A PCalc 1.1 Post-Mortem

Ok, so perhaps “post-mortem” is not the right term at all, as that implies PCalc died horribly under mysterious circumstances and that the CSIs are trying to find out who the murderer is.

Oh, no, wait a minute. Now that I think about it, that’s exactly it.

It’s been about a week since the PCalc 1.1 update hit the App Store, but most of you probably didn’t even know it was out. The real question is “why?” and I’ll try and answer that.

Let’s backtrack a little bit, back six months or so to when the iPhone SDK was first available. My standard approach to any new code framework is to try and port PCalc to it – I originally wrote the thing 16 years ago as a way to learn Mac programming when I was at university. I don’t have this amazing love of calculators I must confess, more that I like designing really good user interfaces.

When the SDK was announced, another PCalc port was an obvious thing to do. As on the Mac when I first wrote it, the default Apple calculator wasn’t exactly sophisticated. The nice thing about the PCalc code is that the main maths engine is very separate from the UI, and that code is itself very portable. So, I could get the maths engine running on the phone (which I did in about a day of downloading the SDK) and then could start writing a completely new UI around it from scratch.

That gave me a really good head start on making a product. It was a well defined problem, and I had a lot of core functionality already working. So I could really concentrate on learning the Cocoa Touch side of things and getting into the iPhone mindset, rather than having to write something brand new.

My plan was to do PCalc quickly, so I’d have it ready on day one of the store opening, and see what the response was like. The App Store was even more opaque at the point when I first started working. Developers didn’t know when our apps would need to be finished by, what the store would look like, or even whether we would be accepted into the developer program in the first place.

So, it was intended as a toe into the iPhone software market. If it did well, I’d consider making my next big project an iPhone one. If it bombed completely, then I’d steer clear for a while – at least until things became more mature.

I worked away on it for months, and we were eventually accepted as official iPhone developers so I could now develop on an actual device. Skip forward to July 10th, and the App store went live. It took a while before we saw sales figures, but when we did, they were Really Really Good. We’re not talking Super Monkey Ball sales here, but compared to how PCalc sells on the Mac (and, DragThing sells, for that matter), they were much better than I thought they would be. Put it this way, PCalc on the iPhone out-sold PCalc on the Mac within the first few months. I mean, total sales of PCalc on the Mac ever. Not counting the million or so copies that were bundled with Macs in the US of course.

Ok, so there’s a lot of well-documented pain involved with iPhone development – the NDA is now gone of course, but that’s only the tip of the pointy iceberg – but extrapolating the first few months of sales out to a year suggested that this was not only a viable business, it might actually be much more viable than all of the rest of our business put together.

Sales started to slow down over time, but with each of the 1.0.1 and 1.0.2 updates they went back up into the stratosphere as PCalc moved to the front page of the Utilities section again.

Here’s where it gets interesting. On the Mac, developers have long known the power of an update. You put out a new version, and as well as making your existing customers that bit happier, you get some press coverage and a nice boost in sales. There’s typically a big spike that lasts two or three days, and this drops off fairly quickly back to previous levels once all the coverage dies down.

On the iPhone however, the spike was more of a gentle ski slope – sales jumped up ten times, but didn’t die off in two or three days – it was more like two or three weeks. It seemed like dark magic to this Mac developer. It just didn’t behave like I expected at all. And it seemed to be the store itself that was casting the spell. Most people seemed to be just looking at the first few pages of any given category, and not venturing into the far corners of the store. And not many people seemed to be influenced by the press coverage, with some exceptions.

Anyway, the main point being that iPhone software had a much longer “tail” of sales after an update than Mac software, and that’s really tempting to a developer. When PCalc 1.0 shipped, the sales were so good, the only real option of what to work on next was more PCalc.

After a couple of minor updates to respond to the first wave of feedback, and add some cool but relatively small features, I decided I should spend a long time addressing some of the big ticket items that I never had the time to do for the first release.

It was worth it, I thought – PCalc is still selling well, so I can spend a good month or two of solid development trying to address most of the requests people had made after 1.0. Specifically, they wanted much more flexibility in the layout and appearance of the calculator, as well as to have it behave more like some of the classic HP calculators from days of old.

So, I started on a fairly ambitious project to rip out a lot of the UI I’d already written and replace it with a new system whereby the appearance and layout weren’t fixed or related, they were loaded from separate XML files.

Inside PCalc, there are now folders of ‘.pcalclayout’ and ‘.pcalctheme’ documents, which describe each aspect. The user can choose which they want to use independently for the horizontal and vertical modes of the calculator. And, in theory, new layouts and themes can be added without any code changes, including the possibility of downloadable content.

