The Harsh Realities Of iOS App Distribution

In this post, I’m going to try illuminate a tactical problem many application developers face, but unfortunately, I must claim upfront that I don’t know if any solution exists without a fundamental change occurring. The topic for this week’s column is to peel back the layers on mobile app distribution in Apple’s iOS, and in doing so, hopefully illuminate areas developers can exploit given the treacherous conditions that currently exist.

As is the case with many of these kinds of posts, I’ll get a few disclaimers out of the way. First, I’m focusing on the iOS app ecosystem because that’s what I’ve been mainly exposed to. Yes, I have tried Android products in the past and I do recognize its open system allows developers to build things faster and with less restrictions than would be the case within Apple’s universe. Second, I’m going to ask readers to, for this post, to put aside iOS apps that are games, communication utilities, extensions of large brands (I’m sure Target has a large install-base), native Apple apps (like iMovie), especially those that come preloaded, and basic utility apps like Fandango (for movie tickets) and so on — the apps that have the most downloads and the most competition. It goes without saying that these types of apps are downloaded most often, so with these cast aside for a moment, how do the rest of us who aren’t Instagram get real iOS distribution?

The short answer is: I’m afraid, at least right now, for many it feels like an unattainable goal.

It took some time to arrive at this conclusion. Over the past few months, I’ve been exposed to and tested many exciting mobile concepts, and on the few occasions where I saw a product and could envision a long future with it living on my phone, I got tripped up on one recurring question: “Great, but how can this app imprint on millions of phones, not just a few hundred thousand? And if it does breakout, what’s the plan to have the app provide value on a daily basis, or close to it?” What was most frustrating is that, in these few cases I could easily envision a future where nearly every iOS customer would use these apps and they would provide great value, but it was both sad and scary to think that the first hurdle — distribution — may be the highest.

It’s easy to get enamored by “mobile” these days. All the sensors. The speed, the sleek handsets. The always-on, background capabilities. And, the success of apps and services like Angry Birds, Uber, Voxer, and Instagram make iOS even more tantalizing. These apps have, in a way, created a modern-day app gold rush, and now that is easier to build these apps, everyone is in the game, from big brands to schoolkids worldwide who just want to build something they want to see exist. From a “maker” standpoint, it’s phenomenal; from the consumer perspective, it can be overwhelming, as TechCrunch’s Co-Editor Alexia Tsotsis pointed out in this brilliant post from November 2011. The result today is a hyper-fragmentation of apps and services, to the point where even some savvy app developers can be genuinely surprised run into five or more apps that are basically similar to theirs.

One result of this gold rush is a “mobile first” mentality. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that companies build for iOS first, and that certainly makes sense. This is what Instagram did, and then they eventually expanded to the web by creating separate pages for pictures. Lately, however, I’ve encountered a few founders who have originally intended to be focused on mobile with their new companies, but for these specific distribution-related concerns, started on the web first. There are some legitimate reasons to consider a “web first” approach in today’s environment. App makers can experiment in finding where an initial audience may come from, they can build awareness for their brand, and they can drive sign-ups and measure retention, engagement, and other key metrics, as well as enjoying the ability to iterate faster. I’m not suggesting that every app retool their strategy to adopt this approach, but it is worth considering given the circumstances, and the few companies I have seen using web and/or email first either have or likely will emerge from seed-stage to raise healthy Series A rounds — and I have to believe, in part, their web-to-mobile sequenced play had something to do with it.

Once an iOS app is ready to go, developers have to use every trick in the book to nail the launch. This can translate into a variety of tactics around public relations, press releases, invitation and referral hooks, and twisting the arm of every colleague, friend, investor, and advisor to the share the news and reviews of your app launch on their social networks. An unfortunate side-effect of this is that some companies have decided to dip into their funds and spend on more traditional marketing and PR efforts just to help get that initial lift, which is oftentimes has a low return on investment and usually isn’t sustainable over time.

If the app offers something new, chances are people will use it more and more (hopefully), and then developers can employ techniques to give themselves every chance at growth and retention. Like Instagram, they make it easy to share into social networks on the belief that good content spreads, hoping one day that network effects kick-in. Additionally, there are a number of techniques one can use to increase retention and engagement. Like Lift, they may use default opt-in email alerts that tie back into the native app experience. Like Highlight, they may use iOS notifications to run in the background and send you alerts depending on context. And, like Angry Birds, they all cross their fingers and hope for the type of word-of-mouth virality even money and fame cannot buy. But, before we can have retention and engagement that matters, the initial distribution hurdle needs to be cleared.

Taken together, the picture seems bleak. Where do we go from here?

One point of view is that this burden rests with the handset and OS maker to make application distribution, discovery, and sharing easier, so that users can be exposed to a better set of apps, which in theory could, over time, not only help installation numbers, but create better user retention and engagement. Maybe Facebook could help, since most people have Facebook installed in their phones, and both companies have a decent sense of what apps we use and could recommend to friends. As it stands now, I only hear about apps via worth-of-mouth from friends, or if it somehow appears in my Twitter feed. I’m there are 101 suggestions for Apple and their newly redesigned app store, so I won’t go into them here, other than to point out that developers do feel this pain — and the new redesign of the iOS App Store seems to be a step back for app discovery.

Another point of view, however, is that this burden falls on app makers (and consumers) alike. Consumers will likely have a hard time distinguishing between apps that appear to be similar except for a few minor differences. Many iOS users have many screens of “dead apps,” once downloaded and tried out, and now just rotting in the background. How many apps can one person really use, right? Perhaps we all in the tech world are too accustomed to testing everything new, so that we can be one of the first to anoint new winners, but the reality is that everyday consumers will likely only pay attention to apps that provide them with context-specific information and services, or something entirely new, novel, and engaging. This could be a new design (like Circa has done with creating snack-sized news morsels), or a new business model (like Lyft has done with ridesharing, aggregating offline to pair with mobile demand), or a habit-forming interaction (like Lift has pulled off quite well), or a well-defined daily use case wrapped around a familiar mental model (like Sosh has done with going out after work), or harmonizing user data across social networks to create new products (like Brewster has done, pairing social networks with phone contact lists), or bringing real technologies to a mobile form-factor (like Prismatic has been able to do with its personalized news service). Maybe these apps have cracked through all the barriers and all the noise because they recognized the minefields across the iOS landscape and prepared for this battle accordingly.

I do not have many answers here. Maybe Apple could change some aspects of the App Store. Maybe the threshold for apps and services that breakout needs to remain extremely high. Maybe developers will slowly move away from native and use HTML5 or some variant to sidestep the native app discovery problem, instead using the mobile web to power their distribution. Maybe consumers are happy with a fragmented app landscape, or maybe the best course of action is to build entirely new product experiences in the few categories that seem to drive the most attention on iOS. I’d love to read your thoughts and suggestions below, though one thing is clear — there is a problem somewhere, users remain inundated with choices, developers are frustrated with these constraints, and the competition to build the next thing is only accelerating. The result is that a “mobile-first” strategy may, for this particular moment in time, not be the exact right approach for specific applications in certain categories given the environmental factors surrounding us. Plan for your app’s future accordingly.