money flow.

    I have bought lots of software that I do not use for both the Mac and for the iPhone.

    For the iPhone, software is cheaper, so easier to buy things I don’t know if I will use.

    I think, that an App Store for OS-X (and possible Windows) would be a good driver os OS-X software. And it will give the small developers a chance to sell to a much bigger market, driving prices down, and total software market up.

    Most people are more likely to buy 4 pieces of $5 software than buy one piece of $15 software. And the piracy will go down as well. And since 4 * 5 = 20, total sales will be up, not even counting less piracy.

    I think Apple should introduce the OS-X app store, and the Windows App Store as well.

    The Windows App store could take over many of the small sites out there, and developers would flock to it, giving Apple profits from the success of Microsoft.

  18. appelton
    7:33am, January 19, 2010

    So if I count it well – after leaving top100 you sell about 500 copies per day.

  19. default.aspx
    9:01am, January 19, 2010

    For all of you in search of a OS X App Store: Have a look at Bodega (http://appbodega.com/). I didn’t like it too much myself, but I guess it my fit some people’s needs.

  20. Robin Raszka
    10:26am, January 19, 2010

    You’re right, I have to agreed. Very similar situation is currently under discussion in our team. I personally believe the iPhone+Mac combo may be the ideal compromise.

  21. Billrey
    10:31am, January 19, 2010

    I’d love an Apple App Store for the Mac. Something that makes it super easy to quickly pay for and install third party apps. If this were added I’d be far more inclined to, you know, actually buy stuff.

    As it is now, users have to browse manually around on the web for stuff, and spend annoying time on credit card transactions, confirmation codes, downloading or (god forbid!) even CD’s. Yikes.

    Even if Apple takes a 30% cut, app developers are likely to sell in much larger quantities. I’m sure they’ll make a lot more money trough a Mac App Store.

  22. Adam Jones
    11:43am, January 19, 2010

    A big lesson from the app store: the right price gets you a much, much larger market than the wrong price.

  23. Tony
    11:58am, January 19, 2010

    The folks at AppFresh and iusethis are getting close to having a great solution. You can keep track of which apps you use on iusethis.com and (semi)automatically download and install updates via AppFresh. I’ve discovered and purchased some new apps via iusethis via tags.

  24. Matthew
    11:58am, January 19, 2010

    I think Harlan might be referring to CNR (http://www.cnr.com/). It’s essentially an online software store that integrates with the package manager.

  25. kgutteridge
    1:51pm, January 19, 2010

    I am sure for independent developers the iPhone is great, how for business I would still rather be dealing with either cross platform mobile applications, the web or a desktop OS, for the simple reason of numbers, there is only a small number of iPhones out there that will plateau and with the app store so top (hit) heavy, its a small percentage of applications that are making the revenues and causes it to become very hit or miss

  26. Pchukwura
    3:55pm, January 19, 2010

    Interesting article, I’ve thought about this before. I think a solution for the Mac platform is an optional store that Apple offers through iTunes just how Mac users buy music today.

    One problem with your article is that yes, rock star status pays more on the iPhone, however, if we compare the number of iPhone apps out there to the number of Mac apps out there, it is probably a hell of a lot more difficult to breakout to the top in the AppStore(if you’ve already had a hit sub sequential hits in the AppStore aren’t as difficult as in your case) just based on numbers.

    Another point you must realize is that while you can develop smaller apps in a faster time, your life-span for most iPhone apps are shorter, keeping you in an endless loop of continuously developing, marketing, releasing new apps. So I think it probably evens out in the long run, as Mac applications typically have a longer life-span, but may not pay off as quickly as an iPhone app.

  27. Michael Amorose
    8:59pm, January 19, 2010

    You’re nuts. It’s just the recession. In recessions people stop buying expensive things but continue to buy expensive things. It might just be that Apple’s marketing (the app store) is just better than individual developer’s marketing.