The theme code was actually simpler than I imagined. DragThing has had dock themes for a while, and, despite being an evil Carbon application the graphics code is about as modern as it gets – it’s just pure Quartz which is the common graphics layer on both the Mac and the iPhone. So I had the idea, “Why don’t I just use the code I’ve already written?”. And, it was simpler than I thought – I got it running inside PCalc on the phone in a few days, a week or two to get it running fast enough on a slower device like the phone without using up lots of memory in the process.

That made me really happy, because the DragThing theme engine is very powerful and it goes to show the kind of – if you will forgive the word – synergy you can have between the Mac and the iPhone from a development perspective. You can pretty much use exactly the same low-level code on both platforms. There’s a big advantage to being an iPhone developer from a Mac background.

Anyway, right towards the end of development on 1.1, I heard that the App Store was going to change so that updates were no longer going to count towards the release date of your app. And worse, everything was now going to be sorted by the initial submission date of the app. And since PCalc was there on day one, it meant it was now on the very last page.

“Hmm…”, I thought, “that’s not going to be good”. And I was right. Sales went from very healthy to call-in-the-coroner levels.

I submitted the final 1.1 build on Tuesday, hoping that it would turn up six days later on the store (which seems to be the usual delay I’ve seen). As it was, it turned up exactly a week later, otherwise known as New MacBook Day. Since there was very little point in sending out press releases due to the noise, I held off until the day after.

One of the advantages of sharing code between the phone and the Mac is that the changes can go the other way too – I’ve been moving the iPhone changes back to the desktop as well, and while waiting for the App Store to approve 1.1, I was also working on a 3.3.1 release for the Mac. It was ready, so I combined both releases last Wednesday, hoping for a bigger splash.

On Wednesday morning, I could see the sales figures from the App Store – there was no sales spike at all. Without any PR to help matters, sales were exactly the same as the day before, and PCalc was still languishing on the last page of the Utilities section.

I took a deep breath, and sent out the press releases… And nothing. Virtually nobody picked up on the new versions, with the notable exception of John Gruber at Daring Fireball. So, I’m pretty sure that the Mac-style 2-3 day modest spike I saw in sales on both iPhone and Mac was entirely down to him. Thanks John.

So, where does that leave things? Good question.

I’m pretty sure PCalc is a great iPhone application. Lots of people have said very kind things about version 1.0, and 1.1 is much better than it in many ways. I don’t think the current lack of sales is anything to do with the quality of the software.

As it stands, the App Store is too crowded to find anything if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for by name. Last time I checked, searching for “calculator” didn’t even locate PCalc, despite it being in the description. There are dozens of calculators too at this point, of widely varying quality and price. Yes, we cost $9.99, which is apparently now considered a luxury item price, but I think that’s quite reasonable for what you get.

It is due to the global economic meltdown? Perhaps. But I don’t think people have stopped buying iPhone software. If you aren’t a featured item on the front page, or in the list of top-selling apps, once you slip off the front page of your category, your sales are likely to drop significantly. So, the only way to be a top-selling popular application is to be a top-selling popular application. Or somehow catch the attention of the mainstream.

So what should I do now, gentle reader? “Build it and they shall come” no longer seems to work in the iPhone world, just like it’s long since stopped in the Mac world. Getting press coverage is increasingly hard, and people seem to be paying less and less attention to it anyway. This doesn’t seem to be a particularly sustainable situation.

How should you promote software? Sending out press releases to the top twenty Mac websites doesn’t always get you coverage, and based on my referral logs at least, some of the bigger sites aren’t as popular as they once were. Stories that really just restate your press release aren’t likely to hold the attention of their readers anyway. Do I need a full-time PR person who will schmooze on my behalf? Should I cut the price? Would I sell more than ten times as many copies if the price was ten times lower?

It’s hard to justify another big update to PCalc if I can’t turn around sales, but I do really want to keep working on it. Should I just write a completely new iPhone app each week and sell them all for 99c? Is there much point working on big iPhone apps at all with the App Store in its current form?

All your comments and suggestions are most welcome.

In the meantime, why not visit the App Store and buy a copy?

Author: James Thomson

Indie iOS / Mac developer, maker of PCalc and DragThing. Occasional writer, conference speaker, and podcast pundit.

39 thoughts on “A PCalc 1.1 Post-Mortem”

  1. Recorder (by Retronyms) has been in the AppStore for quite a while too, but they are currently on page 2 of the Business category with an Oct 14 release date. I believe they are accomplishing this feat by doing full version number updates rather than dot releases.

