Twitkitteh: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

By now, hopefully most of you will have heard of Twitkitteh, our ground-breaking new iPhone Twitter client designed for cats.

I alluded to this being an experiment earlier, so I thought I should explain my actions to the whole class.

So, as many of you know, I’ve been working away on PCalc for the iPhone for pretty much the last year, with some modest success. It’s done a lot better than PCalc on the Mac ever did, and is quite highly rated in the iPhone world, if I say so myself. But it’s never had life-changing levels of sales, and to a certain extent that has to be expected. As an advanced scientific/engineering calculator, even a damn good one, it’s quite a niche product, so it’s never going to be a truly mass market item.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the difficulties of marketing iPhone apps, and the different techniques I’ve tried over the past months to get the word out. And I’ve been looking at the software on the app store which has been a runaway success. The store has been likened to a gold rush – a number of people have become very rich, very quickly. But in the long term, the people who are going to be making the most money are the ones selling the shovels…

The single most annoying thing about the app store is not the opaque nature of the submission process, the Kafkaesque paperwork, or the complete lack of communication from Apple in response to time-critical problems. No, the single most annoying thing is the news story you see in the press every other week about some four-year-old who wrote an application in her basement in fifteen minutes and made a million dollars over the space of a weekend.

I think I have developed a facial tic due to the breathless press coverage about how everybody writing iPhone software is now living in a giant castle made from the finest diamonds. Amazingly enough, we’re not. Out of the many tens of thousands of developers, a few dozen or so have probably made a fortune, some are making a living, or at least close to one, and many many people aren’t making anything at all.

Ok, I realise there is a tiny element of bitter jealousy here. PCalc isn’t going to make me a million dollars overnight, and if I’m being honest, I would actually quite like a million dollars. While the artistic process is enjoyable, I am ultimately trying to run a business, just like Apple. I get a kick out of making decent products that people enjoy using, but I do also like being able to pay the bills. Call me crazy, I know.

But it does seem to be the case that what’s selling on a big scale on the store isn’t the $9.99 application, the one that actually does something useful, but it’s the 99c toy that people buy to show off their phone to their friends and use for about a week before moving onto something else. Surely, if you wrote one of them, you’ll get rich? I mean, the platform might suffer a little, but it’s a license to print money, right?

I figured, fine, let’s actually sit down and try writing something silly and see what happens. I decided I would give myself a couple of weeks to design and implement a small app, and I would try and make the most populist thing I could possibly think of.

Now, here’s where you can question my true motives. Was I:

  • a) darkly satirizing the current state of iPhone development
  • b) doing a serious investigation into the marketing and sales of a mass market application
  • c) trying to make a million dollars myself
  • d) all of the above

I think it’s (d) if I’m really honest. I certainly started with mostly (a) and (b) in my head, but once I was working on it, I did start to believe the hype a little bit. I figured I would write something to point out the absurdities of the app store, and worst case, if it outsold PCalc a hundred to one and I made a fortune, I could point to that as proof of my theories while relaxing on a warm bed of money.

So, I thought about it a little bit and, a few nights later, when I was sleeping – and this is the honest truth, I swear – I had a vivid dream about having been contracted to write iPhone software for cats. I can’t remember if it was the cats themselves who were the clients, but the first thing they wanted me to write was a Twitter app.

I woke up at 3:30AM and thought to myself, that’s completely absurd. Then I thought to myself, that’s completely brilliant. I had the name, product design, and everything, just handed to me on a plate by my deranged subconscious. I got up, registered the domain name, scribbled some design notes down in a BBEdit file, and went back to bed.

microblogging for your cat
featuring a multipaw interface
i has a twitter
cat face / blue feather icon
random lolcat style tweets
long tail
popup keyboard style from pcalc?
lolspeak instructions
100s of random kitteh phrases

The genius I thought was in the idea. A simple pitch of “it’s a twitter application for cats”. People’s reaction to that ranged from thinking I’d gone insane to thinking it was the best thing they’d ever heard of. I was confident I was onto a winner.

