Mobile Platforms

Is App Store Success Closed To New Developers?

Since DiscoveryBeat 2010 (of which I’ve written here), I had a few discussions with relatively successful app developers about the state of that marketplace. And there was a recurring a theme in some of them. It had to do with how the app store is becoming packed with consumer brands and / or apps with huge marketing budgets behind them, to the point that new entrants are unable to penetrate it.

A friend who runs a very successful finance app company put it this way – “We lucked out by going into the market early… nowadays the category is crowded by people like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase… you name it. I couldn’t possibly compete in that market environment. And there’s no effective way to promote on the store…”. A quick examination of the free Finance apps category shows that 20 of the top-25 are indeed key finance brands – from Wells Fargo through PayPal to Mint.

On a similar note, a couple of weeks back I chaired the mobile track at a travel conference, where one of the speakers showed a couple of slides about the Travel category on the App Store – “then” and “now” – Top 25 Travel Apps in 2009 vs. 2010. In 2009, 10 out of the 25 were established, “non-iPhone” brands – from AAA through Expedia to Google Earth. In 2010 it’s 15 of 25. And with many of the new entrants airlines and hotel chains, where will be a year from now, when virtually all of them will have apps, which they will promote on their websites?

Why is that such an issue? According to Tapjoy’s Lee Linden (quoted in my post here), 80% of downloads on iTunes are driven by the “Top Downloads” charts. So out of an alleged 250,000 apps, you have a few hundred (~25 x number of categories) who get 80% of the downloads. A long tail, with a very fat head. And very slim pickings if you’re not in those “Top Charts”.

So key point #1: As the Top Downloads charts fill up with established brands, it becomes very hard to get and maintain such a position for a (non-branded) mobile app developer. i.e. “Get Discovered Consistently”

How is this different from the web, you might ask? In a few ways. The web is similar in that 80% of discovery happens through one interface – Google. So Google is the equivalent of the “Top Charts”. But Google manages millions or more sites. Not a few hundred. If you will, the App Store is the equivalent of Yahoo circa 1996 – and even then Yahoo had categories, sub-categories etc. etc.

Which draws attention to another point – search. If we look at the Finance and Travel categories again, here are the apps that do not include a major consumer brand, from both:

  • PageOnce Personal Finance
  • Expense Tracker
  • PageOnce Bills
  • Ace Budget Lite
  • QuickTip Tip Calculator
  • NYC Way
  • WiFi Finder
  • Poynt
  • Cheap Gas
  • Happy Hours
  • Tripit

Notice the commonality? Except for 2 cases (ok, 2.5), all of them include the actual function as part of the name, or in fact the name IS the function – e.g. “Cheap Gas”, “WiFi Finder”, “Expense Tracker”. So is “Expense Tracker” the best expense software out there? Not necessarily. But it’s the one getting the most love out of the App Store’s simple search function. Users looking for cheap gas go into the App Store, type “Cheap Gas” into the search box, and find… “Cheap Gas”. What if your gas is even cheaper? Sorry. Not so many people search for “even cheaper gas”…

key point #2: Simple keyword search is the main driver for the rest of the top-downloads. And the first thing searched is the app’s name.

…and yet again – if you Google (or Bing for that matter) “expense report” or “wifi finder” – yes, www.expensereport.com did have an initial advantage, but since then the search mechanism has evolved quite a bit. Try.

Bottom line: The design of the App Store’s “Portal” and “Search” mechanisms are pushing that marketplace towards a sort of static state – where established consumer brands dominate, and some early movers with generic product names managed to get some shelf-space too. Without significant changes to these experiences, it is going to be very hard for newcomers with mobile-only plays to get into the charts.

My next piece will probably be about some of those “alternative app discovery experiences” – AppsFire etc. Stay tuned.