Apple starts to woo its app developers

Apple starts to woo its app developers

With growing competition from Google and Amazon, Apple is working to win over app makers

Apple starts to woo  its app developers

Apple’s iPhone would be just a well-made phone without the apps that allow people to personalise it with their favourite games, news, business, social and video services. Software makers need Apple, too: They badly want to be on the devices that people carry with them everywhere, especially as traditional websites and desktop computers fade in importance.

When Apple’s App Store opened in 2008, there were well under 1,000 apps, and the relationship was obviously beneficial for both sides. But now, when there are more than 1.5 million apps fighting for attention in the App Store, the benefits for developers, particularly smaller ones, have become much less apparent.

“Is Apple coasting on its relationship and lead with developers? I think the answer is yes,” said Colin Gillis, an analyst with BGC Partners. “Their app store is considered an unappealing experience by many people. Their rules are arbitrary, and they take a big slice of money from sales.”

For a long time, Apple didn’t have to care. But now it faces flat sales of its flagship iPhones, a lack of excitement about newer products like its smartwatch and Apple TV, growing competition from Google’s Android platform and the rise of challengers like Amazon’s Echo device, which responds to a user’s voice commands at home with the kind of magic that used to be an Apple hallmark.

As the company prepares to hold its annual developer conference in San Francisco this week, there are signs that it wants to improve its relationship with app makers. Among the announcements expected at the gathering: Apple plans to finally give developers access to its Siri voice assistant so they can incorporate it into their apps.

Apple’s charm offensive began in earnest in December, after it put Philip W Schiller, its senior vice president of worldwide marketing, in charge of the App Store. Under Schiller, the company accelerated the app approval process, cutting typical review times from two weeks to a day or two.

On Wednesday, Apple announced that it would soon begin allowing app makers to buy ads that would appear at the top of search results in the App Store, like the ads on Google’s Play Store and website. Apple also said that it would cut its usual 30% commission on all subscriptions to 15% after an app subscriber had been active for at least a year.

“That’s the right thing to do for developers,” said Bob Bowman, president of business and media at Major League Baseball, which makes one of the most popular subscription apps, At Bat, for live-streaming baseball games.

Big outfits like MLB have always been treated well by Apple. The league had an app ready at the 2008 unveiling of the App Store, and Bowman said he talked regularly with Schiller and Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services.

Smaller developers tend to have less satisfying experiences. Loni Schuman, a 23-year-old entrepreneur in Israel, was frustrated by the process of getting her app, Fanify, approved.

Fanify allows musicians to live-stream concerts, with viewers dropping tips into a virtual jar to compensate them — “like a street artist but in an app,” as Schuman put it. She planned a June 1 release and had several artists lined up to promote the app during its first few days. She submitted the app for approval 10 days ahead of time to allow plenty of time for review.

Apple’s initial response was quick, but Fanify ended up in an extended back and forth as it tried to address various problems. At one point, Apple raised a fundamental objection, saying that Fanify’s method for tipping artists, which used the online payment services Venmo and PayPal, violated Apple’s requirement that all in-app payments be routed through iTunes so the company could take its 30% cut.

Schuman and her developer had to rewrite the app to force users to buy tokens that they could then use to tip musicians. The app was finally approved on Thursday, nine days after the first concerts were supposed to have taken place. “It ruined our whole launch,” she said.

Getting an app noticed is one of the biggest problems for a small developer. The search function in the App Store follows no apparent logic in displaying results, leaving most apps lost in the pile. Apple’s system for choosing which ones to highlight on the front page of the store is similarly opaque.

“It used to feel like a frontier town where lots of people bought apps and tried new things,” said Phill Ryu, who helped found the software studio Impending. “Now it feels more like a lottery ticket.” When an app maker wins that lottery, the benefits are tremendous.

Craig Tashman, the founder of LiquidText, a document annotation app for the iPad and iPad Pro, managed to get on Apple’s radar early, when a company employee in his network made an introduction in 2012.

Apple asked Tashman to keep in touch as he developed the app over the next few years, and LiquidText was showcased in the App Store for two weeks when the app was introduced in September. “We got a banner right on top of the App Store,” he said. “We got 100,000 downloads in two weeks.” When the iPad Pro was introduced in November, LiquidText received another round of promotion from Apple.

Buying attention with search ads

The new search ads for the App Store will allow developers to buy attention if they are not lucky enough to get that kind of free publicity from Apple’s editors. Although the ads will be available to everyone, it is unclear whether prime search terms will end up being bought mostly by big marketers.

App developers, most notably game makers, spent $3 billion last year in the United States alone to promote downloads of their software inside Facebook, Twitter and other apps, according to eMarketer.

Bryan Wiener, executive chairman of 360i, a digital advertising agency, predicted that airlines, retailers and video streaming services would eagerly pay for advertising slots in the App Store. “Search will be table stakes,” he said.

While overall app download trends favour a handful of top developers, Apple has made other moves to improve life for the smaller fry.

The company is giving more guidance to developers about ways to market their apps, said Brian Mueller, who has been an Apple developer for three years. He makes the Carrot series of apps, including ones for weather, exercise and to-do lists.

Apple is also more actively choosing what appears on the front page of the App Store, where popular, new and interesting apps are prominently featured. “It signals to users that the App Store is a place to check throughout the week,” Mueller said. “A lot of developers were asking and hoping for this.”

Developers say they still hope Apple will make more improvements. They want the company to continue to improve search in the App Store and let developers respond to user comments. They also say that communication with Apple is still largely one-way.
“You can’t fix overnight all of the grievances that piled up,” Ryu said.

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