If there's a single reason for the mass-entrance of developers into the mobile market, it is app stores. We view app stores as direct developer-to-consumer channels, i.e. commercial conduits that streamline the submission, pricing, distribution and retailing of applications to consumers. For a breakdown of key ingredients in the app store recipe, see our Mobile Megatrends 2010 report. App stores have streamlined the route to market for mobile applications, a route that was previously laden with obstacles, such as lack of information, complex submission and certification processes, low revenue shares and regional fragmentation.
Despite the hype, there is sporadic use of app stores outside the Apple and Android platforms. Our survey of 400+ mobile developers found that only four percent of Java respondents used App Stores as their primary channel to market. Windows Phone and mobile web developers find app stores little more relevant, with fewer than 10 percent of such respondents using one as a primary channel for taking applications to market.
This contrasts completely with platforms that have 'native' app stores. Over 95 percent of iPhone respondents use the Apple App Store as their primary channel, while the percentage of Android respondents using Android Market is just below 90.
In terms of the incumbent mobile platforms, around 75 percent of Symbian respondents that use app stores, use the Nokia Ovi Store. The significant number (20-25 percent) of Symbian developers who also use iPhone and Android app stores reveals the brain-drain that is taking place towards these newer platforms. This is a particularly critical migration of developer mindshare, considering that the Symbian platform is the hardest to master. Thus, the size of developer investments on Symbian being written off is substantial.
Besides the growth of apps, app stores are the cornerstone of another major transformation that has taken place in the mobile industry: the mass-market use of mobile as the next marketing channel beyond the Internet. We would argue that it was app stores that triggered the influx of apps - not the open source nature of Android, or the consumer sex appeal of the iPhone.
App stores triggered the sheer growth in app numbers and diversity that led to the clicheÌ, "there's an app for that". Another clicheÌ, "the screen is the app," tells the other half of the story. Combined, the app store and touchscreen were the two essential ingredients behind mobile apps as the next mass-market channel beyond the Internet. These two ingredients inspired just about every media and service company to commission companion or revenue-driven apps as extensions to their traditional online channels. In effect, this phenomenon fueled the app economy, even beyond what app store numbers alone suggest.
Speeding up time to market
App stores have revolutionised time to market for applications. To research exactly how radically the time to market for applications has changed since the introduction of app stores, we analysed two parameters:
- the time to shelf, i.e. how long it takes from submitting an application to that application being available for purchase
- the time to payment, i.e. the length of time between an application being sold and the proceeds reaching the developer's bank account
Our findings show that app stores have reduced the average time-to-shelf by two thirds: from 68 days across traditional channels, to 22 days via an app store. These traditional channels have been suffering from long, proprietary and fragmented processes of application certification, approval, targeting and pricing, all of which need to be established via one-to-one commercial agreements. Moreover, app stores have reduced the time-to-payment by more than half; from 82 days on average in the case of traditional channels, to 36 days on average with app stores.
The bigger picture that emerges is that the developer's choice of platform impacts the time-to-market for applications, i.e. the length of time from completing an application to getting the first revenues in. The iOS platform is fastest to go to market with, particularly thanks to Apple's streamlined App Store process, while Java ME and Symbian are the slowest, due to the sluggishness of the traditional routes to market used by these developers (in particular via commissioned apps and own- website downloads).
Challenges with taking applications to market
Application distribution may be going through a renaissance period that began in 2008, with the direct-to-consumer model pioneered by Apple's App Store. However, taking applications to market is still plagued with numerous teething problems, as is typical with nascent technology. There are four recurring issues reported by developers: app exposure, app submission (and certification), low revenue share and the challenges with app localisation. A fifth challenge (and untapped opportunity) is the efficient, crowd-sourced testing of mobile apps by real users.
Challenge 1. Application exposure
Our survey found the number one issue for mobile developers to be the lack of effective marketing channels to increase application exposure, discovery and therefore customer acquisition. This was an issue mostly for Flash and iPhone developers, followed by Symbian, Android and Java ME developers. Developers reported persistent challenges with getting traffic, customer visibility or in short "being seen". One developer put it succinctly: "It's like going to a record store with 200,000 CDs. You'll only look at the top-10."
The exposure bottleneck is new in mobile, but an age-old problem in fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). With such large volumes of applications in stock, app stores are taking on the role of huge supermarkets or record stores. As in any FMCG market, app developers have to invest in promoting their products above the noise, because supermarkets won't.
Our research shows that in 2010, developers are relatively unsophisticated in marketing their applications. More than half of developers surveyed use free demos and a variety of social media, i.e. the 'de facto' techniques for application promotion. Other techniques cited were magazines and influencing analysts or journalists, while promotion through tradeshows was also deemed popular among a fifth of respondents. Less than 30 percent of respondents invest in traditional marketing media such as online advertising or professional PR services.
When asked about what type of marketing support they would be willing to pay for, our survey found half of respondents willing to pay for premium app store placement. This willingness varies greatly by platform, however; developers whose platform features a 'native' app store (iPhone, Android and to a lesser extent Symbian) are almost twice as likely to pay for premium app store placement, compared with developers whose platforms do not (Java and mobile web) as well as Windows Phone. This finding indicates that direct-to- consumer distribution channels are necessarily crowded and therefore developers will be willing to pay a premium to be able to stand out from the crowd - much like how FMCG brands pay for premium shelf space in supermarkets.
Yet with free applications being the norm, developers have to become more creative with promotion and advertising; free applications make up more than half of the Android Market catalogue and 25 percent of the Apple App Store catalogue, according to different reports by Distimo and AndroLib.