I tweeted a bit about having had a great idea for the best iPhone app ever, and got many people rather excited. This was exactly the kind of thing the mainstream media would pick up on though I thought. Either they would say it was evidence of the decline of western civilisation, or they would say it was brilliant, but either way there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

So, let’s treat this as a real contract, and write the thing. I thought about how I would design such an app, I even tested it on a real cat. Yes, my tongue was firmly in my cheek, but I did want to do it properly and write a quality product. I spent a long time on it over those weeks, to get everything done within my time limit. I generally suck at graphics, so it took me about eight hours in Photoshop, and my sister-in-law’s cat, to come up with a decent icon.

Of course, the blue feather is a reference to Twitterific. Sorry Craig, it was in the dream.

Thankfully, the hardest part on a technical level – the networking code that would talk to Twitter – was already written. Matt Gemmell’s excellent open source MGTwitterEngine did everything I needed. It’s used by Twitterific amongst other things too. And, as a bonus, it’s also written in Scotland.

I certainly had fun writing the tweets – roping in my friends and family to brainstorm ideas of what a cat would say, and translating that into lolspeak. There are quite a few knowing references to pop culture, long tails, and blue birds thrown in for good measure. I think it’s fair to say I got a bit carried away, especially with the animating mice and the sound effects.

A few weeks later, I showed off the finished app to a limited set of people. Opinion ranged from quiet bemusement to excited registering of multiple Twitter accounts. Matt Gemmell wrote to me in an IM:

You’re standing on a small hill, looking out at the landscape around. Behind you, there’s a lush and verdant valley with a shining river running through it. That valley symbolises James Thomson, creator of the venerable and much-loved DragThing, former Finder team engineer, and subject of quiet respect in the community.

Ahead is a chasm, filled with the corpses of kittens, then a blasted wasteland with strange, floating captions in a narrow, white sans-serif  typeface.

In this darker land ahead, you are the Twitkitteh guy, and parents warn children away from you at the same time as they teach their kids lessons like always using the proper crossing when going to the shops.

I want you to take stock for a moment, because you’ll never stand at this boundary again.

Seriously though, I’m looking forward to it.

I figured if it could get that kind of reaction, I must be doing something right.

And so, last Monday, it was submitted to the App Store.

END OF PART ONE… Continue to PART TWO!

Meet The Press

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about press coverage for iPhone apps – and not just because I would like some. I think there’s somewhat of a disconnect between the way iPhone development is working at the moment, and the way old-school Mac development works, that might be causing problems with coverage of iPhone apps in the Mac press.

Here’s my big theory anyway.

A traditional Mac app will get one or two significant updates a year (and some small maintenance updates of course), and the press are quite happy to cover that. They can easily write an interesting article talking about the Big New Features, developer gets good coverage and thus sales, and everybody is happy. This is the way it was always done.

But iPhone apps are typically releasing updates every month in response to user feedback, sometimes even quicker than that. Go six months between releases? That’s how old the entire history of iPhone development is. By the time you did your second release, the entire market would be different.

So, the pressure is on iPhone developers to respond quickly to their users, and that means instead of doing large monolithic releases every six months, we’re doing six smaller releases in the same timeframe. Probably if you went back and added up those monthly releases, you’d have a decent Mac-sized “What’s New” list, but individually they’re not as weighty.

Anyway, that’s great isn’t it? The development process is a lot more interactive than on the Mac side, with a much quicker turnaround on user feedback. Users get cool new stuff on a weekly basis, a constant stream of updates for all their apps. Developers are in closer touch with their users and can react faster to what the market wants. Sounds good to me. And it’s quite a rush.

There’s one small problem though. How do you get press coverage? If you write a press release every single month that says “implemented one or two medium sized features, tweaked a couple of things based on user feedback, launches faster, fixed a few bugs” you aren’t going to get any stories written about you. I speak from tearful personal experience. It’s really just not interesting enough. Best case, you’re going to get a little snippet on a website somewhere that rewords your three press release bullet points, and users care even less about them.