  28. Michael Amorose
    9:00pm, January 19, 2010

    Sorry I meant in a recession people continue to buy inexpensive things.

  29. MacDev
    3:54pm, January 20, 2010

    “I considered a good month to be one where I’d come away with $4,000 or so.”

    I assume John is speaking of iClip. I find this to be surprisingly low. We have a single Mac app, that is well known, but nowhere near the top 10 (and probably not in the top 100).

    In 2009, we averaged $22,000 gross per month for a $20-$30 product.

    Of course we didn’t spam 600,000 people to get there, nor are we standing on the shoulders of small developers the way MacHeist did.

    I think there is still lots of opportunity on the Mac (and iPhone) for small developers to earn a good living.

    John and the gang are excellent marketers, but their products are largely eye-candy with little long-term support (just like iClip has vanished).

  30. Simdude
    9:36am, January 21, 2010

    @ Axian

    I concur on your comment that many iPhone apps have a terrible ROI for the user. Even with the low price. I have purchased about 50 apps and use maybe 8 of them heavily. A lot of the purchases were impulse due to the ease but I’m getting much more selective now. Instead of asking why not, I’m asking if I really need this app.

    I do think there will be a transition though. The iPhone has shown many people don’t need a full computer for most things. If Apple’s tablet bridges the gap between iPhone ease and a bigger screen, this could represent a shift if home computer use. Excluding development, ask yourselves how you used your computers the most over that last week. Reading this page and responding could be done on an iPhone or tablet. Especially if speech recognition improves. And with an optional wireless keyboard, we don’t even need that for longer documents.

    I love working in a terminal window myself and don’t see this going away for me, but if you look at the big picture and how most people use computers, a machine sitting on your desk with a keyboard etc. simply isn’t needed anymore by a large segment of the population.

  31. ZeTaBYTeS
    7:11am, January 25, 2010

    When will the next Convert update be released? It’s been so many months already. All I’m hearing is about sales talk. Probably good for developers but consumers prefer to have new features + bug fixes for Convert.

  32. Thomas
    6:45pm, January 29, 2010

    Brian Ball:
    “I agree that Convert isn’t as useful as say Voices or Tweetie, but the attention to detail is well worth the $0.99 just to own a piece of tappable art.”

    I may be missing something but from the time that I first heard about Voices I have had a hard time understanding how it is useful? It seems like a neat toy to play with but, like convert, does it actually help you do anything that you might need to do?

  33. iphone apps
    1:59am, February 2, 2010

    Iphone mobile would be an engineered coming from mac but excellent ideas that gives birth to this iPhone mobile gadget.

  34. Michael
    3:43pm, February 16, 2010

    Perhaps this is crazy, but I think the iPhone OS is the future of the Mac. I think the iPad begins a slow but deliberate shift to this OS of Mac’s future. Yes a multi-touch OS is different than a traditional one. But my guess is it will be much easier a few years down the road when we have 12″ or 15″ iPads to add point and click functions to the iPhone OS than to keep Mac, iPhone and iPad OSes developed in tandem. I’m thinking the iPhone 4.0 OS will make it easier to target apps at particular devices and possibly by next year or two (iPhone 5.0 or iPhone 6.0) those devices will include Macs. Maybe I’m just a naive nondev, but it seems like the App Store makes so much more sense for Apple. The biggest question would be whether Macs could also install non App Store content without jailbreak. It’s a big question, but as the iPhone OS matures (and Apple hopefully continues to open up functionality bit by bit) it may be moot.

  35. Mark
    1:19am, February 19, 2010

    Pretty amazing the sales numbers you have after your marketing has run its case. What would you suggest to a new developer that doesn’t have a huge email list for a marketing push. We have a new app that was out for a day last week, got a little buzz and then pulled from apple until today. Now we are trying to get it back in the spotlight, any suggestions would be awesome. App is pretty slick and available at: http://bit.ly/dnaK6m

    Thanks!


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