Dear Members Of The Press

Trying a slightly different self-deprecating approach to the press release today. We’ll see if it works. New PCalc updates for the iPhone and Mac OS X, all out today. The App Store is doing its usual trick of not listing new things on time, so at this point I’m relying strictly on press coverage to get some sales. Fingers crossed, please.

Continue reading “Dear Members Of The Press”

Twitkitteh, Where Did It All Go Wrong? Part 2

I trust you have read the background to all this in Part 1. If not, go read it now. We’ll all wait.

Right, so where were we? Oh yes, I’d just submitted Twitkitteh to the app store nearly two weeks ago and was full of childlike hope and dreams. Would it be a success? Would cute animal Twitter clients be the future of the iPhone? Would I make enough money from it to pay for the domain name and the website?

Ok, full disclosure time.

Since Twitkitteh released about a week ago, we have sold exactly a hundred and one copies, at roughly 99c each. That makes it about £50 in terms of income at current exchange rates after Apple’s 30% cut. About 14 quid of that went on the domain name for a year, and about another 11 quid on hosting the domain on our existing server.

That leaves us £25 profit for three week’s work. Oh, and minus the 120 or so engineer-hours spent designing, writing, and promoting it that could have been spent on something else. So, depending on exactly how much you rate iPhone engineers at on an hourly basis, you can calculate exactly how much we lost on the whole project.

Not, as you will admit, the resounding success we were all hoping for. To be honest, when I went into it, I figured it would do absolutely nothing, or be the next big thing. Given that the reaction of most people to the idea was to ask when I was going to be retiring, I was kind of hoping it would tend towards the latter. My actual goal was to make enough extra money for a new laptop or two, but as it turns out, I don’t think I could afford a reconditioned 2nd generation iPod shuffle.

This is really the first thing I’ve written that’s not been a success, and is – if I’m honest with myself – really quite firmly in the failure camp. I’m not sure exactly how to deal with that. There’s a whole other post waiting to be written about the independent developer as artist, and how we view our creations as extensions of ourselves. If they don’t do well, we do take it personally. But that, as I said, is for another discussion.

So – and you should have really realised where we were going with this from the title of last week’s post – where did it all go wrong?

I think there are a lot of factors. I think the product – as it is written – is perfectly fine. It’s silly, and intentionally so, but those people who get it think it’s great. It does what it says. I don’t see it being any more silly or less worthwhile than some stuff on the app store which is selling thousands of copies a day, anyway.

I think, while I assumed I was aiming for something mass-market, I didn’t really. It’s a common fallacy to think that just because you take three things that are big and popular – cats, iPhones, and Twitter in this case, then a product that is the intersection of all three must be just plain huge. But as it turns out, a lot of people said “that’s great, but I don’t have an iPhone”. Or indeed, “that’s great, but I don’t have a cat”.

The initial sales weren’t helped by the fact that while I got the “Ready for sale” email from Apple to say Twitkitteh was on the store, it wasn’t actually listed anywhere. If you searched for it by name, it was there, but it wasn’t listed under the recently released applications, or the alphabetical section. In iTunes that was fixed in 24 hours, but on the phone it took much longer. Given that significant sales come from people just randomly finding your app in the store from it being at the top of the recent apps, that wasn’t a great start. Submitting an app just after a big update to the App Store software might not have been a clever move…

Also, while there was an impressive grassroots movement on Twitter to promote it, led by the iPhone Twitterati of  @atebits, @chockenberry, and @mattgemmell, very few places picked up on my press releases, with the notable exception of Rene Ritchie at The iPhone Blog. Lack of press being a common theme here during PCalc development of course, but I assumed there would be a lot more mainstream interest this time round.

I also hoped that the absurd nature of the app would at least get some reaction, one way or another. I submitted press releases – each with an iTunes promo code for a download, of course – to a much wider assortment of sites, outside of the traditional Mac folk I would normally market to. I worked solidly for about 2-3 days just trying to get a bite with my PR hook without success. Surely somebody like Engadget, or Gizmodo, or even The Register would pillory me. Apparently not.

Perhaps the Mac sites, who are still unsure about how to cover the sea of iPhone apps generally, were put off by the whole feline frivolousness, and the non-technical sites were put off by the iPhone / Twitter / Cat 2.0 side. Not everyone gets my sense of humour either it has to be said, and were taking things entirely seriously. Some people did though – Jason Snell of Macworld said:

This is like performance art via app. Or practical joke. It really works, though.

Rene Ritchie added:

We can’t tell if Twitkitteh is shrewd marketing or wicked satire at the state of the App Store and Twitter. We suspect it’s equal parts both, finished with a good shot of lulz.

I tried using Facebook, digg, reddit buttons on the website, but they only got a few clicks – mainly – after some investigation – by people who I know personally. I still think it’s a mainstream press story away from success, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now. It very briefly made it to number 46 in the Social Networking category of the App Store, but dropped off quickly. Sales yesterday were a mere six, and the chatter on Twitter has dropped off markedly now.

So, yes, failure as a product. But also an interesting success in terms of learning a little more about the mysterious ways of the App Store.

Lesson 1 – You cannot manufacture a hit record.

I went into this deliberately trying to create something wildly populist, and ended up making something that’s sold significantly less than a scientific calculator. And I thought I was being pretty smart about it too.

Lesson 2 – It’s a lottery.

Any old nonsense put up on the App Store, priced at 99c, will not make you rich. Some people will get rich, but the odds are, it’s not going to be you. As more and more people come to the App Store gold deposit, thinking they are going to make a fortune, the less gold there is going to be to go round. Yes, writing a good product is important too, but it’s not a guarantee of success.

Oh well, I gave it a good shot. Worst case, I learned about a number of new iPhone technologies I hadn’t looked at before, so I’m in a better state for my third iPhone app. And that will be THE GREATEST IPHONE APP EVER.

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.


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…

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!


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 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?

Predictably Unpredictable

So, PCalc 1.2 was submitted to the App Store last Thursday, and the Apple approval process before it shows up on the store has taken exactly six days for the last four releases. So, I figured it would appear on the store around Wednesday this week. Plenty of time to write some PR and plan my marketing strategy then.

Apparently not.

Woke up this morning to find the “Ready for Sale” email from Apple sitting smiling in my inbox. So, four days from submission to being on the store this time, and that included a weekend.

Given that developers have been so unhappy about how long the submission process takes, it seems somewhat churlish to complain about the process getting faster, but it’s still annoyingly unpredictable. At least it didn’t hit on a Sunday morning I guess.

I think Apple should at least give you an ETA when you submit something to the store, and perhaps daily updates as the submission queue changes. It would be nice to get a heads-up about when your software is going to be available to the public.

I’m currently scrambling to update the website with the 1.2 information. I’ve also submitted new screenshots via iTunes Connect and I’ve done the “Availability Trick” to hopefully move PCalc onto the front page of Utilities on the store. So far the store hasn’t updated with any of my changes, but fingers crossed that will happen soon and I can do a bit better from this release than I did with 1.1.

I’ll send out my PR this afternoon, as soon as I’ve actually written it. Wish me luck!


Ok, App Store has updated with metadata changes, and we are currently the second app listed on the front page of Utilities on the store on iTunes. Excellent! Oddly though, still not listed on front page of the phone store. I’ve seen changes happen on one before the other, so it might just be lag between different servers. We’ll see. Anyway, stage one completed – PCalc is up and visible on the store.


PCalc now listed as the first app in the Utilities section on the phone store. Result! Now all I need is to get some PR out this afternoon and we’ll see what difference this all makes to sales today. Feeling good…