Tonight I watched App: The Human Story. It’s a very well done documentary and worth the $15.
I’m walking away from its viewing with an overwhelmingly melancholy mindset though. The documentary tells a story of a wonderful, exciting time that has been replaced with heartache.
The story goes like this. The iPhone App Store in 2008 brought a golden era of indie app development. Solo developers and small teams could make sustainable businesses with apps that they themselves built with nothing more than iPhones, MacBook Pros, and zest. Nearly ten years later, that possibility is all but extinct. The barriers to entry are now much harder for those who care about the humanities. The App Store has become less a Wild West with potential for anyone with a passion for app making, and more a list of game companies that are enriching themselves with in-app purchases selling time-wasting addiction. The key to success is no longer making software that users love and then improving it based on their feedback. It’s now about getting large sums of capital up front from startup investors and then shoehorning the app to conform to a prescribed gravy trail that has no guarantee of being in the best interests of a user base.
As someone pointed out in the documentary, this isn’t the free market simply working itself out with a dissatisfactory result. Rather, the App Store is Apple’s market. The company has allowed things to go in an unhealthy direction.1 As Brent Simmons said, Apple has lost some of its soul. This really resonated with me. My love for the company has waned. I fear the late 2000s and early 2010s will be looked back as its high water mark. The company might grow on to be more successful, but the vision that Steve Jobs talked about is slowly fading.2
There are a few big winners and then there is a very long tale of struggling indie shops that want to make ends meet. Many of them have already capitulated, including Tapity, the company I interned at during the summer of 2014. In an article linked to on the App Stories page of the documentary website, Tapity’s cofounder Jeremy wrote this uplifting paragraph the week of its successful app launch for Hours:
There are plenty of reports about how hard it is to succeed on the App St;ore. The statistics look pretty dismal. Don’t define yourself by the statistics. Anything that is worthwhile is going to be hard. Let’s learn together how to build sustainable businesses on the App Store.
Less than two years later, Tapity sold the app and then later that same year it had to shut its doors completely. This tale could be told a thousand times over with small indie shops.
If you’re a developer who is passionate about apps and you’re considering becoming an indie developer, my answer is this: don’t do it. It’s a pipe dream. There was once a time where, if you worked very hard, you might succeed in your venture, but that time has come and gone.