Top iPhone Apps – What’s the Secret to Their Success?
Earlier this year, Apple released a list of the top iPhone apps with one billion downloads. Downloads have just hit two billion, making Apple’s “All Time” Top Apps label even more ridiculous than it was back then — but other than that, it’s a very interesting list and there are a lot of good lessons to be learned from it.
We know that developers of some of the top apps have made from $350,000 (Pocket God) to $800,000 (iShoot). Some may get more. It’s hard to estimate revenue even if the number of downloads is known, because app prices often soar. Koi Pond has been downloaded about 900,000 times and Enigmo over 800,000. Even at, say, a dollar a time, that’s really good money.
How to get access to this giant cash cow? Here are some tips, based on our analysis of Apple’s top twenty paid apps:
Sign in early
The iPhone 3G came out in July 2008. Almost half of the top apps had been released in August. The rest ran out in late 2008, except for one that came out in January 2009.
Time is everything. Of course, some of that is just a matter of physical reality — if you sell 5,000 apps a day for 100 days, that’s 500,000 sales; if you only have 5 days, you can only reach 25,000. But there’s more to it than that. There are so many apps now (over 50,000) that it’s really hard to see. Apps that come out early, and gain traction, have a huge advantage over competitors, and such advantages are often maintained over the long term.
Entertaining the masses
If you want to save the planet, enlighten humanity or improve people’s health, you’ll get a prize in heaven, but you won’t have the winning iPhone app. Every top paid app is a kind of toy. Fourteen in the Games, 4 Entertainment and 2 Music categories.
Interestingly, this entertainment is generally not kidding. Most of the games are complex, require skill and concentration, and some have multiple permutations or constant updates (Pocket God). Complex games include Pocket God, Fieldrunners, Texas Hold’em Poker and Monopoly. Simpler games, like the memory matching game Bejeweled 2 or the skateboard app Touchgrind, still require skill and concentration.
Only a few, like the Koi Pond, require a bit of mental effort, but even this one has plenty of choice and constant movement. Almost all apps have good graphics and lots of movement.
There are only 2 completely ridiculous and useless apps, namely the simulated beer app, iBeer, and the self-explanatory iFart Mobile.
There is a surprise in every package
Ocarina, an ancient flute simulation, is truly shocking. Who would have thought an obscure musical instrument would rank so high? The app developers are just as interesting — a large group of musicians and computer scientists from places like Stanford and Princeton. Could there still be a place for real quality and innovation on the Internet? Happy thinking.
Develop for devices
Using the accelerometer seems to increase the app’s chances of success. Most of the top paid apps are accelerometer intensive, or use other new or unique iPhone features.
The message here is that successful app developers take advantage of the device’s new or unique functionality. The iPhone is a cell phone, it has a touch screen, it has an accelerometer. Develop for devices! Applications that act as if they were on a regular desktop computer tend to be less successful.
Having the right background
It’s helpful to be an experienced software developer, preferably with an Internet gaming background. Most of the prominent companies and individuals have a long track record in this market. In some cases, it’s just a matter of taking an existing business model and making the logical jump to iPhone apps. In others, the app is the start of the business and in some cases it can also be the end of the road.
Don’t be a one-hit wonder
Four of the top paid apps are orphans or close, with only 1 to 2 apps per developer. However, what is much more common is developers with cages of 3 to 10 applications. Only 1 developer has more than 10 apps. Successful developers leverage existing products and apps, building one to build another – but adapting apps to create very similar spinoffs (iBeer, iMilk, iSoda, Magic Wallet), while clever, seems a bit too opportunistic. App developers who have developed some unique and interesting games are much more likely to get a lot of success.
In fact, the 3 companies (Freeverse, Pangea Software, Electronic Arts) each have the top 2 twenty apps. All three are large or large companies, implying that significant resources are required to produce a winning application.
Don’t get too hung up on the price
The de facto standard iPhone app price is $0.99. This level was quickly established on the App Store as the place where most shoppers seemed happy. Maybe because of the standard cost of iTunes music.
