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.