  2. I would suggest getting a scaled down free version onto the app store. This gets you noticed under the “free” word search. Maybe make “new” version instead of an update. That helps get you back to the front of the store. The more versions you have the better exposure you have. Now I’m not saying making 20 versions but find the loop holes. Just off the top of my head stuff, not guarantees or maybe not even smart ideas but try and work with the character of the store functions.

  3. I think I understand that Apple’s still tweaking the dials of App Store incentives and how that effects App Store products. Some developers were probably “gaming the system” by releasing many minor updates, and I guess it’s in Apple’s interest to minimize that.

    But so far their cure is worse than the disease. The way the incentive works now is to motivate developers to release many tiny individual apps, which are then orphaned.

    I hope they can figure out a decent middle ground.

  4. James.

    I wish I had a brilliant idea to help you out. PCalc is *awesome*. I bought a copy for iPhone as soon as I found it (thanks, Gruber). $10 is completely reasonable, though I would have preferred $5. 😉 I don’t know what to do about the App store. The signal:noise ratio has gotten so low, that I don’t even browse anymore. There is just too much crap, frankly. Apple ought to be leveraging the quality Apps, like PCalc, so people don’t get burned out on crap software, which could easily happen…


  5. I don’t know about a free version, but I think this release qualifies as 2.0 release, with the themes, and all. PCalc definitely works as advertised. Good work!

    Kick it up to 2.0 with some more themes, and maybe a business mode: then advertise like heck on /. and arstechnica?

  6. If you manually change the Availability Date in iTunes Connect, you can update the release date that is used in the App Store. It won’t allow you to set it any earlier than your latest update, but that gets you exactly the behavior you had before.

    I’ve had two updates to FatWatch, and used that trick the second time, but the “bounce” was not as big as after the first update. I think it is important to remember that when the App Store opened, there was a lot of pent-up demand for apps from original iPhone users. That’s gone now. You need to establish your baseline using more recent data, even if it is less exciting to do so.

    I’m struggling with a lot of the same questions (FatWatch also sells for $9.99). When I feel the product is ready, I plan to promote FatWatch in domain-related publications (e.g., dieting websites), not just Mac media. Perhaps you should be targeting engineers/scientists rather than Mac users.

  7. James, thanks for your excellent post. I own PCalc and really like it. I love using RPN with PCalc.

    We developed VelaClock for iPhone. Our original price was $9.95, but we lowered it to $3.95. We are definitely facing some marketing challenges.

  8. Great to see coverage of this App Store Issue. My app, iNetwork Test, is sitting on the last page, 31, of utilities currently second to last with a release date of June 25. I would love to continue to develop and add features but if new versions do not produce a spike in sales (or any, for that matter) it is tough as a business to justify continuing development. I get emails every day from very happy users, but have yet to find a good way to sustain the profitability of iPhone development.

  9. Very simple – if it’s allowed.

    Change the interface, submit it as a new App. Goodbye PCalc, Hello, PCompute.

    Suddenly, you have all that sweet new business.

    Do this every month, cycling through all possible calculator names – “Pcalculator”, “Pnumbers”, “Pfigure”, and every month, catch that spike!

    Ah well, it’s a good idea, at least.

    What needs to happen though, is an amazon style directory. The lack of a long tail based on either sales, average of two different type of reviews (professional and user), # of reviews, when submitted, first submitted, and then apps SIMILAR to the apps chosen – apple needs to fix this fast.

  10. I’d start looking at advertising on specific sites that users of quality iPhone apps (nice UI, good functionality) might browse – I’m thinking MacThemes, the Daring Fireball RSS feed, and other such places (iphone app specific blogs maybe?). I personally love seeing targeted ads like that.

    You could get involved with or create a similar site to http://www.appstoregems.com, leveraging the power of multiple quality apps for marketing.

    And I agree with making a free or cut down version – Pcalc looks sweet, but I personally couldn’t justify the 9.99 price. My sweet spot for apps seems to be between 2 and 5 dollars – anything more and I seriously think about the purchase before. Anywhere in that zone and I don’t even consider the price – I feel it’s a no brainer for something useful.

  11. I’ve used PCalc on the Mac since… Panther I believe, and I’ve loved it, always choosing it over the Mac OS calculator. I have no useful advice to offer, but I’ll certainly advertise the iPhone version on my Italian blog (which currently has more visits than the one linked to my name here), hoping to improve the sales a little.

    Keep up the good work, and all the best!