Added to that, that there are now a few orders of magnitude more iPhone apps than there were six months ago, and even if you filter out all the apps related to bodily functions, there’s still a whole lot of them and they all want press coverage. I imagine your typical tech journalist is seeing hundreds of iPhone app press releases per day at this point.

Case in point. The PCalc 1.4 / PCalc Lite 1.4 release last month generated almost no press coverage whatsoever, and we didn’t see a great sales spike from it. It’s doing okay still, but I think that’s mainly down to word of mouth and the free version encouraging users to check out the full version.

PCalc 1.4 may or may not be the coolest iPhone calculator on the planet, but it’s not hugely better than the PCalc 1.3 release the previous month which did get a good number of stories. Mainly because that was the first release of the free PCalc Lite, so there was something genuinely new to talk about. I can imagine some people read the press release and thought, “Didn’t I just write about that calculator a few weeks ago?”. <spacebar><spacebar><spacebar>

I know a number of Mac journalists quite well, a lot of them even help me beta test new versions. But you don’t really want to be saying to them “Er… Could you write a story about this release please?” every month. If they think something is interesting, they will write about it. And I consider some of these folk to be friends, or at least good fraquaintances, so it’s a very fine line to walk when you start pushing them for coverage. You can only lie at their feet and beg and plead for a story so many times before they start quietly backing away and look into how difficult it is to get a restraining order… I’m looking at you Jason.

I don’t know what the solution is, for either side. All developers obviously think their applications are the most important in the whole world, and they want to get their PR message out to the people. For, if only the people knew about their magical app, they would buy it in droves. There’s nothing new there, I’m sure.

But I think the iPhone has just made everything ten or a hundred times more annoying. There’s still a goldrush mentality going on, with people trampling on each other for a piece of the action. Is that going to settle down when we’re a year or two further on into the App Store? I don’t know, but I somehow doubt it. Apple’s phone marketshare is still increasing rapidly, and the dollar signs are still lighting up in the eyes of developers everywhere.

So, I throw the question open to the floor. Dear journalists, what can we do to make your lives easier? Would you like us to only send you press releases for every second or third release? We’ll cut down on the noise a bit, if you promise to have a quick read of our PR in exchange. If it looks interesting, how about a story, or even a 140 character tweet? Deal? I feel I should be writing the iPhone Developer Manifesto or something.

Oh, while I remember. If any of you influential journalist types would like a copy of PCalc to play with, please just tweet me at @jamesthomson and I’ll dm a promo code back. Or, you know, use that email thing.

Ok, instead of only just hawking PCalc at the end of this thousand words, I thought I’d mention a new app by a friend of mine, which is currently sinking into the treacherous mire of the App Store games section. Aragom by Stairways Software, aka Peter N Lewis, is a very retro shooter in the style of the similarly very old TRS-80 Star Trek game. It’s $2.99. If your earliest gaming memory was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, it’s probably not for you. Of course, it’s way before my time…

I should also say that I just spent $2.99 of the PCalc profits on a copy of Fieldrunners. It’s a very polished tower defence game for the iPhone, which I realise you all know about already and I’m late to the party, but it’s definitely a suitably therapeutic way to unwind before going to sleep…

Record Breakers

I’m impressed, PCalc 1.4 and PCalc Lite 1.4 were approved and available in about two and a half days from submission to the App Store. That’s the fastest I’ve seen so far – I submitted them late on Tuesday afternoon and they were both up there as of 3am Friday. Within two minutes of each other too, which is new.

I’ve updated the metadata on the apps so they should change release date to today when the store next pushes an update out to its servers – it usually takes an hour or two. I also changed the copyright strings to say  2009 – don’t forget that folks.

