The App Store Crunch

Interesting article by Andy Finnell about iPhone app pricing, and how the current race to 99c isn’t sustainable.

PCalc started out at $9.99, and is still at $9.99, because I think that’s a fair price for the amount of effort I’m putting into it. It’s actually a little on the cheap side even, but I figure I can write off a good chunk of time spent learning the iPhone so I can hit the ground running for my next app. Or just sell my consultancy services to the highest bidder of course…

Having said that, I did also laugh at this satirical article on iPhone Footprint that references PCalc:

Apple has done it again. Recently the company announced that it has become the number one distributor of flashlight and calculator applications through the App Store. Scott Forstall, Senior Vice President of iPhone software said that 20 million flashlight and calculator applications were downloaded in October, 2008. He termed this as a rare feat for the Company.

Well played sir, well played.

Did I Mention It’s Also A Calculator?

Following suggestions, PCalc is now called “PCalc RPN Calculator” on the App Store – that way searches for “calculator” will actually find it, and it’s blindingly obvious what it does on a first glance. I feel bad that I need to spell it out like that, but sales are sales, and pride and self-esteem can be bought back later.

Of course, it’s not just an RPN calculator, so I hope that doesn’t scare off more people than it attracts, but it seems a lot of our users do like it for the optional RPN side of things, and that’s a reasonable marketing hook for now. I might play with the name a bit over time, see if it affects sales one way or another. 

You can change the name as displayed in the store independently of what the app is actually called, so people still end up with something called PCalc on their phone, and updates happen correctly for people who bought it with the original name. Plus you can change the name at any point using the “Edit Application” section of iTunes Connect – you don’t need to wait until you release an update.

Anyway, sales picked up a little bit yesterday – not by any large amount, but statistically significant at least. But I fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is, never change more than one thing at a time when you are testing.

So, PCalc is now closer to the front of the App Store due to the “Availability Trick”, I’ve changed the name to something more obvious, but I’ve also got a lot of hits on these blog articles. Which of those changes is responsible for improving sales, however slightly?

I’m guessing at this point, to be honest, it’s the blog. I got close to 4000 people reading my post-mortem post on the PCalc 1.1 release, and if only a tiny percentage of them was moved to purchase a copy, that would account for the difference I’ve seen over the last 48 hours.

We shall see – blog traffic is falling off a little now that I’m not on the front page of Daring Fireball, so if sales drop accordingly today, that should give me an idea how much of it is down to that.

Come back tomorrow for more iPhone App Marketing 101!

How To Change Your App Store Release Date

Update 2nd December 2009 – it looks like this no longer works, the sort by release date in iTunes now sorts by the version 1.0 date, ignoring all updates. PCalc is now back on page 341 of Utilities. Oh well…

So, not long after my last post I started getting emails telling me about the mysterious “Availability Trick” that was quietly being passed on from iPhone developer to iPhone developer like some secret incantation.

In short, it lets you change the release date of your app, as listed in the App Store, and overcomes the problem some developers have been seeing recently with our older apps banished to the distant corners of the store, even when we ship significant updates.

How interesting.

So, I tried it. And it indeed works.

PCalc is now listed as having been released on the 13th of October, which is pretty close to when the 1.1 update actually appeared on the store. I’ve still missed the main window of exposure of course, but the 4th page of Utilities is much better than the 31st in terms of discovery.

Now, if I was being sensible, I should just keep my head down, be quiet about it, and use the trick next time I do a release like some other people are doing. But, to be honest, that’s not really fair on other developers, and doesn’t fix any of the underlying problems.

So, how does it work? It’s really simple. In the “Edit Application” section of iTunes Connect, there’s a “Pricing” section. In that, there’s an “Availability Date” series of popups.

This date is defined in the help as “the date in which your application will be available for purchase on the App Store”. My understanding of this was that you used it to set a date in the future that you would like a given release to happen on. So, you could upload some music ahead of time, for example, and it would only appear on the official release date.

But if you retroactively edit the value to some point in the past, less than or equal to the date that the update in question actually hit the store, your release date as displayed in the App Store will be changed to that date, and your app will be moved to the appropriate point in the listings.

So, is this behaviour a bug, a loophole, or how it’s actually supposed to work?

The description doesn’t suggest it will have any effect like that, and it’s not mentioned in the App Store documentation either. And needless to say, developers haven’t all had an email saying “oh, sorry about all the changes we made to the store, here’s what you need to do now to ensure your application is listed correctly”.

This seems to be pretty widely known about however and is being used today, so basically we’re back to the situation we were in before the sorting changes, except the people who don’t know about the “trick” are being penalised in the listings.

Perhaps the whole release date issue isn’t really a policy change at all, and we’re all seeing shadowy patterns and conspiracies where there aren’t any. Maybe it’s all just down to a lack of communication and documentation.

Put it this way, if PCalc is listed on the 31st page of the store again by the time you read this, then at least we know the answer…