In any case, most of the winning apps were priced better, with 13 of the 20 priced from $1.99 and up, and 4 of them commanding the majestic price (for iPhone apps) of $4.99 on the day we did our analysis.
You don’t need a Lite or Free teaser app
This is a very interesting factoid. Only 2 of the top twenty apps (iHunt and iShoot) have free or light versions, at least at the time of writing. The two developers are individuals rather than companies, and it’s interesting that the larger outfit didn’t see the need for a teaser. The implication is that if it’s worth buying, people will pay for it.
The iShoot Lite freebie had 2.4 million downloads in January, and there were 320,000 paid downloads. So it’s very likely that free apps are driving sales of paid apps — but there might also be more paid downloads if free apps aren’t available.
You don’t have to be a big company (although that helps)
Could success in iPhone apps depend on a massive, sophisticated, and expensive marketing strategy? Not necessarily.
There’s no doubt that it helps to understand the Internet and have deep pockets, but the winning app developer is an exhilarating mix of sizes and types.
Four of the 17 developers are large multinational corporations — Apple itself (Texas Hold’em), Electronic Arts (TETRIS, Monopoly), Activision (Crash Bandicoot) and SEGA (Super Monkey Ball). Then there is a group of mid-sized companies and, happily, also 7 small groups and 4 individuals.
iFart Mobile is an interesting story. It was developed by an Internet marketing guru who understands how the system works and gets tremendous publicity by producing pointless apps that he knows will easily cause controversy, laughter and interest.
Internet myths about smart people who work nights or weekends, or get out of the garage, and hit the jackpot, live on. The little guys in this group are John Moffett (iHunt), Ethan Nicholas (iShoot) and, as far as we know, Shinya Kasatani (Pocket Guitar). These people may not be the next Steve Jobs, but they have made hundreds of thousands of dollars, just a dollar or two at a time. Quite impressive.
Controversy is useful, but completely unimportant
iFart Mobile in particular, and to a lesser extent iBeer and iHunt, are quite controversial and almost certainly get a lot of publicity because of this. You can almost see the controversy in the ratings – while most of the top 20 apps have a dominant rating of 5 stars, gradually going down, these 3 controversial apps have multiple ratings for 5 stars and 1 star. So this distribution of ratings may not hurt the app, and may show developers that the app has a lot of potential to create buzz.
The other top apps don’t seem designed to attract controversy and this definitely doesn’t hurt them.
Five star rating is not important or impossible for top apps
You can’t please everyone all the time — so the more ratings there are, the lower the odds of a 5 or even 4.5 star average. None of the top apps have 5 stars and most have 3 to 4 stars. iHunt only has 2.5 stars, because a lot of people hate it.
It takes MANY downloads to develop multiple ratings
While perhaps millions of people have collectively downloaded the top 20 apps, the highest number of ratings (Fieldrunners) is 1,479 and the lowest (Pocket God) is 226. Most users leave no ratings, and even fewer write reviews.
Given that people love to be part of a happy group, it’s almost certain that a savvy developer is actively promoting positive ratings and reviews.
Themes don’t have to be classic or familiar
Classics like Texas Hold’em, Monopoly, and TETRIS (all developed by public companies) are in the top 20 apps. Other apps are sometimes familiar, sometimes not, but none are really adapting big name, famous games. Pocket Guitar, of course, uses a much-loved instrument with great success. But to balance that, Ocarina catapulted an obscure ancient flute to fame.
There are many, many, many iPhone games with themes that are not dissimilar to the top games. There are dozens of guitar simulations. There are 5 other iFart applications. So just having a good idea is not enough.
The iFart app is an interesting illustration. It’s almost uniform, they haven’t developed a following, and the comments are mostly negative — not because it’s vulgar and silly, but because it’s not executed well and users don’t like it.
Now you know some of the secrets. Happy programming!
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