I wonder if updates to apps get the same level of scrutiny as new ones? I’d like to believe that someone out there somewhere in Cupertino has been assigned to my account and always reviews the same apps when they update. I suspect though, that they are just randomly assigned to whoever is free in the queue. Things are definitely getting faster though, but I don’t know if that’s just down to throwing more people at the problem, or improved procedures. Anyway, thank you mystery app store reviewer(s).

Both apps now sport a splashscreen, something that was previously frowned upon by The Powers That Be.

I thought I’d put a toe in the unknown waters of Apple guidelines and see if it was accepted, and it was. I’ve seen lots of apps that use one nowadays and it makes a lot of sense for PCalc anyway. The calculator themes and layouts meant you usually ended up with a jarring change of appearance after the app launched.

The initial display for an iPhone app is just a fixed picture while the actual code is loaded in the background. It’s meant to give the impression that the app has launched faster than it has, but more often than not it has the opposite effect and also makes the user think they can click on things before they really can.

I was also vaguely concerned by a new UI feature I added for 1.4.

PCalc now keeps track of the conversions (and constants) you use, and displays the most recently used at the top of each section. The idea is that you save a lot of taps if you use the same conversions frequently. I already had the code for tracking recent selections from desktop PCalc but it wasn’t wired up to any UI in the phone version.

Anyway, one of the features in the Mac version is a button that swaps the most recently used conversion round, so if you just did “Feet to Inches”, it would switch to be “Inches to Feet”. I wanted that in the phone version too, but it was tricky to find a good place to put it. Initially I just added a “Swap” button at the top left of the top level of the Conversions section. That worked, but I extended the feature to also show recent activity one level down in the individual categories. The top left position shows the back button in that case, so there was no room for the swap button.

The best place I could find was the right side of the cell that displays the conversion, so I needed a button.

I thought that the button you get for showing more information about an item was a good model – like you see in the network section of Settings.app. If you tap the button, something different happens than if you tap on the rest of the cell. There wasn’t anything appropriate provided by the system though, so I made a custom button, and painstakingly recreated something in Photoshop that was “in the style of” the system buttons but with a different symbol on it.

I really like trying to recreate iPhone and Mac UI elements in Photoshop. Most of them probably were made in Photoshop originally, so it’s fun to figure out how they implemented certain effects.

So, that’s my swap button – tap it, and it reverses the displayed conversion. You can then tap the cell to perform it.

I’d heard rumblings that Apple was cracking down on “non-standard” iPhone UI and not approving some apps because of it, so was worried this would qualify. But it was passed by the censors – either because they thought it was suitably Apple-like, or maybe they just didn’t notice. I hope the former!

Anyway, while I’ve been typing, the PCalc release dates have updated, even if the apps haven’t hit the front page yet. There seems to be a lot of caching in the App Store servers, so it can take a while for changes to be reflected everywhere – the iPhone store often shows different things to the iTunes one.

Ok, I’m off to do some product launch PR, hope you like the new releases!

Let There Be Lite

Ok, it’s been exactly a month since the release of PCalc Lite and I figured I should share my findings with y’all. Sorry, I’m not entirely sure why I used the phrase “y’all” there, but let’s roll with it.

The executive summary is that sales of the full PCalc just about doubled over the same period, and we’re seeing sales run at around 1-2% of the downloads of the free version.

Here’s a pretty graph:

Basically, the left side of the graph is the 1.2 release, and the subsequent month, whereas the right side is the 1.3 release (with added PCalc Lite) and the subsequent month. Yes, I’m not giving you my exact sales figures.

We didn’t get as much publicity on the 1.3, so the initial sales spike wasn’t as high unfortunately, but the month itself was a lot flatter, without the boom and bust we’ve seen on previous releases.

It’s still early days of course, but it looks like having a free version so people can try out the basics certainly helps. And I think I picked the functionality for PCalc Lite reasonably well. It’s pretty good for a free app, but not so useful that it’s hurting our sales, which was my main fear.

