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…