There are two types of solutions emerging to cover the market gap of application promotional services. Firstly, there are app discovery and recommendation startups (e.g. Apppopular, Appolicious, Appsfire, Apprupt, Chorus, Mplayit and Yappler), which help users discover applications based on their past preferences or on explicit recommendations from the user's social circle. Secondly, there are white label app store providers like Ericsson that are moving to app mall (shop-in-shop) infrastructure. App malls will allow the creation of 1,000s of application mini-stores, each targeted to niche sub-segments, much like Amazon mini-stores.
However, the gap in application marketing services is widening in 2010 due to the rapid growth in application volume, which is outpacing the appearance of app discovery and recommendation solutions. We believe that application marketing and retailing services remain the biggest opportunity in mobile applications today.
Challenge 2. Application submission and certification.
Application submission and certification are two of the top four challenges for mobile developers, according to our survey. Overall, the most important issue related to certification that was raised by nearly 40 percent of respondents is its cost. In some cases, developers report that the certification cost rises to a few hundred dollars per app certification (not per app). Such economics do not work for low-cost apps, but only for mega-application productions. Java developers, for example, report that Java Signed is impractical; developers have to purchase separate certificates based on the certificate authority installed on the handset - and certificates are expensive.
Challenge 3. Dubious long-tail economics
The mobile app economy is nothing short of hyped from the successes that have come into the limelight - the $1m per month brought in by the Tap Tap Revenge social app, or the $125K in monthly ad revenues reported by BackFlip Studios on their Paper Toss app. Yet the economics for long-tail developers - i.e. the per-capita profit for the average developer - remain dubious at best.
At least 25 percent of Symbian, Flash, Windows Phone and Java ME respondents reported low revenue share as one of the key go-to-market challenges. Most app stores are still playing catch-up to Apple in terms of the revenue share they are paying out to the developer. As one developer put it, "There has been a bastardisation of the 70/30 rule which has been mis-marketed by app stores; for example with Ovi Store, where operators often get 50 percent of the retail price, so developers gets 70 percent [of the remainder]". Unsurprisingly, the revenue share was not a major challenge for iPhone or BlackBerry respondents.
Moreover, less than 25 percent of respondents stated that revenue potential was one of the best factors of their platform; on average revenue potential ranked last among "best aspects" of each platform, showing how mobile software development is still plagued by poor monetisation in 2010.
The dubious long-tail economics are reinforced by our findings on developer revenue expectations. Only five percent of the respondents reported very good revenues, above their expectations, while 24 percent said their revenues were poor. Note that we didn't poll for absolute revenues, because of the discrepancies across regions, different revenue models and distance of developers from revenue reporting. At the same time, there is a general consensus of optimism; 27 percent of respondents said that their revenues were as projected, while another 36 percent said they should be reaching their revenue targets.
There are two effects at play that make for poor long-tail economics. Firstly, the number of 'garage developers' who are creating apps for fun or peer recognition but not money; and secondly, the noise created by the 'app crowd' which prompts developers to drop prices in order to rise to the top of their pack.
There are also platform-specific effects: the unpredictability of revenues, in the case of the Apple's pick-and-choose culture for featured apps; and, the limitations of paid app support for Android, where paid applications are only available to users in 13 countries out of 46 countries where Android Market is available, as of June 2010. Android has also been jokingly called a "download, buy, and return business", referring to how you can get a refund for any paid Android application without stating a reason within 24 hours of purchase - a policy that allows many users to exploit the system. In addition, the applications that are published on Android market are not curated by Google, resulting in 100s of applications that are low quality or are infringing copyright, thereby making it harder for quality, paid apps to make money. Even in economically healthier ecosystems like Apple's App Store, a standalone developer can hope to sell in total an average of 1,000-2,000 copies of an application at an average price of $1.99, which is barely justifying the many man- months of effort that it takes to develop a mobile application by today's standards.
We maintain that the monetisation potential for the long tail of apps won't be realised until effective policies are put in place to curtail the adoption of free apps - for example by enforcing a minimum $0.01 app price. Psychology experiments have proven time and time again how our perception of value is distorted when the price drops to zero. It is time for app store owners to borrow from cognitive psychology to help boost the long-tail developer economy, rather than compete on number of downloads.
Challenge 4. Localisation.
Another issue highlighted was the lack of localised apps. One developer said characteristically, "There is a big problem for developers in markets with low penetration of English as a second language. Since the platforms are poorly adjusted to localisation, the costs of development grow and thus profitability and attractiveness [drop]. It would be great to see platforms that take action towards easing the challenge of localisation." The lack of localised apps for non-English markets is exacerbated for Android. A search on AndroLib reveals that out of the approximately 60,000 apps on Android Market, there are only about 1,400 apps localised in Spanish and only 1,800 localised in French, as of early June 2010.
The lack of localised apps on Android presents the number one opportunity for alternative app stores like SlideMe, AndAppStore and Mobihand, i.e. to attract communities of regional app developers, or to facilitate localisation of apps to different languages - in other words, to reach where Android Market doesn't reach.
Challenge 5: Application planning and testing
Application planning and testing is a core part of taking an application to market. Our research confirms that planning techniques are near-ubiquitous for application developers. Yet, small development firms have limited means today to beta test and peer review their applications with a cross- section of representative users. Given the hundreds of thousands of mobile apps, we believe that efficient (crowd-sourced) testing of apps in a global market of users is considerably under-utilized. This presents an opportunity for the few solution providers in this segment - Mob4Hire and uTest.com, for example - but also for network operators, who can generate a channel for testing applications with end users, and provide an open feedback support system back to developers. Overall though, the need of mobile developers to have their apps tested cost-effectively by real users around the world is very much under-served.