  12. My app Flickup was released in late July but somehow it’s on the second page of the Photography category with a release date of September 29th (the day I submitted the latest version, not the date it was actually approved for sale).

    As Benjamin mentioned above, you might want to try fiddling with the availability date in iTunes Connect.

  13. James,

    I love and own PCalc on both my Mac and my iPhone – latest versions. You have an excellent product albeit in a very competitive field. Thank you very much for excellent products.

    I was at HP when the HP 35 was first introduced and remember clearly the impact that expensive thing had on the market. Price was no object and I could walk in to a customer premises and would get asked to visit with the CEO just so he could see the thing because everyone knew I had an company issued HP 35. Coming from slide rules, trigonometry tables and pencil scratching the 35 was a very big deal! I have used PRN now for so many years that I really cannot use an algebraic calculator with any efficiency and won’t buy a calculator (software or otherwise) that doesn’t accommodate it.

    The most significant competitor was Texas Instruments with algebraic devices and we had t-shirts made that said:


    in an attempt to convince people to “think different”.

    I have no experience with the App Store but I can understand some of your frustrations. Maybe time will help work those out. Still, I can see that the promotional possibilities are limited and that you likely need to do more on your own.

    My experience with marketing would indicate that price is not an issue and that, in fact, you could hurt yourself by cutting it. You have a high quality product. Do not denigrate it.

    From a promotion POV have you tried some of the more scientifically oriented Mac sites? Educationally oriented Mac sites – schools, colleges, etc? Taken some different approaches like, maybe, offering bulk deals to schools or businesses? Might brief application notes illustrating benefits help? Or even videos and podcasts?

    Thank you for PCalc. If you want to talk more drop an email.


  14. Although I wish you success, and your application looks very good and clearly has a strong pedigree, it doesn’t seem likely that relying on Apple and press releases is going to be enough to market it. Some of the other comments here have already suggested targeted advertising – have you considered going to uni engineering students, programmer web sites like stackoverflow.com, st cetera?

    As for people complaining about $10 being a high price, maybe you don’t want customers who are only willing to pay $2?

  15. I think the whole pricing structure on the app store is in major flux right now, with many game developers and other eager beavers slashing the prices of their apps to grab some volume and maybe get in the top 100. Look at apps like Cro-Mag, which initially sold for $10, but was dropped to $2 (side note: that has got to piss off early customers). I haven’t dropped any of my app prices, and don’t plan to, but I am having a hard time settling on the price for my 5th app (a game) that will be released soon. I will say this — if game devs keep messing with prices and push the app store economy into a lower price range, it’s going to drive me away.

  16. Hi James, I’ve had a very similar experience to you with my iPhone app iKana touch. The first month of sales was insane and as you say the tail off is much slower than with Mac app sales. After releasing a 1.1 update a few days ago I’ve only seen a minor up-tick in volume (even though by tweaking my release date I got back into the front page of the education category). So it could be that people are getting tighter with their dollars or that I’ve already picked all the ‘low hanging fruit’ in terms of customers. Either way it’s troubling.

  17. Hopefully a well run app. listing repository will form where sorting is done right (price, date, recent release, recent update, etc.).

    This thing is so damn new! I guess it hurts to be on the bleeding edge.

    http://appshopper.com (not a bad start)

  18. You hit one of the key problems on the head right in your post. If a user searches the store for “calculator” and you don’t show up there is no way they will ever find you. You need to do whatever it takes to get in those search results — even if it means changing the name of the app to include the separate word calculator.

  19. I usually use the iPhone native App Store interface. Your app shows up as a recent addition – they haven’t yet broken the native interface’s sorting.

    I hesitate to post this, since they may notice and “fix” (ie: break) it…

  20. One of my kids once asked me, when I fired-up Xcode at home (again), “Aren’t you done with your program yet?” Done? I’m never Done. That word simply doesn’t apply to software. It leaks out to the public sometimes, but that’s someone else’s job.

    Hmm. Maybe iPhone software can be… Done.

  21. I found your app just after release by searching for “RPN”. There’s just no other way to use a calculator for me. Does Apple provide a list of search terms resulting in sales?

    $10 is more than reasonable for an app of this quality and utility. It’s way less than what I paid for my 12C and 48G. I’ve purchased a lot of apps from the App Store, and PCalc is the only one I ever really use.

    The ‘Calc’ in the name should be obvious enough, but the icon for the app isn’t particularly revealing about the nature of the app. ’42’ is clever, but it doesn’t scream ‘calculator’.