Anecdotally, I did have quite a few people tell me that they’d gone ahead and bought the full version on the strength of playing with the free one.

Last time I checked, PCalc Lite was the most popular calculator on the US App Store. Downloads of the free one are falling off, perhaps as it gets further away from the front of the listings, but we’ll see what happens with 1.4 which should be due very shortly. 

So, some key points I think:

  • Make a lite version of your app available. Potential customers of your app will be very happy that they can try out at least some of it before buying. You’re really saying “this is the quality of software I make, buy the full version with confidence that you’re not about to waste your money”.
  • Make the lite version actually useful in its own right. If it’s useful and doesn’t annoy people constantly about the full version, people will download it and tell their friends. Maybe only a small percentage of them will buy the full version, but if the original number is big enough, that’s good.
  • Why not go and download a copy of PCalc Lite 🙂

I consider this a success anyway.

Carving Statues Of Elephants

Ok, since it’s the festive season, I’ll do the good news first before ranting a bit:

  1. You can now download PCalc Lite, a free and only-slightly-less-awesome version of PCalc for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It’s available on the App Store here.
  2. Despite being a new app, was approved by Apple in a mere three days from submission to being on the store.

And the bad news:

  1. Despite being a new app, the release date was set to the day of submission, the 16th, not the day it actually turned up on the store. So, it’s already on page 3 of Utilities and won’t get the “new app bump”. I don’t know if the release date trick works for new apps, but I’ve given it a try.
  2. PCalc 1.3, an update to an existing app, is nowhere to be seen, lost in the submission queue. Well, so much for publicising them together.
  3. It’s almost impossible to plan a product release in advance with the App Store. I mean, don’t get me wrong, a three-day turnaround on a new app submission is really good to see. It’s just that it could have easily turned up next year. I was taken by surprise this morning and was scrambling to update the website at 8am.

Ok, let’s back up a little bit and talk about PCalc Lite. My PR spiel for the release says:

Available for a limited time only, PCalc Lite is a fully functional and free taste of our popular scientific calculator for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

It includes an optional RPN mode, multiple undo and redo, unit conversions and constants, as well as two stylish themes and our highly praised design.

If you like what you see, the full version has many more settings and themes, a paper tape, engineering and scientific notation, and full support for hexadecimal, octal and binary calculations.

In the continuing absence of demos or trial periods in the App Store, the idea behind PCalc Lite is to provide something useful and free that’s better than the Apple calculator, but which will also drive interest in our full version. PCalc Lite is a great calculator, but PCalc is even better!

So yes, it’s basically an advert for PCalc, but it’s actually a pretty solid calculator in its own right and miles better than the default Apple one. And did I mention it was free? So, everybody should go and download it. I can say it’s awesome all I like, but just go try it and see what you think yourself.

This is of course, another in a long line of big marketing experiments. I’ve given away something significant with the hope of making more money by doing so. The real question is, have I got the right balance between removing functionality and making it useful, so it doesn’t completely kill sales of the full version?

As the old line goes:

How do you carve a statue of an elephant? Start with a block of marble, and remove everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

So, I took PCalc and chipped away at all the features. I decided early on to keep the RPN mode which is probably the most dangerous decision. It’s something that makes it quite distinct from the Apple calculator, but it’s also an important selling point to a lot of people. I figured if I took it out, people might say that there’s no reason to download PCalc Lite over the Apple calculator in terms of features. I’d disagree politely, of course. But some of my beta testers expressed the concern that with the RPN mode in there, PCalc Lite does everything they need and they wouldn’t need to buy the full version.

All of the other options are gone, with the exception of the “easier to read digits” option and two themes. I made a new “Twilight” theme to be the default for PCalc Lite, mainly because I needed to create a distinct new icon for it, and wanted them to match. Attention to detail and all that. In the end, I ultimately added the theme as an option in the full version of 1.3 as well, as it looks pretty sweet.

