Mobile Platforms

Amazon’s Android Appstore (Tries) To Take Care of Business

So – the fabled Amazon Android Appstore (not App Store! That’s an App-le trademark!) is here. And almost as expected – these guys get the big things right, but the small things…

First thing you’ll notice -The Amazonian design. Besides the obvious branding elements, It is a much more effective design than Google’s. It is meant to generate sales. As soon as you open the store, you’re faced with credible alternatives – stuff you may well want to download, cause everyone else does. The screen space is used efficiently, and navigation is simple and easy. Very little innovation over, say iTunes, but also no clear disadvantages. The desktop web store is similar in approach, and not very far from the Amazon website that is so effective with retail shoppers in general.

The main attraction is a featured, “bonus” download, updated every day (i.e. a product that is usually not free being given away for free). Amazon takes care of business. To make an app store a business, you need paying customers. This requires people to have a payment method. That’s a hassle. That requires an incentive – give them something for free. But force them to connect a payment method to get the free stuff. Makes perfect sense. And gets me Angry Birds Rio for free. It also keeps me coming back every day for something else. Yes, it costs Amazon something. But probably not a lot. You see app developers have a great incentive to be providing these downloads for virtually (or literally) free – that day you were featured and provided as a free app, is going to put you very high in the Top Downloads chart – which will get you paid customers the following weeks (note the Top Downloads in the screenshot – yesterday’s free download, and today’s…). So even if Amazon pays virtually (or literally) nothing – it’s still a great deal. Everyone wins.

Caveat emptor – this also needs to work. The Appstore requires you to set up one-click mobile purchasing to get the download (as it should). However – no matter how many different ways I tried to do it, and despite the fact that all my info is shown, and my account shows mobile one-click purchasing activated (even when I connect on my desktop through a browser) – it still asks me again and again to “please add a payment mehod in your 1-click settings”. Now I am a loyal Amazon customer – Prime, Amazon Store Card and all that. My guess is that Amazon is not accepting its own store card on its own Appstore. Otherwise I don’t see how such a blatant bug could have slipped their people.

So – as expected, these people mean business, and know how to do it. They’ll have to cross a few t’s and dot a few i’s before they do, however.

Mobile Platforms

If Steve Jobs Kept A Pet, It Would Be A Hamster

The App Store’s Hall-Of-Fame: Making It  Worse For New Developers

Just last week, I wrote a piece explaining the detrimental effect that the Top-25 charts have on new apps. To make matters worse, in a move just out of Yahoo’s books (circa 1998), Apple announced the “Hall-of-fame” – an “all-time top-50 chart” that seems to be part quantitative, part curated. What it means for new developers is that old, established, previously successful developers have yet another advantage now – one more search mechanism that steals what limited customer attention there is, and deflects it back at existing incumbents.

Is this a good move from a consumer’s perspective? On the surface, it is – now the consumer has an way to find out “what everyone else has downloaded” (the Hall-of-Fame) and “what everyone else is downloading” (the existing Top-downloads list).Everyone who gets an iPhone can quickly get up to speed with what’s best out there.

But what it really does is turn more and more of the attention in the direction of fewer and fewer applications, ultimately stifling innovation. If the Internet was managed the same way, we’d all have MySpace rather than Facebook accounts, we’d be getting directions from MapQuest, not Google Maps, and this blog would  have been a GeoCities page. To enable innovation, the “long tail‘ has to be long enough and thick enough for some good stuff to emerge – and ultimately displace the people at the top. But if it’s too hard to get noticed, even great stuff will just dry up and die before it is. So no long tail – or a very thin and shrivelled one.

So what comes next?

I have no idea. I think new iOS developers will find it even harder to penetrate that market. And incumbents will get an even bigger piece of the pie.

Where should app discovery be headed?

In my mind – probably something similar to the way Google displaced Yahoo. An effective Search mechanism, based on keywords possibly. It should study how people relate to apps, which apps are downloaded by whom, rank relationships between apps and users, possibly in an analogous way to Google PageRank, and take into account velocity and current trends, much more than it does historical downloads. A marketing mechanism based on the keywords search would make much sense too.

Any better ideas out there?

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.

Mobile Platforms

What Have I Learned at DiscoveryBeat 2010?