  22. I just got the first update to iTimeZone, 1.1, released through the App Store yesterday (1 day approval!). I used Benjamin Ragheb’s trick (thank you!) of changing the availability date, so now iTimeZone is at the top of the Travel category for releases. Apple should be automatically doing this,
    I am also looking at how to further promote the app because I think its good and I don’t want it to die. Thinking of buying some ads through Google Adwords, see if I can goose sales. Also, I have been publishing a bunch of articles on my blog (http://www.innerexception.com) about iTimeZone’s design, and iPhone app design in general, hoping that readers and possibly word of mouth helps.

  23. No brilliant idea’s here, although this post did make me buy it so, huh, maybe that was your plan all along!

    Assuming a 2.0 release would get a newer date and get bumped up the list, would you have to charge 1.0 users to upgrade? That might be alright feature wise, but it seems too soon time wise.

    Pricing is tricky, mostly I feel because you can’t try a demo. Free versions are okay for games but what do you take out of an app? Really you want to use something, find you can’t live without it, lay down the cash.
    Maybe a not free “lite” version? Go the PCalc / PCalc Pro route?

    It’s 5.99 in the UK store, I paid 3.10 for my coffee this morning…. so what the heck

  24. If Apple feels that developers have been gaming the system by releasing updates too frequently, they will surely close the “availability date” loophole in short order.

    Apple has created this problem for themselves by limiting choice to the App Store. As pointed out above, if this doesn’t change, developers will resort to many small, one-trick apps that are quickly abandoned in favor of the next one. The store will suffer.

    This is addressing the symptom, not the cause. If developers are abusing updates, then choke them off. Compare the current version to the new one. If they are only superficially different and no reproducible bugs can be shown as fixed, then throttle the update. Apple has published guidelines for update frequency. Why not enforce them?

  25. It looks to me like the iPhone app economy is just “normalizing” and becoming simular to other software markets. As the author states, you wouldn’t expect to sell very many copies of a Mac app if all you did was post it to VersionTracker and call it a day.

    I was shocked when I got the sales numbers for my first app, far above and beyond expectations, so I went down the same road, took all the feedback into consideration and cranked to release an update that both addressed bugs and added (unique) features. As it turns out, nothing magic happened and I’m going to have to work on selling the app the old fashioned way, by getting the word out about it to an audience that finds it valuable.

    No big surprise, and disappointing only in light of those first few magic months.

    This talk of “gaming” the system is reminiscent of the “search engine optimization” marketing approach so popular in the early 2000’s. As the technology improves, these methods become less and less useful. Better to focus on good old-fashioned “getting the word out on the streets”, and if you are providing a product of value, you won’t have to slash prices or perform other un-dignified acts to keep your sales healthy.

    Now to go and follow my own advice…

  26. After attending the iPhone Tech Talk in LA, I had a great email exchange with John Geleynse, the Director of Software Technology Evangelism at Apple about the iPhone and my question about how might a developer keep decent sales going say through a 6 month period and not a 6 week (or 6 day!) period. That was a concern we had about ‘porting’ our Serene Saver video desktop app to the iPhone.

    He said that the App Store is really to be looked at as just a distribution vehicle and that developers need to market their applications as they do an application developed for the desktop, i.e. web ads, print ads, whatever is normally done for a software product.

    I think that might be a solution, but I don’t yet know of any place to really do that properly for the iPhone. Plus, how many iPhone users are really into researching or reading ads about quick impulse buy software apps? I don’t know how well it would go over – to spend marketing money on iPhone apps. It is yet to be seen I guess.

    I don’t know if Apple will really ever robustly address marketing of iPhone apps. They are doing great with the iPhone right now and probably think that the task of advertising and marketing iPhone apps, if it is an issue and needs to be addressed at all, will be left to a third party.

  27. I truly admire/dig the interface look n’ feel of the image above my comment far more than the look of the interface you have associated to PCalc: http://www.pcalc.com/iphone/

    That look above just resonates a solid/touchable looking old-school calculator. The LED color touch for the unlit cells in the textfield backdrop is an added authentic touch.

  28. Congrats on making money selling a calculator application.
    It is truly amazing that anyone would ever pay $9.99 for
    a calculator app. The only thing I would find more amazing
    is if they actually used it on a regular basis (any real student
    uses a TI calculator, which is faster and easier to use and
    doesn’t waste your iPhone’s charge).

  29. Ive noticed limited access by iPhone, to iTunes app, compared to my laptop access, which would severely limit point of use sales and the impulse purchase since I would have the devise that the app will use. I get about 1 full page of search, compared to 20, 30 or even 50 pages of search from any of my computers. Have had Pcalc for years, thanks

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