I also trimmed the constants and conversions down by half, taking out all but the basics, and adding a small polite note in those sections saying you can get more in the full version.

Hex, octal and binary modes gone. Tape and stack / register display gone. Two-line display gone. Engineering and scientific notation gone. Even thousands separators. I took a positively Jobsian approach to the removal of options and features.

But the core user interface is all intact, so you should be able to get the feel of the application which I think is very important. Like the way undo and redo is implemented with swipes on the LCD, or the way the parentheses display works. The subtle details that make the difference, or so I hope.

Many of my testers commented that I should keep all the features in there, but if you tapped on anything outside of the Lite stuff, I should throw up an annoying alert saying that it’s only available in the full version.

That’s tempting, but I don’t think Apple would allow it into the store. As it is, I thought I was sailing close to the wind, given that @chockenberry had already told me about the problems they’d had with the free version of Twitterific. I think it might be different for PCalc because my Lite version isn’t ad-supported, it’s just plain free. Or I might have just been lucky.

But it was important to me to make something that was a complete product in its own right, with some gentle upselling to the full version. I’m hoping that decision will make PCalc Lite very popular, perhaps even Top 100 popular in the free apps section if I’m lucky, and I’ll make the sales up due to the sheer number of people exposed to the wholesome PCalc goodness.

I’ve said it’s only available for a limited time, but to be honest, that depends on how popular it is, and what it does for sales. If sales nose-dive from the get go, it’s going to be pretty darn limited. If sales go up significantly, then I don’t see any reason to remove it.

So, today will be spent promoting PCalc Lite, trying to give it a good start in life, and hoping this form of altruistic capitalism pays off. Wish me luck!

UPDATE – 2pm GMT

Yes, the release date trick works even for new apps! Currently PCalc Lite is on the front page of the new releases in the Utilities section of the iPhone store, though the iTunes view hasn’t updated yet. I expect it will as data gets pushed out to the servers. Ok, now to try and get some press coverage…

UPDATE 2 – 8pm GMT

Oh, App Store, you are so loveably unpredictable! I just got an email there saying that the full PCalc 1.3 release is also now approved and “Ready for Sale”. I’ve never had one of those emails at this time of day before. I wonder if somebody in Apple reads this blog?

Anyway, it’s not appeared on any of the stores as yet, but presumably it will be there soon. I’ll wait before updating pcalc.com though.

Of course, I sent out all the PCalc Lite PR emails about four hours ago, and Macworld has run a story at least so far. I can’t really send out another one now. Will assess the situation tomorrow I think…

Go Towards The Lite

Apologies for my silence over the last few weeks gentle reader, I caught the man-flu that’s going around these parts, and haven’t felt up to much until now. Two weeks ago, I started working on a PCalc 3.4 release, and in less than a day of highly productive work I had ported the themes from the iPhone version back to the Mac. 24 hours later had a temperature of 39°C and I haven’t touched the code since… That’ll teach me. At the moment, I just have the tail end of a cold, so it’s back to work.

Anyway, one of the things I was mulling over in my feverish state was the possibility of doing a free “Lite” version of PCalc for iPhone.

In the continuing absence of demos or trial periods, I was thinking I should create something useful to give people a taste of the full awesome PCalc experience and encourage them to buy it, but not quite so full or as awesome as to cannibalise our sales. The App Store is filling up with such little tastes at the moment, so it certainly qualifies as a trend. And I’ve heard at least some anecdotal evidence from other developers that lite versions can increase sales.

This is more a “pre-mortem” rather than post – I haven’t started working on it yet, but I thought I’d encourage some debate before I do.

There are two big questions really. The obvious one is “what functionality should I remove?” and the slightly less obvious one is “what will Apple actually let me put in the store?”.

Erica Sadun wrote a nice guide on Ars recently entitled “App Store lessons: creating demos for fun and profit“. She says:

“Demos help sell products for very little overhead. Developers need only cut down their feature set, change a few options and ship the result out to App Store. From a financial point of view, demos are made of win.”