Stop counting Downloads / Measure Engagement

Don’t charge up-front / Go for In-App Payments

The biz is on iPhone / But Droid’s on the work-plan

You need Analytics / Cause numbers’ the game, man!

I ain’t generally a lyrical guy, but they were running a poetry contest, so I took a crack (darn if I understand how I didn’t win that iPad!)

So in a nutshell – these are the main points, really:

Platforms: iPhone and Android are all that’s interesting to this crowd – and iPhone seems to be monetizing ten times better. Even though the trend for Android as a platform is great, it is not monetizing well through paid apps (and there’s no in-app payments). With this type of revenue driving most of what’s happening on the iPhone – Android developers have slim pickin’s… BlackBerry and others were all but ignored by most everyone, except for Flurry CEO Simon Khalaf who says for the last three months he’s been seeing significant developer investment in Windows Phone 7 – driven by Microsoft’s basically committing to minimum revenue numbers (i.e. directly paying them to take the risk).

Business Models and User Behavior: Most revenue still comes directly from the users, but lately more through in-app payments than pay-per-download. Advertising dollars are growing, according to Google’s AdMob, but are still secondary, especially on iPhone. Now whether it’s ads or in-app payments, to get this revenues flowing, you need engaged users, who will use (and pay) over time. People will download everything, but also discard it immediately – apps typically churn overnight… if you can’t keep your users for weeks and months, you have very little, whether it’s by way of payments or advertising. This makes analytics critical if you want to know what works and what doesn’t.

What works for promotion?  A huge percentage of downloads on iPhone result from being on the “Top X” charts – these drive 80% of downloads according to TapJoy co-founder Lee Linden (!). This means that to effectively promote, you need a concerted effort that drives your app to the chart – which then gets you a virtuous cycle of user exposure -> download -> you remain in the chart. Developers with multiple apps can then cross-sell their new apps to their existing user base via in-app ads, email etc. In fact – having multiple apps is a key driver of revenue, as when you “spike” with one you can successfully spillover to the others if you cross-market well.

Virality is great if you can get it, but getting it is far from simple. Advertising works but is costly, so it only makes sense if you can spend enough to get your app into the charts – and then have it remain there on the virtue of its quality. So you need to “buy many thousands of users” at a high CPA so that you will get into the charts – and then get many more organically. If you can’t spend enough to reach the chart, or if you immediately drop out of it due to your app not being good enough / priced low enough / presented well enough – it was all wasted money.

Flurry, who seems to be doing very well by the way, presented their AppCircle product as an alternative – lower CPA due to better targeting, which can then be economical even at a small scale. Some other points made by panelists focused on the limited merchandising possible in the App Store – sometimes even changing the app icon can bring a huge boost in downloads… Appolicious too pitched themselves as a distribution platform for developers, albeit with much less of a structured methodology around it to my mind. If you’re interested in that model, also check our AppsFire. Tapjoy (formerly OfferPal), claimed a great ability to help iPhone developers get traction, with “up to 200,000 downloads per day for the top spot” – and then to monetize via virtual goods. Some other interesting comments from their co-founder include that the app icon has a significant effect on people – sometimes by improving it you can get a 10x increase in downloads!

Android is a little different. First, the Android Market is not as driven by the “Top 25” listings as iTunes. It is also a multi-channel market with many competing App Stores (Android Market vs. Carrier app-stores vs. direct downloads / GetJar etc.) Angry Birds launch, which was done exclusively at GetJar for the first 24 hrs was of course a topic for discussion – further highlighting the issues the audience and panelists raised regarding the Android Market. When asked “which platform you’re focused on”, less than 10% of the audience responded “Android”. Most importantly – it is much harder to monetize on Android. Between the different user demographics, the missing credit card info, and the ability to “return” an app and get a refund – users are so much less likely to pay for the download. Add to that the missing in-app payments, and your market is reduced by an order of magnitude. The general consensus was that on Android it is easier to monetize via ads than via payments.

In retrospect – I have to say that this reminds me a lot of the PDA applications market circa 2001 – after the first wave, come the big aggregators (mainly Handango at the time) whose charts dictate the market . Concerted marketing efforts are focused on getting into the charts (hard) and then remaining there (not so hard if your product is both relevant and good), which you often do by engaging with your existing audience and get them to download something new on the same product SKU… Many other points of similarity too. All-in-all a very valuable conference – Kudos to the VentureBeat people for pulling this off.