But I’ve also been hearing from illustrious people like Craig Hockenberry that Apple is insisting that “free and paid versions have to be feature equivalent” and that explicit upselling language isn’t allowed. The Iconfactory has a free ad-supported version of Twitterific as well as a premium version at $9.99. They are pretty much identical in terms of functionality, with the exception of no adverts in the premium version and an additional theme. Apparently that’s all Apple would allow them to do.

So which is it? Clearly, I can’t just produce a feature equivalent version of PCalc and give it away for free. Ed Voas wryly suggested I just remove the “9” button, which isn’t actually a bad idea in terms of letting people try everything without giving away the farm, but I suspect that Apple wouldn’t find it quite so droll. 

So far, I haven’t been able to track down a definitive policy statement from Apple on the matter. It’s easy enough for a game – you just include the first couple of levels and get people wanting to play more. And you can do that while staying within the (apparently unwritten) guidelines.

So what is PCalc Lite going to be then?

I could ship it with some very basic layouts for a start – remove functionality that way. If you think of a layout as a game level, that kind of works. I’ll lose the binary, octal and hex, some of the fancier scientific stuff.

Likewise with the themes – just ship with the one, probably the original “Blue Sun” one. Most people seem to prefer the fancier coloured ones, so it’s a chance to convince people to upgrade there. Likewise, get rid of the LCD colours, and the two-line display option.

Conversions and constants, also should go – or perhaps just include one or two as a demonstration.

I should probably keep the RPN mode though, that means I’ll have something to offer over the built in calculator.

So yes, I think the idea should be to provide a very simple RPN calculator that hints at what you will get with the full version of PCalc, but is still quite useful in its own right. And if it proves to be really popular at the expense of sales, I guess I can always kill it!

Any thoughts, please add them below.

Bonus trivia, Apple fact fans. I made a DragThing Lite many moons ago, back in the days when I was working at Apple. I was asked by management to put one together – to potentially ship as part of Mac OS 8.5 – when it didn’t look like the in-house app switcher would be ready in time. I made a quick prototype over a weekend, but in the end I think I remember the development time was extended for the OS in general and it wasn’t needed. So I just shipped the Lite version myself with DragThing 2. But yeah, DragThing was nearly part of the OS.

Just A Big Popularity Contest

With every positive thing Apple does, there’s always something else that seems to annoy me. Just installed the 2.2 OS which is great, and have also been playing around with the new phone version of the App Store. Some interesting changes, but not all good from a developer perspective.

The main thing I noticed was that in the updated “Categories” view, there’s now a new switch at the top to sort apps in that category by “Top Paid”, “Top Free”, or “Release Date”.

Previously, categories were only sorted by release date, but now the default view for a category is to show off the top paid apps. And if you set the category to list by release date, it will forget that setting the next time you go back into the store, and present you with the top paid apps again.

What does this mean? Well, on the phone at least, it means that most people when they go into a particular category will first see the top 25 paid apps, and then will probably look at the top 25 free apps. Possibly they’ll look at the new stuff, but it’s no longer the first (and only) thing they’ll see. So, if you have a brand new release or an update, there’s less opportunity for people to see it. Which is of course not going to be good for your sales or indeed you chances of ever getting into that elusive top 25 club…

Ok, James, but how is giving the user more control over what they see in the store a bad thing? You were only just complaining about that last week. Make your mind up.

Well, part of the problem with the store at the moment in my opinion is the strong emphasis on the top selling apps. It’s like an echo chamber – the top selling apps are prominently displayed in the store, so they sell very well. If you’re not a best seller, then you get relegated to the dark corners of the store and thus don’t sell very well. That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

Something like PCalc which is pretty specialist – calculators just aren’t sexy I’m afraid – isn’t ever going to make it into the top 25 bestseller list for a big undefined category like “Utilities”, so will have a hard time getting noticed if that’s the focus. Of course, if you actually made a separate “Calculators” category, it would probably be close to the top.

In iTunes, the default category view is still by release date, and the other options are for “Most Popular” and “Name”. I do wonder if the new category sorting options are due to appear in iTunes too. It would make sense for the two stores to be consistent. But if they do, then I think the “Availability Trick” isn’t going to be worth much, as people just aren’t going to see what’s new anyway unless they actively go looking for it.

I’m sure this is perfectly normal retail economics, and I wouldn’t actually be complaining if I was actually in the top 25, being featured by Apple in commercials, keynotes, and their new iPhone Your Life site. But I’m not, so I am.

I want a store sorted by quality, not by popularity. Is that so hard?

A PCalc 1.2 Post-Mortem? Not Yet

Okay, it’s a little early for another post-mortem, it’s only been out just over 24 hours. But day one sales of PCalc 1.2 were ten times that of PCalc 1.1 – which was arguably a bigger deal in terms of new features than the admittedly cool additions of 1.2.

So far, press coverage has still been somewhat limited despite my plea, although Mr Snell and Mr Gruber were most kind yesterday. Early days, anyway.

More analysis soon, but I’d have to conclude that getting PCalc onto the front of the Utilities section on the store was clearly very important.

A PCalc 1.2 Press Release

Dear Member of the Press,
I know what you are thinking, “Not another iPhone press release, and for a calculator at that!”. But, please bear with me for just five minutes to hear my impassioned plea.
This isn’t some throwaway application I put together in a weekend – it’s an application that’s had over six months of solid development love over five releases, itself built on over sixteen years of coding. It currently has over sixty 5-star customer reviews on the App Store, and thousands of die-hard fans on both the iPhone and the Mac.
So, yes, it’s a calculator. But it’s not just another calculator.
I think we got off to a bad start last time with version 1.1. It was my fault entirely. I came out with this big release I’d spent months on, sent out my press releases, and not a soul ran a story with the exception of that nice Mr Gruber fellow. Sales were quite poor and we both said some things we regretted in the morning.
But I understand, don’t worry. You’re tired of the deluge of iPhone press releases, and everything you see just starts to look the same after a while. I didn’t do anything to make it an interesting read and, let’s face it, I’m kind of fighting a losing battle with a calculator which – I’ll be the first to admit – is next to the flashlights and to-do list apps in terms of reaching saturation point on the store.
So here’s the thing. Send me your iPhone’s device ID (*) and I’ll send you back a copy of PCalc 1.2. Have a play around with it and if you don’t think it’s the best app you’ve ever used on the phone then that’s cool. But if you like it, how about some coverage? We can put the whole 1.1 incident behind us, and move on together.
Hugs,
James
(*) The “Ad Hoc Helper” app on the store is a good way of finding it.
PS, I nearly forgot, here’s the press release:
TLA Systems Ltd are pleased to announce another significant new release of their advanced calculator PCalc for the iPhone. 
It’s available to download today from the App Store. Review copies are available on request.   

What’s New?
Version 1.2 includes an optional two-line display for use with the RPN mode, so you can see the first two items on the RPN stack. This was actually the number one feature request after the initial release of PCalc on the iPhone, and we’re happy to add it for all the engineers out there.
There are two new calculator themes included too – “Seventy Three” a sleek dark retro style, and “Rough Draft” a fun drawn blueprint look which will be rather familiar to DragThing users.
The full list of changes is here:   

   <http://www.pcalc.com/iphone/history.html>

Also, for those people who want to see what goes on behind the screenshots, our brand new developer blog is available here:
Screenshot
Here’s a shot of the two-line display, complete with the new “Seventy Three” theme:
More Information   

PCalc for iPhone is available to buy today at $9.99 from the iTunes Application Store at the following link:

   <http://phobos.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=284666222&mt=8>

More information and screenshots are available at:

   <http://www.pcalc.com/>

Thank you for your interest.